The New York Times sent Washington reporter Lizette Alvarez to Manchester, New Hampshire (9/4/98) to cover a series of campaign speeches by House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt (D.-Mo.). Early in the article, headlined “Gephardt Trumpets ’98 Agenda of His Party,” Alvarez noted that “the word ‘scandal’ or the name Monica Lewinsky did not drop from Gephardt’s lips once.” And she quoted Rep. Gephardt saying in his speech that “people want to talk about the issues because the issues are important in people’s lives.”
So which issues did Alvarez discuss in her 700-word, 17-paragraph news article? None. Instead, the article analyzed what Rep. Gephardt didn’t say about Monica Lewinsky that day, what he had said about Monica Lewinsky before, what others were saying about Monica Lewinsky at the time, and what Gephardt might be saying about what other people had said about Monica Lewinsky in the past.
Alvarez noted sympathetically that “Mr. Gephardt tried to focus on the Democrats’ bread-and-butter issues, like education, managed health-care and Social Security.” For some reason, however, the message just wasn’t getting through.
Forget whether the public will ever forgive Bill Clinton–the real question is whether the press will ever forgive the public.
Despite Tom Brokaw’s reference to the “compulsive fascination that this entire country has had with this subject” (NBC, 8/17/98), the fact is that the Lewinsky scandal has always been taken much more seriously by the Washington press corps than by the majority of the American public. Even as the scandal moved toward impeachment, more than 60 percent of respondents in Gallup (and other) polls were continuing to approve of the job Clinton was doing in office. By comparison, the proverbially popular Ronald Reagan averaged a 52 percent Gallup approval rating during his eight years in office.
You could see that journalists were troubled by the fact that months of microscopic exposure of Clinton’s most embarrassing secrets hadn’t made more of a dent in his approval rating: “So, for the moment, a majority seems reluctant to see the president impeached,” ABC‘s John Martin admitted (9/15/98). “At least, that’s what they keep telling the pollsters.”
“In these types of situations, public opinion usually lags behind where political reality is,” ABC‘s Hal Bruno explained on Good Morning America (9/11/98). “In this case, the politicians understand where the problem is long before the public does. But then, when they do understand, public opinion begins to change.”
The Washington press corps’ deep animosity toward Clinton is ironic, since it’s hard to imagine a president whose politics are closer to the journalists’ own centrist ideology. But maybe that’s part of why they’re so bitter: Some media figures seem particularly upset that Clinton can no longer be an effective standard-bearer for elite journalists’ own politics.
For example, Gerald F. Seib, the Wall Street Journal‘s deputy Washington bureau chief, seemed disappointed when he wrote of Clinton (9/16/98): “Having shown he’ll lie when necessary, he’d have a much harder time being believed when necessary. His ability to use the bully pulpit for social change would be severely limited. He couldn’t, for example, plausibly give a speech to welfare mothers urging them to take responsibility for their sexual decisions.” (That’s “social change,” Wall Street Journal-style.)
And ABC‘s Cokie Roberts (9/13/98) was patently upset that Clinton had thwarted her dream of a more right-wing Democratic Party, bemoaning “the beginning of the erosion of what Bill Clinton ironically had started to put back together for the Democrats, which was that the party seemed to be more of a party of values, more of a party of personal responsibility, less of a party of weirdoes and wackos than it had seemed before. And now, it is falling back into that.”
But media outrage was muted when Congress’ Republican leadership asked the FBI to look into where Salon, an on-line magazine, got its story about an extramarital affair conducted by House Judiciary Committee chair Henry Hyde (R.-Ill.). Distracted by evidence-free charges that the White House had leaked the story, most news outlets paid little attention to this attempt to criminalize journalism.
Just before Salon‘s story broke, Hyde himself was threatening to throw those who were overly curious about his sexual history in jail: “Referring to rumors that some Clinton supporters may be trying to gather embarrassing personal information about members of the House judiciary committee,” the New York Times reported on September 16, Hyde claimed that “any effort to intimidate members of Congress or interfere with them in an impeachment proceeding could constitute a Federal crime and be punished by up to five years in prison.”
FAIR doesn’t want to see the press used for tit-for-tat exposes of politicians’ sex lives. But when it’s a crime to report true information about a politician–however personal, embarrassing or even irrelevant–then the 1st Amendment is in serious danger.