TV news offers talk, little meaning Review: In their coverage of President Clinton's grand jury appearance, cable and network channels presented endless chatter, but not much significant information.

President Confronts Crisis

August 18, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

You could almost hear the collective sign of relief from the news crews in Washington last night when President Clinton finally appeared and gave them a real newsmaker on which to focus.

It had been a tough day, so devoid of real news and saturated with empty speculation that the truth about channels that sell themselves as all-news was all too apparent: What they mostly have is not news, but rather endless talk about news. And the talk is often uninformed chatter passed off as "exclusive" inside information or "expert" analysis.

But then came Clinton admitting to a relationship with Monica Lewinsky that was "wrong" and that he "misled people" including his wife. He also attacked the investigation of Kenneth W. Starr, and the all-news beast had fresh meat on which to feed.

Instant reaction among many of experts and pundits was as partisan as their pre-speech analyses and did not offer viewers much help in understanding the import of the days' events.

Leon Panetta, Clinton's former chief of staff, said, "He has apologized. He has taken responsibility. He did what he had to do. He made a confession. I think the time has come to move on."

Former Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers said she thought Clinton "did what he had to do" in the speech, but added, "I wish I had heard more of him taking responsibility."

Republican Senator Orrin Hatch said, "It's a step in the right direction, but I'm still offended by his attack on Starr, and it makes me angry."

And Bay Buchanon, of CNBC's "Equal Time," said, "This is a sad day. He [Clinton] lets the pollsters pick out the key issues. I want him to be truthful once. You say we should believe him, why? I think he's all spin."

Bob Woodward, assistant managing editor of the Washington Post and one of the more neutral observers on television last night, said, "There are no grounds in that speech to stop the investigation" and stop the "blood feud" between the White House and Starr.

But Woodward's handful of insights were hardly enough to salvage a day that started with psychic on the Fox News Channel and ended with James Carville screwing up his face to look extra ugly as he hurled insults at Starr.

Wilma Carroll, identified as an astrologer/psychic, was using tarot cards to predict "problems for the Clintons" -- specifically, "female problems for Hillary."

Meanwhile, on MSNBC, Newsweek's Eleanor Clift was offering her expert analysis, saying, "Starr is the one with the problem this morning, not Clinton." Thankfully, she didn't try to explain.

Later on, "Imus on MSNBC" producer Bernard McGuirk, wearing a Monica beret, stood outside the White House shouting through a bullhorn, "Take your hands off the intern and come out -- we know you're in there." Even Don Imus seemed embarrassed -- if that's possible.

It was not television's finest hour for news. In fact, for the all-news cable channels -- like Fox, CNN and MSNBC -- the period of time leading up to and during Clinton's blacked-out testimony yesterday was one of its worst, with almost no real newsmakers at the White House or anywhere else in Washington willing to talk.

That's how it went over the weekend as network news departments and all-news cable channels struggled to fill air time without any new information except that which they could ** scavenge and repackage from the Sunday morning papers.

That cycle of coverage reached its nadir in a three-hour town meeting Sunday night on CNN which saw Larry King, host of "Larry King Live," confuse Ann Lewis, director of communications at the White House, with Ann Myers, the basketball star, during his analysis of White House spin control on the matter of the president and the White House intern, Monica Lewinsky.

Overall, "National Town Meeting: The Reporters" looked more like the staff meeting of a troubled news operation.

Not that it was any better on the broadcast networks. ABC News also had a prime-time special Sunday featuring anchorman Peter Jennings interviewing ABC News correspondents and analysts.

The network news cannibalism of anchors interviewing their own went on endlessly yesterday. On ABC's "Good Morning America," it was anchorwoman Lisa McRee looking pained, as she shared her feelings on the matter with Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts, saying, "To have to explain to a 7-year-old what oral sex is over a Pop Tart is awful."

"I don't know about the Pop Tart," Donaldson replied.

The most representative visual image of the day was Greta Van Susteren, CNN legal analyst and co-host of "Burden of Proof," sitting outside the courthouse in which the grand jury was watching Clinton's testimony. When asked what it was like inside the courtroom, she curtly responded, "It's a courtroom like any courtroom."

Finally, just before the network evening newscasts, at 6: 29 came some pseudo-news : An NBC News Bulletin on MSNBC, "President Testifies to Inappropriate Relationship."

It was just in time and just enough almost-new information to fuel another cycle of speculation, guesswork and all-news bluster.

Pub Date: 8/18/98

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