September 3, 1998
Where goes President Clinton, so goes the Lewinsky story. The American press continues to focus on the president's relationship with the former White House intern, even while he attends a summit in Russia. At what point--if any-- should the press ease its pursuit of the story? After a background report, Terence Smith speaks with a White House correspondent and a former presidential press secretary.
ANCHOR, CBS EVENING NEWS: Two politically wounded world leaders side by side, the President of the United States and President of Russia, One answering private questions about a sexual affair the other the survival of a nation.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
NEWSHOUR LINKS: MEDIA
September 2, 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: RUSSIA
September 2, 1998:
Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin meet in Moscow.
Will Russia survive its economic and political crisis.
August 31, 1998:
A look at the upcoming summit in Moscow.
August 31, 1998:
The Dow falls 512 points.
August 26, 1998:
Russia's economic situation drives down markets around the world.
August 24, 1998:
Boris Yeltsin sacks his government.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of media issues and Europe.
The Russian Government Information Network.
International Monetary Fund.
TOM BROKAW , NBC NIGHTLY NEWS: The President in Russia, far from Washington, but nowhere to hide. He wants to talk about democracy, but he's asked questions about Monica.
TERENCE SMITH: On network evening news broadcasts last night, coverage of the meeting of two world leaders in the midst of a Russian economic and political crisis was dominated by Monica Lewinsky , two of three questions American reporters were allowed to ask at the joint news conference dealt with the scandal in the White House.
REPORTER: In retrospect now, with some distance, do you have any feeling that perhaps the tone of your speech was something that didn't quite convey the feelings that you had?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I thought it was clear that I was expressing my profound regret to all who were hurt and to all who were involved.
TERENCE SMITH: The CBS Evening News led the broadcast with the Lewinsky questions.
Monica, all the way from Moscow.
ANCHOR, CBS EVENING NEWS: The fight for his presidency is only beginning.
TERENCE SMITH: Followed by a piece on the Russian political crisis. NBC and ABC gave precedence to new developments in breast cancer but quickly followed with the Lewinsky matter. And on broadcasts that have the luxury of more time
BERNARD SHAW, ANCHOR, CNN: CNN's Betsy Aaron reports on how the economic crisis is weighing on Russia's entrepreneurs.
TERENCE SMITH: The summit coverage included more than just Monica. On The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer the President's comments on Lewinsky were reported in the news summary and followed by a discussion on Russia's economic and political crisis. Later, historians discussed how presidents function in the face of a preoccupying scandal.
Today's newspapers varied in their coverage. Some, like the San Francisco Chronicle, The Oakland Tribune, and The Denver Post put the Monica story inside. But The New York Times headlined "Clinton Defends His TV Admission on Lewinsky Case." The Washington Post reported "President Stands Pat on Lewinsky's Speech."
Two White House veterans debate coverage of the Lewinsky story.
TERENCE SMITH: For more on the President and the press we turn to two veterans of the White House. Helen Thomas, UPI's White House bureau chief, has covered every administration since that of John F. Kennedy. She's been with the wire service since 1943. Jody Powell served as press secretary to Jimmy Carter. He's the author of The Other Side of the Story, an account of his own battles for the White House press corps. He's now chief executive of Powell-Tate, a public relations and strategy firm. Welcome to you both. Jody, let me begin by asking you, what your reaction was when you watched the news conference in Moscow? It was an obviously awkward situation or moment for reporters to raise questions about Monica Lewinsky. Obviously they thought they had to do it.
JODY POWELL, Former Carter Press Secretary: I suspect it was the same reaction as anybody who served any president in the last 50 years. We've all seen this before. There are times, Terry, when the White House press corps goes into a pout. And when it does, it basically refuses to cover anything other than whatever it is they think the President ought to be talking about, and the people ought to be listening. But this support, I think, at least in my mind, was the gravity of the situation, that the President was trying to deal with, and that the country, indeed, is trying to deal with, with regard to the former Soviet Union and Russia. And in that sense I thought it was particularly egregious to pretend that nothing of importance that we needed to know about that trip, basically other than Lewinsky.
TERENCE SMITH: Helen Thomas, is the White House press corps in a pout?
HELEN THOMAS, UPI: Absolutely not. The questions were very legitimate. You talk about the graveness of the crisis in Russia while it's very grave for President Clinton. His political survival is on the line, and you can listen to the senators that you put on earlier today. I mean, it's not a question that's going to go away. It is a global village. They expected the question. He has not been questioned since his testimony. We have a President who is under a federal investigation. It is very critical.
JODY POWELL: Let me make clear that I'm not arguing that it wasn't a legitimate question. The question had to be asked. My concern is what was done with the coverage afterwards, and that basically there was a decision by certainly CBS and to a less extent the other two networks that we're not going to tell the American people anything else that the President said, virtually anything else that he did, except about this issue, and maybe it won't play out as other things that I remember and Helen was there too and Terry, you were around. I remember during the hostage crisis that wasn't quite a scandal, but we went for months where it was impossible for the President or for me as a press secretary to get any coverage of about anything else that was going on in America, except for the hostage crisis, and that was that was a decision
HELEN THOMAS: Again, the drumbeat is fantastic. That's true.
