Saturation coverage despite the polls Media: The all-news cable channels are still bingeing on the Clinton drama even as more and more viewers are swearing off.

September 19, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

If you think television couldn't possibly report the Clinton-Starr-Lewinsky drama any more breathlessly than it has in the last week, wait till the videotape of the President's grand jury testimony is released Monday.

Three all-news cable channels -- MSNBC, Fox and CNN -- have promised to run the uncut, unedited testimony the instant it is received from the House of Representatives, ratcheting up their soap opera coverage yet another notch despite poll after poll in which viewers say they have heard enough about the matter and want to move on.

And that is the big disconnect: While cable news reports round-the-clock that the President is all but finished, the polls on Clinton's approval ratings and the public's attitude toward impeachment suggest a different social reality.

The question is not whether all-news cable channels or the networks should bring the Starr report or Clinton's testimony into our homes. A free press -- electronic or print -- should be able to tell us how our leaders behave on and off stage. The question is in how they are covering it.

"Ultimately, it is prestige and money propelling the coverage," said Douglas Gomery, professor at the University of Maryland College of Journalism, who writes the "Economics of Broadcasting" column for the American Journalism Review.

"CNN is the big cheese, and for MSNBC and Fox, this is their O.J. story -- their chance to establish themselves on the radar screen. All you have to do is look at the coverage to see it's not about journalism. Look at how they deal with the polls that tell them people don't want more coverage."

"I've tuned out. I'm just sick to death of it," said Ed Guthman, professor of journalism at the University of Southern California and former national editor of the Los Angeles Times. "Every time I've flipped to MSNBC the last six months, it seemed like they were talking about Clinton. I wonder how many other people have done the same."

The cable channels haven't failed to report the polls -- some indicating that as much as two-thirds of public have had enough, others giving Clinton high approval ratings -- but they often undercut them by saying the numbers are "soft" or "trending downward."

"The President's job approval ratings have remained high, but appear to be trending down," reported Brian Williams on MSNBC Wednesday night. At another point, he said, "There is an assumption that the poll numbers are soft and trending south." He made the same assertion Thursday.

Neither of these assertions was backed with hard evidence. If there is any trend, it seems to be how steady and high Clinton's approval ratings have remained.

Despite that fact, Clinton-on-the-ropes is the story line cable news is mostly telling.

On Wednesday, Williams told viewers, "The President is on the ropes politically."

Thursday night, Williams cranked it up another notch: "The President's future is hanging in the balance," he reported.

One of the most interesting poll-related developments in coverage this week is the way television has started bringing on so-called experts, like radio talk show host Laura Schlessinger and former education secretary William Bennett, to tell viewers that there is something wrong with them for not being more outraged by the President's behavior as chronicled in the Starr Report.

Williams set up the Schlessinger clip by saying "the popular radio talk show host discussed the dilemma supporting this President poses for everyone, especially parents."

Insufficient outrage

According to the polls, it is not a dilemma for more than half of the country.

"The thing that I'm finding is that there isn't enough outrage, because our society in general has become so numb about things like lying and infidelities," said Schlessinger, author of a book titled "The 10 Commandments." She went on to make a loopy comparison of Clinton to a rock star who has a child out of wedlock.

In case anyone didn't get the message, Williams closed the piece by saying, "Dr. Laura Schlessinger, discussing the lack or moral outrage about the President's conduct. It was a theme echoed by William Bennett on this program last night. He was especially concerned about what it means when those persons not outraged by the President's conduct happen to be women."

Bill O'Reilly was working the same moral outrage turf on the Fox news channel's "O'Reilly Report" this week when he interviewed a seventh-grade teacher about what his students make of Clinton's actions. "President Clinton put you in a bad position, put you on the spot," O'Reilly told the teacher.

The audience watching all-news cable is still a relatively small one. MSNBC's audience tripled last Friday when the Starr Report was released, but that brought it up to only 354,000 homes. Fox doubles its audience and it barely cracks 200,000 homes. CNN rarely rates a million homes even on a great news day.

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