Tape serves sex, confrontation and lousy journalism Standards suffer as cable, broadcast networks pay lip service to responsibility

The Clinton Investigation

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

All the networks and cable channels attached some form of advisory yesterday to their saturation coverage of President Clinton's testimony before a grand jury, but none was quite as memorable as CBS anchorman Dan Rather's.

"If you're normally watching 'Teletubbies' at the this time," Rather said just before the taped testimony started to roll, "you probably shouldn't be watching now. Go ask your mommy now."

Given that the target audience for "Teletubbies" is 18 months to 3 years old, you wonder what Rather was thinking. But most of the advisories seemed little more than lip service -- a false front of journalistic responsibility and concern for audience sensibilities designed to allow networks and cable channels to run the testimony instantly and uncut.

The downward driving force was the all-news cable channels -- ** CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel -- which abandoned any real sense of gatekeeping while the testimony aired and then had to struggle afterward with a palpable disappointment among anchors and commentators that the tape wasn't more explosive.

There were differences among the broadcasters and cable channels in terms of how they carried the tape.

NBC, with sister channel MSNBC, had the best of both worlds. It ran the tape instantly and uncut on NBC and MSNBC. But NBC could take the highest of the journalistic high roads when the talk got into a "specificity that it was not necessary to share with you," in the words of anchorman Tom Brokaw, and break from the tape. Brokaw said NBC knew when to break because it had a transcript of the tape and was reading ahead.

NBC was the first network to break away yesterday when prosecutors starting asking questions of Clinton in which they mentioned Monica Lewinsky's body parts. It was not such a big sacrifice, though, since Brokaw told viewers they could switch to MSNBC where the tape was airing live and uncut. NBC was inconsistent in its breakaways, later staying with the tape during frank talk of oral sex in which no body parts were mentioned.

CBS and cable channel Court TV started out running the tape with several seconds' delay. But by the end of the testimony, CBS gave up the gatekeeper role and ran it straight from the House into your living room just like all-news channels C-Span and MSNBC.

The most active gatekeeping was on WMAR (Channel 2), which ran the tape on a two-minute delay -- well behind everyone else. Anchorwoman Mary Beth Marsden told viewers that the tape was delayed so that Channel 2 editors could review it before putting it on the air. ABC, the network with which WMAR is affiliated, was feeding the tape live and unedited to its affiliates.

While it was nice to have one local station reviewing the tape before running it, the bad news was that you had to take WMAR anchors and analysts instead of ABC's as part of the package. Not that ABC is such a great news operation anymore, but the WMAR team is not within shouting distance of the big leagues in which this game is being played.

As for the tape analysis that washed across the television screen like a tidal wave yesterday afternoon and evening, again, it was ++ cable doing the worst damage to journalistic standards.

CNN anchorman Bernard Shaw, interviewing CNN legal commentators Greta Van Susteren and Roger Cossack, seemed abandon any pretense of impartiality when he said: "In his testimony, the president said he was trying to protect the office. But, given his behavior there, how can he protect the office?"

It was delivered as a rhetorical question, and neither of the analysts knew what to say.

On MSNBC, Brian Williams analyzed the tape by saying: "This was a president who perspired and looked hollow." And we all know that there's nothing worse by anchorman standards than perspiring on television.

Tim Russert, the NBC Washington bureau chief appearing on MSNBC, seemed dispirited by the end of the day when he had to join a growing consensus and admit: "I have to say, there's no smoking gun."

Williams and Brit Hume of Fox News Channel acknowledged that the tape did not live up to the hype their channels had been pumping out all weekend about how we were going to see the president "explode in anger, stalk out of the room and turn purple with rage." But neither they nor anyone else on cable or network television explored the serious questions of where they got that information and why they broadcast it as if it were fact.

Certainly, there are newspapers, too, that have to ask themselves about their sources of such information, why they ran with it over the weekend and whether those sources have given them other false information.

But nobody was as guilty as Fox, which had Internet gossip Matt Drudge predicting that the tape would devastate Clinton and instantly shred his performance ratings. MSNBC was not far behind, but you have to work at it to out-reckless Drudge.

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