JODY POWELL: Helen makes a good point. Clearly this is going to go on for a while. And I don't see an end to it. And, you know, the President, his staff, the Congress, the other parts of the executive they're going to have to try to figure out how we how the government deals with a lot of other important things while this while this plays out.
HELEN THOMAS: Well, Jody, he was covered every inch of the way on his trip to Russia. Many many statements so I don't think that the coverage was denied in terms of the Russian economy.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, Helen, your argument, I take it, is that the lack of access to the President
HELEN THOMAS: Exactly.
TERENCE SMITH: -- is what necessitated a question like that
HELEN THOMAS: And they knew the question was coming. He was prepared for it. They set themselves up for it, in fact, but we are
TERENCE SMITH: What do you mean, set themselves up for it?
Helen Thomas: "You cannot ignore the story."
HELEN THOMAS: Well, I mean, they could have had a news conference before Moscow, and we were always asking for one. We threw many questions at the President and he ignored them. So it was I mean, it was fair game, but it's more than that. It's the point is that he has to answer these questions. This is the speculation of the day. Trent Lott gave him a farewell I mean, politics is supposed to end at the water's edge. He made a strong statement against the President before he left and Lieberman today and so forth, on it goes. You cannot ignore the story.
JODY POWELL: I think Helen and I would disagree on this, but I don't think there is anything the President could have possibly done, no matter what he said, no matter how many questions he answered, no matter how long he's been with the press. He would the next time he was available to the press he would get the same treatment. As Helen said
HELEN THOMAS: He would be asked a question, you're right.
JODY POWELL: If it
HELEN THOMAS: But I think
JODY POWELL: If it wasn't about the apology, it would be about the rumor of the day or the leak of the day, or whatever it is and you just we got to figure a way to allow a president in the midst of something like this to communicate with the American people about something else in addition to this. A degree of maturity and responsibility on the part of journalists would help, but I don't expect that to happen.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Helen, let me put the question to you this way.
HELEN THOMAS: All I'm saying is that all the speculation since he made his original statement was that more was needed, and this was what we put to him.
TERENCE SMITH: Indeed, that's been the call from Congress as well.
HELEN THOMAS: Right.
How much coverage is too much?
TERENCE SMITH: But let me put the question to you this way. How much is too much for the press? At what point if any does the press say "We accept the President's statements at face value" and move on?
HELEN THOMAS: Well, I think that there's so much more in this situation that, yes, we I think the statement has to be accepted now, but there are so many ramifications. Other shoes keep falling, and it's not a story that's you know, has an end yet. All the speculation, all the senators jumping in and so forth, I just don't see how you can lay off, but I do have to admit that when you have 24-hour cable and they're hitting it 24 hours a day and four or five major programs are directed from that situation alone every day, then, I mean, it's impossible, intolerable, I'm sure, for the President.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, so at least that much is too much. Jody, let me ask you this. Has it reached the point, in your opinion, where the press and the reporting on the story is getting in the way of the president and his ability to do his job and communicate with
JODY POWELL: I think in terms of the President's ability to have a dialogue with the American people over virtually anything else, yes, and I think it has been that way to a significant degree for quite some time. And I want to emphasize, this is not peculiar to President Clinton. It has happened to every at one time or other sometimes more than one time to every president that I can recall during and interesting I think this clearly, however it turns out, will have done damage to the presidency in a lot of ways, certainly the legal precedents set here are troublesome. I think, though, a year from now, however this comes out, in terms of the presidency as an institution, it will survive and it will recover, and it will go forward. I think the more lasting damage will be done will have been done to the reputation and the credibility of American journalism with the American people. And that's not an insignificant loss either, because American journalism has an important role to play.
TERENCE SMITH: Helen.
HELEN THOMAS: I don't agree with you at all. I think we will prevail, survive, and we're doing the job that we have to do.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, Jody, what would you counsel the President if he were to do so now as he goes forward to a period which will include a report from Kenneth Starr and whatever action eventually is taken in Congress? Would you urge him to say more about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, or not?
Do "delicate" times around the world require a more delicate approach to domestic news?
JODY POWELL: Well, unlike apparently a lot of people in this town, I don't really think it's proper to offer a President advice on national television, so I'll refrain from commenting on that. I think that the awkward part of it is that so much of this is out of the President's hands. There probably are some things he could do, but, as you point out, the report's going to be there. Apparently, parts of the report continue to be dribbled out, or things that people think are in the report. Members of Congress are going to continue to feel compelled to unburden themselves and offer the President advice of one sort or the other in public and I suppose those of us who appear on these shows every now and then will pop up with our own contribution to it, and what I think this is about as delicate a time in terms of what's going on globally as we've had in a long time. And I really do think our President, our Congress, institutions are capable of dealing with this, but we really do need a bit more responsibility and maturity on the part of journalists to allow a dialogue to take place.
TERENCE SMITH: Helen, in a few seconds, can you tell us what you'd like to see the press do, as this story plays itself out.
HELEN THOMAS: I think that we should cover this story and cover it very fairly, legitimately. I think that we should let the President have his day. I don't think that there should be a constant, constant repetition, 24 hours a day, when you don't have news. But it's very legitimate news when something is breaking and it's a story that will you know, it's going to go on, and I think the President knows that. I think it takes a terrible toll. Jody's right. We should be concentrating on these other things, but this is the most human story, and I don't I don't think anyone's going to really refrain from it till it has an ending.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Thank you both.