Explicit, electronic report confounds newscasters Television journalists fight new frontiers of taste, technology in telling story

The Starr Report

September 12, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The competition among all the cable news channels and network news divisions in covering the Kenneth W. Starr report was fierce yesterday. But it was nothing compared with the battle television journalists were collectively fighting with new technology and matters of taste in trying to tell the story.

How do you report a story in which the main bank of data -- several hundred pages of the report itself -- is in cyberspace?

For CNN, part of the answer was simply to show congressional correspondent Candy Crowley seated at a computer terminal, reading the report and commenting on it as she read -- an electronic version of the town crier.

"Bear with me, Jeanne. I've never done cyberspace on television," Crowley said to anchorwoman Jeanne Meserve at one point yesterday afternoon.

"That's all right, some of us have never done it all," Meserve replied.

A few moments later, when Meserve asked Crowley if she had any congressional reaction to the report, Crowley said no, she did not, because she was sitting at the terminal trying to read the report instead of gathering reaction -- as she would have done in the olden days before the Internet came to congressional reporting.

The image of Crowley sitting at the terminal seemed to represent the transition television journalism finds itself in, between the tradition of a news reader talking to a camera and the brave new world of computer technology.

All in all, Crowley and CNN did all right with their simple solution of having the correspondent sit at a terminal in a congressional office that was linked to the government intranet. They eschewed flashy visuals -- the pictures that television is said to care about more than anything else. Crowley gave us the information as fast as she could digest it, which was as quickly as you could get it anywhere else on the dial -- with the exception of NBC and MSNBC at the moments when chief congressional correspondent Lisa Myers was running at full throttle.

CNN also came up with a clever, though somewhat disingenuous, way to deal with some of the graphic descriptions of sex between Clinton and Lewinsky in the document. The producers positioned the camera so that it covered the text of the report on Crowley's computer screen. If you wanted the details, there they were -- if you could read them.

Dealing with matters of taste was no easy matter for broadcasters yesterday.

CBS had its chief Washington correspondent, Bob Schieffer, reading printouts of the report as they were handed to him. He stood outside the office of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, posed in front of an America flag and a marble mantel. Meanwhile, CBS reporter Sharyl Atkinson was positioned nearby, like Crowley, at a terminal linked to the intranet in a congressional office.

Schieffer said he was "sight editing" as he read the pages of the report and attempted to respond to questions from anchorman Dan Rather.

The result was Schieffer saying such things as: "Let me see here, Dan. She [Lewinsky] says the president unzipped his pants and exposed himself, and then -- well, let's just say they had sex of a kind."

Or, "She [Lewinsky] says, 'The president lifted my sweater and ' Well, Dan, let's just say they had sex of a kind."

"Sex of a kind" was an expression used often yesterday on CBS.

The best reporting by far yesterday was found on NBC and CNN. The worst was on ABC and Fox.

ABC was consistently behind in presenting hard information about the Starr report. From Peter Jennings on down, ABC News is seeming more and more like a collection of peevish, over-the-hill superstars who are interested only in telling us what they think about the news, not in actually going out and gathering it.

Fox is relying more and more on former Clinton adviser Dick Morris for analysis. The problems involved in using someone like Morris -- who left the White House because of his own extramarital sexual misadventures -- are mind-boggling. In fact, the Starr report places Clinton as talking on the phone to Morris at one point while engaged in a sexual act with Lewinsky.

Overall, in terms of visual imagery, the day ended as it began, with President Clinton trying to keep the network cameras focused on images of his choosing. In the morning, it was the prayer breakfast and his confession that he had "sinned." At sundown, it was an Irish-American gathering on the White house lawn with a cheering crowd and a smiling Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, looking even more ebullient than they had the night before at an event in the Mayflower Hotel.

"It's like a movie," CNN anchorwoman Judy Woodruff said, looking at the live pictures from the White House rally.

A movie almost entertaining enough to make you forget for a moment about those alleged encounters involving "sex of a kind," the tens of thousands of Americans logging onto the Internet to read all about it, and the wheels of government grinding toward impeachment hearings on the Hill.

Pub Date: 9/12/98

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