|UNFIT TO PRINT?|
August 17, 1998
It is safe to say that the press has covered the Starr investigation. But has it covered the story well? NewsHour media correspondent Terence Smith reports on the press frenzy and speaks with Jim Lehrer about this defining moment in American journalism.
JIM LEHRER: Now, a NewsHour debut. It's that of Terence Smith as the senior producer and correspondent of our new media unit, funded by the Pew Charitable Trust. Terry has been a journalism practitioner for 30 years, in print for The New York Times, among others, and in television with CBS News. With us, he becomes a journalism observer. His first assignment: today's grand jury testimony of the president.
REPORTER: Clinton's closest advisers now believe he has to make clear that he did not intend to deceive having sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky.
TERENCE SMITH: You could be forgiven for thinking it was World War III. In the pre-dawn drizzle a legion of reporters and cameras had encircled the White House like a hostile army.
BILL PLANTE, CBS News: President Clinton, facing what may be the most critical personal test of his presidency, will admit to a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN: He's described by some advisers as having had some very emotionally difficult discussions with the First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
TERENCE SMITH: It was the start of the long-awaited day when President Clinton would finally testify before the grand jury. And the star of the show was, as promised, nowhere to be seen.
|A seven month media circus.|
Today's three-ring media circus was the culmination of seven months of exhaustive and frequently exhausting media coverage of the White House sex scandal. From winter into spring into summer, Monica Lewinsky's every arrival and departure has set off pandemonium among the press. The lawn outside the federal courthouse has been nicknamed Monica Beach, and the battery of cameras there has recorded an endless parade of witnesses. Throughout it all no one has had a better seat at this circus than Bob Franken, the CNN correspondent whose office has been the massive pillar next to the courthouse steps.
BOB FRANKEN, CNN: Since the colds of January, we've run the gamut in terms of weather, that's for sure.
TERENCE SMITH: Right, all the seasons.
BOB FRANKEN: All the seasons.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, you've got a tan.
BOB FRANKEN: I've got a courthouse tan, which, of course, is not the kind of tan one hopes to get in August in Washington, but this is quite a story.
SAM DONALDSON, ABC News: I get letters from people who believe somehow that the press is responsible for the story. T'ain't true, folks. There are principals here, and they are responsible for this story, whatever it may turn out to be.
TERENCE SMITH: Over at the White House Sam Donaldson of ABC News is perhaps the most familiar face and voice in the press corps. Even he has had to struggle to find the language, just the right word, to tell this story.
SAM DONALDSON: How do you discuss this with the American public? How do I say to television viewers of ABC's World News Tonight, let's talk about oral sex? Well, you'd rather not. And, yet, unless you do, you don't report what may, in fact, be the president's line at his deposition, at his grand jury testimony.
BOB FRANKEN: Let's talk about the alleged semen-stained dress. I've usually referred to it as 'containing physical evidence of sexual relations,' and assuming people out there will know what in the heck is he talking about? I suspect they're going to know.
TERENCE SMITH: For cameraman Neil Grasso and soundman Charlie Dixson of CBS this assignment has seemed like a lifetime. They've spent months beneath this spreading elm.
TERENCE SMITH: This is your tree, huh?
NEIL GRASSO, CBS Cameraman: This is our baby. I think, what, it's grown about two inches since we've been here, is that right?
CHARLIE DIXSON, CBS Soundman: I'm not sure. It's gotten green since we were here. There were no leaves on anything when we started.
TERENCE SMITH: Is this an adult occupation for a grown man or woman?
NEIL GRASSO: It's funny, I had a friend walk by-jogging actually-today, who I hadn't seen in a while, and a family associate, and he came by and he looked at me and went, is this what you do for a living?
|A story born on the Internet.|
TERENCE SMITH: On the Internet too it can be all Monica all the time. The Web site goMonica.com brings us the top 100 sites. The relentless "Monicacam" fixed outside her lawyer's office never blinks. Think nobody's watching? The site has had nearly 100,000 hits so far. The newspapers are not far behind. Even before the president opened his mouth today, his testimony-or at least what unnamed advisers said it would be-was front-page news.
