PEOPLE AND THE PRESS
August 19, 1998
Poll after poll indicate that the public is tired of stories about the president's relationship with Monica Lewinsky, but journalists continue to produce wall-to-wall scandal coverage. Should the press drop the story and move on to other issues? After a background report, media correspondent Terence Smith leads a panel discussion.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
August 19, 1998:
A background report on the latest coverage of the Starr investigation.
Ask Terence Smith about the media's coverage of the Starr investigation.
August 18, 1998:
A look at the media's coverage of the Starr investigation.
August 17, 1998:
A special package of coverage on the president's testimony.
August 17, 1998:
What is the grand jury's role in the Starr investigation?
August 13, 1998:
What impact will Starr's investigation have on the presidency?
July 30, 1998:
Should Clinton address the public about the Lewinsky matter?
July 28, 1998:
Ken Starr makes an immunity deal with Monica Lewinsky.
July 27, 1998:
Ken Starr subpoenas the president to testify in front of a grand jury.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of the Starr Investigation.
The White House
TERENCE SMITH: Now more on the media coverage of the White House scandal with Frank Sesno, senior vice president of CNN and its Washington Bureau Chief; Tom Rosenstiel, formerly of Newsweek, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism; and Doyle McManus, the Washington Bureau Chief of the Los Angeles Times.
Gentlemen, some 67 million people watched the president on Monday night, and now the polls show that nearly 2/3 of the people want the story dropped; they say it's time to move on. Frank Sesno, is it time to move on?
FRANK SESNO, CNN: Oh, I think the public probably feels it's time to move on. I'm sure the president and others at the White House would like to move on. I bet a lot of Democrats and probably Republicans want to move on. But I think the fact of the matter is that there are too many unresolved questions. Ken Starr isn't done with his work yet, and I don't think the public opinion has settled yet. I don't think it's really sunk in just yet. That's what we sense. It's to some extent what we're seeing, and it's going to play out in the days and maybe the weeks ahead. So while there's great fatigue with this story, frankly, personally, I'm sick of it as well, it's not a fun story; it's not an uplifting story; it's not a good story, it's just not done yet, not by any means.
TERENCE SMITH: Doyle, this is a question that you have to confront, the Los Angeles Times has to confront. What do you say?
DOYLE McMANUS, Los Angeles Times: I largely agree with Frank. I'm going to put one large caveat on that. Insofar as the center of the story thus far has taken to be that soap opera question: did President Clinton have an improper relationship with Monica Lewinsky? Yes. Now it is time to move on. And I think much of the public focused on that, understandably, as the center of this story. Let us move on from that. That one has been answered and taken off the table. But, as Frank Sesno points out, there are a lot of more mundane, perhaps less enticing, in a squalid sense, but potentially in a legal and political sense even weightier issues still on the table, questions of perjury and obstruction of justice that we still have to follow through-
TERENCE SMITH: Still to come and still to be answered.
DOYLE McMANUS: Absolutely.
Telling people what they don't want to hear.
TERENCE SMITH: Tom Rosenstiel, you have the luxury of standing back a little bit from this. Is there an argument to be made, in your opinion, to moderate the coverage?
TOM ROSENSTIEL, Project for Excellence in Journalism: It's the job of journalism not simply to tell people what people think is interesting. We also have to gauge, perhaps even more so, have to gauge what is significant, and to tell people what's important. Do we moderate the coverage because people are tired of it? Yes. I think that puts a greater burden on us to make sure that what we give them is important and not to over saturate this story, which we have done repeatedly. The importance of public opinion, however, in this story is not in determining how much we should cover it. The importance of public opinion is that the end result of this story, what happens to President Clinton, is going to be a political act. Ken Starr is going to submit a report to Congress and Congress is going to decide what to do, and that's going to be determined by the public opinion. So the public is going to shape the outcome, and we have to watch the public because it's a relevant influence on this story, but it shouldn't dictate how much we cover a story that's this important.
TERENCE SMITH: There already exists, we know, something of a gap between the public and the media that serves it. Does this run the risk of increasing that gap, and is that a worry?
TOM ROSENSTIEL: Yes. And there are two things that the public particularly resents in the coverage of this story. One is-and this has been true from the very first week-they resent our rush to judgment; they resent our telling them what to think about this story. In the very first week there was one poll that suggested that 80 percent of the American public thought we were rushing to judgment. And, indeed, empirical research shows that the judgments that we made on this story in the first few weeks were wrong. We were way ahead of public opinion. There's an important caution there because so much of the architecture of the new media culture is about commentary. We have whole new cable networks that are essentially chat networks, very little of the new information revolution is about gathering news. A lot of it is about commenting on news, and we've got-that's making us out of sync. The other thing that people resent is the use of anonymous sources and the passing along of unsubstantiated rumors. People want to know who these sources are; they want to know what the agenda of these sources are. This is true anecdotally in the "Letters to the Editor" that people get. It's true in the surveys that people get, and, interestingly, editors of smaller newspapers around the country feel this pressure more acutely. Their readers are particularly angry. The bigger newspapers are a little further away from their readers and don't feel this.
TERENCE SMITH: Frank Sesno, do you agree with that, or do you feel that it's really the job of the journalist to decide what is news and what to tell the public and not to take the line from the public?
