Networks caught with anchors away Jennings, Brokaw, Rather were in Cuba for pontiff when sexier story broke

January 22, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Network news was torn between the sacred and profane yesterday.

As anchormen, each with 100 reporters and technicians, waited in Havana for the pope's plane to touch down, Washington lit up with new allegations of sexual impropriety on the part of President Clinton.

NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw voiced the confusion yesterday afternoon, saying, "Good afternoon from Havana. And, in a remarkable set of coincidences, as we await the arrival of Pope John Paul here on the island, in Washington, indeed across the country, attention was focused on President Clinton and allegations that he had an improper relationship with a young White House intern."

CBS had Scott Pelley on the White House lawn saying, "pattern of sexual advances on young women," when Dan Rather broke in with, "Thank you, Scott Pelley, now back in Havana," as the pope stepped off the plane.

It was that kind of Ping-Pong between Washington and Havana all afternoon on all the networks and cable channels.

There were differences among the cable channels. CNN, with Christiane Amanpour in Havana, at first clearly wanted to keep the papal visit as its No. 1 priority, while Fox News Channel was in a full frenzy on the Clinton story with an interminable interview with Gennifer Flowers on her alleged history with Clinton.

Overall, the most striking aspect was how quick and intense the coverage in Washington was. In this online age, with all kinds of competing all-news channels, a story can go from warm to white hot in a matter of minutes.

Cable's MSNBC channel had Brian Williams in the anchor seat in New York by midafternoon riding herd on coverage of the allegations. PBS' Jim Lehrer interviewed Clinton in a previously scheduled session for the "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" at 3 p.m. The interview would not air until 7 p.m. in the East, but MSNBC had a feed of it from PBS on the air minutes after it ended about 3: 35 p.m.

And, immediately, NBC's White House correspondent John Palmer was all over the interview, pointing out that Clinton answered only in the present tense when asked if he had a relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky, leaving open the possibility that he had one in the past.

Williams then held up an Associated Press bulletin on the Lehrer interview, which said Clinton denied ever having a relationship in it.

Williams said AP was wrong -- the president did not say he had never had a relationship, only that he wasn't currently having one. Williams was right. Palmer came back on to say that National Public Radio's Mara Liasson also had a pre-arranged interview later in the day with Clinton, and that she said she would try to clear up the matter of tense.

Clinton was again ambiguous in his answer to her. But, in a half-hour stretch on MSNBC, the resources of NBC, PBS, NPR and AP were all brought to focus on the story, one feeding off the other and turning up the flame under the story until Brokaw was calling the situation at the White House a "meltdown."

That's the way the story played throughout the evening, leading "World News Tonight With Peter Jennings" even though Jennings was in Havana. It was the same on CBS.

The pope took a back seat last night on network and cable television to a young woman whose name was unknown to most Americans when the day started.

Pub Date: 1/22/98

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