September 14, 1998
Within minutes of being released, the Starr report was made available to the world on the Internet. For those without online access, the major news networks discussed the report's findings in graphic detail. The following day, newspapers around the country printed the report in its entirety. Following a background report, Terence Smith and guests discuss the media's coverage of the Starr report.
TERENCE SMITH: Now to analyze the way this story was covered over the weekend and what lies ahead, we're joined by Geneva Overholser, editor and former ombudsman - she now writes a syndicated column for the Washington Post writers' group -- and by Bill Powers, media critic for the Weekly National Journal. Welcome to you both. Geneva Overholser, let me ask you first. This was a big story this weekend for the press, a huge avalanche of coverage. Did the press do its job?
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
NEWSHOUR LINKS: MEDIA
September 14, 1998:
A discussion on the media's coverage of the Starr report.
September 8, 1998:
Is Dan Burton's private life fair game?
September 3, 1998:
The Monica Lewinsky story follows the president to Russia.
September 1, 1998:
Financial news gains more and more coverage.
August 28, 1998:
A look at media coverage of Princess Diana, a year after her death.
NEWSHOUR LINKS: THE STARR REPORT
September 11, 1998:
The Starr report and White House rebuttal.
September 11, 1998:
Mark Shields and Paul Gigot debate the potential impact of Kenneth Starr's referral to Congress.
September 11, 1998:
Two former federal prosecutors examine the legal issues presented in the Starr report.
September 10, 1998:
What is the constitutional basis for impeaching a president?
September 9, 1998:
Kenneth Starr drops off his case to the House.
September 3, 1998:
Four former senators discuss whether the president should step down.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of media issues and Congress.
The White House
The House Judiciary Committee.
Yahoo!'s collection of links regarding the Starr Report.
Did the press do its job?
GENEVA OVERHOLSER, Former Ombudsman, Washington Post: Well, of course, you're quite right, Terry. It was an enormous story, and it felt, no doubt, like a flood to people who were watching it, or to anyone who's reading it, but my feeling is that this was the moment for the flood. We've been covering this story as if it were a flood for months, and I do have my criticisms of that. But if ever there was a time for us to go no holds barred this was the time. Of course, the nature of the detail was offensive to many people.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, on that point, did you personally agree with the Post's decision and that of other papers to run the entire text, unedited?
GENEVA OVERHOLSER: I did. I think it was a service. I also think it's worth note that the coverage in the Post and in the Times and other papers that ran the full text was a different matter from the actual running of it. And it is a different thing to treat a news story versus to publish something in its entirety, which we all know not that many people are going to read in its entirety.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. Bill Powers, what was your reaction to the coverage?
WILLIAM POWERS, National Journal: Similar to Geneva's. I found that the decision was a clear one for the press, the big papers had no problem with going with the report in its entirety. And even some of the smaller papers - I called a few today - and they said we knew we had to go with it; it was something our people wanted to see. There was a bit of a slapstick quality to the TV coverage, with the folks reading the pages on the air and sort of fumbling and there was one point where someone else dropped the whole report, and that was a bit unfortunate, but I think, as a viewer, you knew that it was inescapable; they had just gotten this thing.
TERENCE SMITH: In fact, wasn't CNN skating on rather thin ice there, with a reporter, Candy Crowley, literally reading unedited material as she scrolled it up?
WILLIAM POWERS: It was dangerous to do it that way. I think that the networks that chose to take a minute and read a page before using it were probably wiser.
GENEVA OVERHOLSER: I think that must have been the moment when plenty of people in the House of Representatives thought, oh, my God, what have we done by releasing this.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, Geneva, in fact, you told me that you were watching it at home just as somebody walked in the door. What was that --
Ms. Overholser: "It's clearly an unprecedented thing...it may have had a circus quality."
GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Yes. My 14 year old walked in the door and here I am listening to Candy Crowley reading this remarkable, remarkable report. It's clearly an unprecedented thing, and, as you say, it may have had a circus quality. But it certainly had the air of immediacy that this was breaking news, and that finally it was real; it wasn't what everyone speculated. It wasn't unsourced stuff. It wasn't allegations. It was the report.
TERENCE SMITH: And, Bill Powers, you said you read it on a plane.
WILLIAM POWERS: I did. I read it on a plane from San Jose. And it was interesting, there were a number of other people on the plane reading what I had, which was The New York Times version. The New York Times seemed to have sold out in San Jose, which is perhaps unusual. And there was a feeling on the plane of kind of a reading room at a library almost atmosphere, people flipping the pages, leaning over, and sharing things with their neighbor, a kind of a hush, and you knew that finally the facts or something close to them, have arrived.