FRANK SESNO: Well, I think it's a little of both, Terry. I think that in the end, though, I have a slightly different theory on what's happening here, and that is that it's my observation that not just those in the media but well beyond it, the closer they are to the situation, the more they know about it, the more they've been affected by it, the more disturbed they are by it. This is not just a question of media. I've been hearing this from Democrats I've been talking to, from people at the White House, those who used to be at the White House, and people on Capitol Hill. This is very important. I spoke to one Democrat today who said I'm in orbit over this. This was a woman. She said, I'm just sickened by it. She says, I don't know whether I'm sickened more by the conduct of my president or by the fact that the women out there aren't deserting the president more in droves, but she says, I feel like leaving the party. Now, this is a very important point, that the opinion-there are sort of what I would consider concentric circles of opinion. The closest circle of opinion, obviously, is the president's family. That counts for a lot-his advisers-others at the White House move on out. That's where you hit in this importance, those on Capitol Hill and within the political structure, and then maybe the media in Washington and beyond, and then the country at large. So I see different layers of opinion here, Terry, and it seems to me right now, anyway, the closer they are to the president, the more disturbed they are by it.
TERENCE SMITH: One of the-
FRANK SESNO: How it plays over time I don't know.
The view from inside the Beltway.
TERENCE SMITH: One of those concentric circles, Doyle McManus, is the beltway, the famous legendary Beltway around Washington. And is that the real gap between the people inside it and the people outside?
DOYLE McMANUS: Well, let's use the Beltway as a metaphor for the whole political class, because I think the phenomenon Frank is talking about is absolutely true. I've picked up the same thing in my own reporting, and it includes the people who write editorials for newspapers as far away as Anchorage and Honolulu. I've been reading some of those editorials in the last few days. The political class-broadly put-including politicians, consultants, Democrats and Republicans, this is not a partisan issue on this-have been very engaged by this, and took the president's denials seriously on some level. And when the president came out and said, well, my denial was wrong, I misled you, then we had Democrats, as well as Republicans, feeling that here was a serious line that had been crossed. The political class, especially including reporters but also including political consultants, take all of the minutia about possible obstruction of justice, about what the president did or didn't do with Webster Hubble and Vernon Jordan and all of the other what you might call secondary characters in this drama, take those parts very seriously, indeed, and would be paying close attention to this process even if the word "sex" never got into it. That public is directly engaged, and there is a very interesting social gap, I would say, between the political elite and the rest of the country.
TERENCE SMITH: Frank-
FRANK SESNO: May I tell you a very brief story that may or may not shed a little bit of light on this. Yesterday Sen. Dianne Feinstein issued a statement saying her trust in the president was shattered over this. I've heard today that what happened is that she had a meeting with the president, along with others, and he told her directly, I'm told, that these allegations were not true, and that this was an unstable woman. Based on that, Dianne Feinstein went out and made her defense of the president. In effect, she lied too. This issue of truth and credibility goes beyond the mere issue of was there or was there not a relationship. It goes to the credibility of those who defended the president. That's why they're reacting this way, and why I think this hasn't settled yet in such a profound sense.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. I believe that meeting was actually in the Roosevelt Room at the time the president made his denial. But let me ask you this, Tom. This is a story, clearly, that sells newspapers and boosts ratings. Frank Sesno's network, CNN, has had its highest ratings-did have them Monday night-since the verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial. So does the press have a vested interest, a self-promoting interest in this story?
The need for the blockbuster story.
TOM ROSENSTIEL: Yes. Paradoxically, given the public feels that we're over-covering it. The press today is suffering from social fragmentation. There are more media outlets out there. Each one of them is getting a smaller share of the pie, and the pie, itself, is shrinking, because fewer and fewer people are interested in journalism. The solution for a mass media outlet is the blockbuster story, that story that is the equivalent of the music crossover song, that break out hit. That's why Diana was such an orgy for the press. It's why O.J. was such an orgy for the press. Networks like CNN depend on stories like that to sustain their audience above a kind of lower mean. And so we gravitate to the blockbusters, and we, in fact, help create the blockbusters. There's a self-fulfilling prophecy to this that is a very real commercial need, since research suggests that the audience generally, most stories appeal to no more than about 20 percent of the American public, to get a big audience, to sustain a network newscast, you know, you need the big one.
TERENCE SMITH: And this phenomenon, Doyle, that Tom is talking about, creates intense competitive pressures, minute-to-minute deadlines, a lot of competition, and I suspect some mistakes.
DOYLE McMANUS: Absolutely. The pressure of the 24-hour news cycle has intensified the demands on everybody, including high end broadcasts like this one, high end newspapers like mine to get it first and to get it snappiest. There is in here a paradox in what the public wants. The public doesn't like this story. That's understandable. There's no reason anyone should like this story. But the public does want to be informed on this. The public does turn to the newspaper to find out what the president did and what it's going to lead to. The public does flock to CNN to find that. The public, in one sense, is saying stop me before I look again. We get accused of excess. Are we guilty of that? Sure, we have committed excess at a couple of points along the way. In a sense, I would rather be guilty of a modest degree of excess than of covering things up, that, in retrospect, the public would have wanted and needed as citizens and voters to know.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Gentlemen, thank you very much. We'll have to leave it there.