Ratings may lag, but news organizations say the impeachment show must go on

Media feel obligation for posterity as interest hits low point of scandal

Trial In The Senate

January 28, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Most Americans may know deep down that the impeachment trial of President Clinton is the stuff of history.

But it is not a water-cooler story.

"There is very little drama," said Andrew Tyndall, who publishes a New York-based newsletter tracking network television news. "It's not that kind of story now."

Unlike the seamy revelations of stains and dresses, the videotape of berets and rope lines, the current phase of the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal is not preoccupying water-cooler loiterers in the nation's workplaces. Now, as the Senate debates whether to remove the president from office, pollsters say public interest in the story is bottoming out.

"Interest in this story is as low as it's ever been," said Molly Sonner, survey director at the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan survey group. "Interest has ebbed and flowed, but it has made a significant decline since about this time last year."

Last January, 38 percent of the public was hooked to the story, a Gallup and CBS poll said then. That number is down to 22 percent, according to a Pew survey released this week.

"If the impeachment story were a television show, it probably would have ended in February," said Dennis Johnson, associate dean of the school of political management at George Washington University. "The more this impeachment process keeps popping up, the more people want to move on."

Clinton foes most interested

The Pew Research Center's new study shows that people watching the trial were almost twice as likely to hear something that annoyed or angered them as they were to hear something new or interesting.

The study also found that the most avid trial watchers were Clinton foes.

"Almost all of the public who said they are not watching the trial closely said they did not feel the trial was going to change their mind about Clinton," said Sonner. Only about 26 percent of the 1,500 people surveyed around the country said they mentioned the trial in conversation over the last week, she added. The poll's margin of error was 3 percentage points.

The outcome of the trial is almost a foregone conclusion -- the Senate is considered unlikely to garner the votes to remove Clinton from office. Which begs the question -- is anybody reading all these impeachment stories? Some media analysts say the coverage will get more attention in classrooms years from now than it will at breakfast tables this morning.

Historical perspective

"Papers write for the archives -- people may not be interested today, but you won't want to pick the paper 50 years from now and see that it led with the weather," said Rich Noyes, Web site editor at the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a nonprofit research organization. "The papers have a sense of posterity."

The television networks have a complicated relationship to the impeachment news. It is, no doubt, their lead story. But it is not always their most watchable story.

When the House voted to impeach Clinton, CBS broke with other networks by cutting away from its special report to cover football. The network ran away with the ratings for that day.

"There has by no means been an overwhelming audience for impeachment coverage," said CBS news spokeswoman Sandy Genelius. "These editorial decisions are not easy in this case because the public seems to be so overwhelmingly tired of this story."

`Ratings cannot be criteria'

Even so, CBS and the other networks pre-empted regular programming this month to televise the trial's opening statements by House Republicans and the White House defense.

"No matter how people feel about it, at its essence it is a very important procedure," Genelius said. "Viewers are not shy about sending e-mails and faxes saying they're fed up with this procedure -- but you have to balance that against good journalism and doing the right thing by covering it.

"Ratings cannot be the criteria by which we make our news judgments."

The big three networks are covering the story nightly, but are devoting only about half the time on the nightly news programs to the impeachment trial than the roughly 100 minutes per week they gave the story at its interest peak, Tyndall said.

"This is a reflection of public opinion," he said. "If there was widespread public clamor to remove the president then the hearings would be more newsworthy."

For true political junkies, the cable networks have been delivering wall-to-wall coverage. And some network shows are thriving off the scandal even during this procedural phase. NBC's Meet the Press continues to enjoy a 17 percent boost in ratings since last year, which NBC credits in large part to the show's regular Lewinsky-related news-making.

Some who study the psychology of politics say the biggest reason the public is not glued to the impeachment story is because it represents something unpleasant to them.

"Clinton is very popular," said Steven Livingston, an associate professor of political communication at George Washington University. "People don't like hearing bad news. They tend to have a positive opinion of Clinton on the whole and so they tune out those messages that cause them pain. There is an element to this that is all very personal."

Pub Date: 1/28/99

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