TERENCE SMITH: You know, it's interesting - I'd like to ask you both - whether it creates a different reaction in you as a reader or in the public, as far as you can tell, when you actually read the words, the power of narrative, the power of words, as opposed to fragmentary reports before that? Any thought on that, Geneva?
GENEVA OVERHOLSER: I think it is different. I mean, people said beforehand if it's just the sex, we know it, we don't want to know more about it. But the fact is it's one thing to say it's just the sex, we knew this happened, and to read this kind of detail which was jarring in its specificity, obviously. But I do think it's true that knowing what happened is a different thing from everybody sort of saying they knew in the abstract.
TERENCE SMITH: If it's true, Bill, would it in your view make people more likely, more prone to judgment, one way or the other?
WILLIAM POWERS: Not necessarily. We don't know yet. But I do think that the narrative - a narrative of this length - has a power and a drive that nothing that appears in a newspaper that you see on these television - brief television reports and talk fests possibly have. And I think, as a number of people have observed, it's just sinking in. It's such a long document. It says so many things. It says them over and over --that we may not know for a few weeks what we - all of us - really think of it.
TERENCE SMITH: This was, Geneva, another coming of age of the Internet. And this was a record setter. America Online had 10 million hours from its subscribers on Friday alone.
A coming of age for the Internet.
GENEVA OVERHOLSER: I believe it. I was one of them.
TERENCE SMITH: Yes. Exactly. And so my question is: What does this -- What's the significance of this for mainstream media like newspapers and television, when the Internet becomes for some people anyway a primary, unfiltered source of news?
GENEVA OVERHOLSER: That is surely one of the historic elements of this. And I think what many of us in the media have said is that when these items can go directly to the net and everyone can access them immediately and fully, then it presents all kinds of dilemmas for us. And certainly we have seen the way many editors have rushed something into print or rushed something onto their own Web site because of the existence of the net. I have to say that it's my hope that we would see it differently, as an opportunity for a form of presentation to come directly to citizens that then doesn't compel us but rather frees us to treat it differently. Different media are going to treat these things differently. And a responsible newspaper editor does not need to say, oh, well, it's out there, and therefore I'll put it and all of its most salacious detail in my paper. That is different from printing the whole document, this official document. As I said, I think it's a good idea to have done so.
TERENCE SMITH: You know, it's interesting, Bill Powers, there were stories that proved not to be true that were rumored, like the so-called second intern.
WILLIAM POWERS: Right.
TERENCE SMITH: And yet there were a number of other stories that had come out to prove to be true. Was there a sense of vindication in that, did you think?
Vindication for the press?
WILLIAM POWERS: There is a muted feeling of vindication in the press, not breast beating so much as satisfaction that, yes, these things we've been out on a limb on for all this time have largely been proven true. Those mistakes were very few, compared to the number of stories that run from the beginning. I think also behind the release of the report there's a sense of relief in the press that a story they've known about Clinton - people in the press have known about Clinton since the beginning, since '91, when he was running --
TERENCE SMITH: Or at least believed they knew.
WILLIAM POWERS: Believed they knew about his unusual relationship with the truth and with language and the way he used those things was finally sort of laid out in this report in a way that the media never were able to bring themselves to lay out because they didn't either quite have it, or couldn't bring themselves to address the character issue. And there it was - with the government stamp on it. And I think in a way they were delighted to finally say here it is.
TERENCE SMITH: I wonder if that's a dangerous emotion in the press.
GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Indeed.
TERENCE SMITH: Delight or vindication. It can get awfully close to gloating.
GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Yes, indeed, and I don't think we're good at keeping restrained about this sort of emotion. I do think the press generally is vindicated in the strictest terms of whether this or that item was true. I think one of the great concerns that the public had was the manner of coverage, and that has not - we have not been vindicated in that way. We did put on the air and in newspapers stories that at the moment were clearly not fully developed. We didn't talk nearly enough about who was giving us these stories. You could really argue that Starr has sort of done himself in, in some ways by having leaked so much of this that one of the reactions is, beside the remarkable detail, what else is new, and we allowed ourselves to be servants in that. And I think that's a mistake, and I think the public doesn't like it.
WILLIAM POWERS: I would take issue with that, Geneva. I think that the press clearly had some very good sources on this, not necessarily Starr. There were many people who knew what was on the tapes, what the allegations were about, and really, I think the proof of these stories is that they are true. I mean, they got it right. We thought they were out on a limb; they may not have thought they were out on a limb, based on how good their sources were.
GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Do you really think most of the sources were not from Starr's office? I think they were overwhelmingly clearly from the prosecutorial approach.
WILLIAM POWERS: I don't know. I think I don't know.
TERENCE SMITH: None of us does yet, and we may find out.
GENEVA OVERHOLSER: -- It's a good question.
TERENCE SMITH: Thank you both.
WILLIAM POWERS: Thank you.