DOYLE McMANUS, Bureau Chief, Los Angeles Times: This has been a difficult story to work on from the beginning because of the nature of the issue. Today it's particularly difficult because we won't have a good sense of the substance of the story until very late in the day.
TERENCE SMITH: Doyle McManus is the Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times. He says the competitive pressures on this story have produced more smoke than fire.
|Lots of interest, little information.|
DOYLE McMANUS: There has been a minimum amount of substantive knowledge on which the whole menagerie of commentators and analysts, lawyers, and others have erected a vast structure of speculation, commentary. At least today we may have some substance by the end of the day. That'll be an improvement in our situation.
JIM LEHRER: And Terry Smith is here now. First, Terry, welcome to the NewsHour family.
TERENCE SMITH: Jim, thank you.
JIM LEHRER: Now, the president is being tested. Kenneth Starr is being tested by this story, so are those of us who do this sort of work for a living, are we not?
TERENCE SMITH: Absolutely. The president's credibility is not the only credibility on the line here. It is really a defining moment for the news media. Their coverage of this story over the last seven months has been part of a controversy of this story. Many feel there's been too much of it. And certainly the intense competitive pressures on this story-the minute-to-minute deadlines, the 24-hour news cycle-all of these have produced some bad journalism, some stories that simply weren't true. So the public is going to be watching. Right now-and all this day and into this night-you have had the most lethal of situations, which is intense interest and no news.
JIM LEHRER: No pictures, nothing to take pictures of. And is this story-of course, as you say, it's a watershed in many ways-is it not because this is the first story that's been driven in some ways by Internet coverage as much as the traditional thing?
TERENCE SMITH: This story was born on the Internet. The somewhat infamous Matt Drudge and his Web site, which has made him sort of the Web equivalent of Buddha the Beast in the Evelyn Waugh novel, he actually launched this story when he scooped Newsweek on the Internet on their own story, which was the Lewinsky tapes back in January. So it was born on the Internet. It's been pushed ahead on the Internet, and sometimes with major errors.
|Mainstream publications put their stories on the Internet before they put them in their own publications.|
JIM LEHRER: You know, some of the mainstream news organizations, the Dallas Morning News, being one, the Wall Street Journal being another, put stories on the Internet before they put them in their own publications and had to say, wait a minute, that wasn't quite right.
TERENCE SMITH: Exactly, including Time Magazine last week, put them out on an instant basis, pull them back, because they're not right. So it shows that the Internet has great potential for the fast delivery of news and great pitfalls too.
|A turning point for news coverage.|
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Whitley, the former U.S. Attorney down in Georgia just said that the volume of the news coverage, the intensity of the news, there is no precedent for this, is there, Terry?
TERENCE SMITH: Well, certainly not for quantity. Quality-
JIM LEHRER: Yes.
TERENCE SMITH: --might be another issue. But there has been wall-to-wall coverage of this story, with precedent perhaps since the Gulf War, which is an amazing thing to think of. It has been especially for the television networks very difficult. Today, for example, when the president began his testimony at 12:59, three major television networks interrupted their regular programming and went to special reports with, of course, no information about what's going on in that sealed room. In fact, Peter Jennings on ABC reported what he called a very difficult, very challenging atmosphere in the Map Room. Well, Peter, you must have gotten that one through ESP or something, because, obviously, it was a sealed room. There were no reporters there. CNN began the testimony phase with a little clock up in the corner of the screen, saying the president testified so long. It looked like the little scores you see on NFL football games or a baseball game. Well, then they tried to take it down, because, of course, the president-they discovered-was taking a few breaks-as you might imagine.
JIM LEHRER: Absolutely. So it wasn't literally that must testifying going on. Well, Terry, look, we've just hit some high points here. This is exactly the kinds of stories you're going to be doing, not just about obviously the president and Monica Lewinsky but other stories of the press. You've come at the right time, sir.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, thank you. I mean, we have the information industries are big now, they're important, and they're controversial, and what I hope we will be about here and what we intend here is reporting and analysis on the information industry, not hammering, finger wagging, and commentary. I think there's probably enough of that around.
JIM LEHRER: I agree. Terry, welcome again. Thank you, sir.
TERENCE SMITH: Thank you.
The NewsHour Media Unit, including this site, is funded by grants from: