Clinton looking desperate as television changes tone Anchors speak somberly of constitutional crisis as cameras turn to Congress

September 11, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

There has been a sea change in the past 36 hours in the look and tone of television coverage of Kenneth W. Starr's investigation of President Clinton. The cameras have moved from the White House to Congress, and the administration is desperately trying to bring them back under its control.

The dominant images framing the story have shifted from sex, politics and the White House to statesmanship, the committee room and Capitol Hill. Gone were the images of Monica Lewinsky and reporters standing outside the White House -- scenes that have been playing in a nonstop loop for months. They were replaced by images of the Capitol dome and the steps leading to the halls of Congress.

If television news is as powerful a force in shaping perceptions as many believe, the president is losing the battle of the airwaves. The message of those images is that we have moved from a Clinton personal crisis and scandal to a constitutional crisis in which members of Congress -- not the president -- now hold the power to save the nation.

The image shift started Wednesday afternoon, when television cameras took up residence outside the Capitol to await the arrival of the Starr report. CBS News broke in on afternoon entertainment programming with a somber Dan Rather telling viewers that the report was about to arrive and that it meant the story was moving to a new stage.

The all-news cable channels and the evening newscasts were filled with pictures of federal officers carrying legal boxes, while legislator after legislator was interviewed on Capitol Hill talking about the Constitution and the "solemn task" they faced.

Despite brief stops at the White House to hear what visiting Senate Democrats and members of the Cabinet had to say after meeting with Clinton, it was more of the same yesterday with the action shifting so decidedly to Capitol Hill that the message of the coverage was impossible to miss.

At 4:15 p.m., CNN anchorman Bernard Shaw asked senior analyst Jeff Greenfield: "Are we moving from a personal crisis to what amounts to a constitutional showdown?"

Greenfield said he thought that was exactly the case -- "a measure of how the weather's changed," as he put it.

Norman Ornstein, CNN's congressional expert, was getting all the time he needed yesterday to offer mini-profiles of the more obscure members of the House Rules and Judiciary committees -- usually not the stuff of which ratings-winning newscasts are made. Congressional correspondent Bob Franken seemed to be screen every 15 minutes or so.

By 5: 15 p.m., the all-news cable channels MSNBC and CNN were up on the Hill locked in nonstop coverage of the opening round of the House Rules Committee. The coverage featured New York Rep. Gerald B. H. Solomon, the Republican chairman of the panel, talking in solemn tones about the "seriousness" of the matter before the members and the importance of doing their "constitutional duty irrespective of politics."

The Clinton administration's desperation in trying to wrest control of the images coming out of Washington away from Congress was most apparent by 6: 45 p.m., when the White House announced that the president was going to issue a "departure statement" on the West Lawn before leaving for a political event in Washington.

As NBC's Washington bureau chief, Tim Russert, explained the move, Clinton and his advisers "are concerned about the growing momentum for impeachment and are just trying to slow it down."

Clinton's brief statement on a tentative agreement to end the Northwest Airlines strike managed to pull the cameras away from Congress for only a few minutes. And, as he headed to the limousine with the first lady, questions rang out from reporters about whether he would resign. The overriding television image that viewers were left with was one of a man in retreat, not a president in command.

Images from Congress dominated local newscasts, too. Yesterday, WJZ (Channel 13) showed the Capitol dome behind reporters Dick Gelfman and Tim Williams as they talked about the Starr report at the top of the early evening newscast. WBAL opened with the image of Speaker Newt Gingrich sounding the gavel in front of the huge American flag in the House. The headline said, "The Big Story: Congressional Reaction," as reporter Marti Johnson reported from Capitol Hill.

The Clintons continued fighting the TV image war last night, smiling broadly and waving to the cameras at 7: 36 from the dais at a Mayflower Hotel event of the Democratic Business Council.

But as they smiled and waved, one of the analysts on MSNBC undercut the tableau, saying: "That's the Clintons putting on their game faces for the cameras trying to hide how much trouble they're in."

Hillary Rodham Clinton's statement about how "proud" she was of her husband, their embrace and his achy-breaky, Southern-boy voice at the Mayflower microphone are the stuff of which great Clinton TV spin has been made.

But last night, their talk seemed trifling compared with the grave constitutional business that all cameras indicated was taking place on Capitol Hill.

Pub Date: 9/11/98

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