GOING TO THE TAPE
September 22, 1998
For four hours yesterday it was hard to find anything else on. All the major networks decided to air the videotaped testimony of President Bill Clinton. How did the media do in reporting the story? Following a background report, Terence Smith discusses the coverage with three media watchers.
JIM LEHRER: And speaking of press coverage of yesterday's big story, we look at it now. We go to our media correspondent, Terence Smith.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
September 22, 1998:
Read the full text of President Clinton's testimony.
NEWSHOUR LINKS: MEDIA
September 17, 1998:
Four foreign journalists discuss reaction to the scandal.
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 21, 1998:
Debating the impact of President Clinton's testimony.
September 18, 1998:
Shield and Gigot analyze the partisan struggle over the release of grand jury evidence.
September 18, 1998:
How is the world media covering the Lewinsky matter?
September 17, 1998:
A discussion on the videotape debate.
September 16, 1998:
Senator Daschle discusses President Clinton's problems.
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.
The television event of the season?
TERENCE SMITH: It was a made-for-TV moment –
PRESIDENT CLINTON: When she used two different terms – "sexual relationship" --
TERENCE SMITH: Washington, D.C.'s Suzannah Weiss was working out at her health club and watching the President's testimony. She said the video seemed different in tone and content than the reports she had read in the newspapers.
SUZANNAH WEISS: It will probably be disappointing to all the smut hounds that want to get the dirty details. I have to say I want to watch it because I want to know what they mean when they say that the president seemed agitated and belligerent at some times.
TERENCE SMITH: And some broadcasters were wondering the same thing.
BOB SCHIEFFER: Well, the early reads we got on all this, Dan, was that that we would see a president as we'd never seen him before; that we'd see a president who lost his temper. Clearly, you're not seeing that.
TERENCE SMITH: The networks had planned to air excerpts of the testimony and edit the more graphic portions. They gave their viewers considerable warning.
TOM BROKAW: There will be a lot explicit language, a lot of this will be uncomfortable for a lot of people.
TERENCE SMITH: Dan Rather addressed the kids in his audience:
DAN RATHER: If you are usually watching Tele-Tubbies at this hour, you probably shouldn't be watching this. Now ask your mother's permission, you go ask her right now.
TERENCE SMITH: In the end, NBC was the only network to pull the plug when the questioning got explicit.
QUESTIONER: If she said that you kissed her breasts, would she be lying?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I'm going to revert to my former statement.
TOM BROKAW: We're going to cut away here because again there is going to be some specificity that is not necessary for us to share with you at this time.
Letting the tape roll.
TERENCE SMITH: The 24 hour news networks aired the testimony without delays as they received it. Frank Sesno, CNN's Washington bureau chief, says media's traditional role as editorial gatekeepers has been challenged by the competitive pressures and by technology.
FRANK SESNO: I think in this particular case we determined that the best kind of gatekeeping we could do was on the subject of the video tape itself was no gatekeeping. Let the American people see this. They are being asked to judge something very important here.
TERENCE SMITH: CNN stood out from the pack, when they decided to run statements from the Starr Report documents directly under Clinton as he testified -- statements that sometimes differed with the president's testimony.
FRANK SESNO: What we tried to do in running the lower thirds was to provide additional information or relevance at certain key points in the testimony so if a viewer was tuning in or if a viewer was not clear who Lieberman was or something like that there was some textual information that would fill in the blank a little bit.
TERENCE SMITH: The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer aired lengthy excerpts from the videotaped testimony, along with commentary from legal experts and historians. While the testimony was tedious at times, it was a ratings hit for the broadcast networks, which pre-empted their regular diet of soap operas and talk shows. Their audience was up 32 percent. The Cable News Network reached a record audience of its own, scoring its highest daytime rating of the year.
DAN RATHER: Good evening again, and welcome to the second half of this special edition – expanded edition of the CBS Evening News –
TERENCE SMITH: In the evening the networks extended their broadcast to a full hour for the first time since the Gulf War. The Internet, which triumphed during the release of the Starr Report, was more like the world wide wait than the World Wide Web.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I don't know what their understanding was --
TERENCE SMITH: On computer screens, the president occasionally morphed in mid-sentence. There were significant delays, but, nonetheless, traffic on CNN Interactive was the second busiest day ever-- following only last Friday, the day the Starr Report was released. The president's testimony was front page in the nation's newspapers. Many published separate, pull-out sections with the full testimony, along with excerpts from the voluminous appendix.
By any measure it was a huge story. Now, joining us to evaluate the impact of president on videotape are: Roger Rosenblatt, a NewsHour regular and contributor to Time Magazine; Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania; and Edward Fouhy, a former network news executive who founded the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, and currently is executive director of the Pew Center on the States.
Theatre of the absurd?
Roger Rosenblatt, let me ask you first, the president's testimony can be seen as – as theater, as news, as television. Looking at it as theater, how did it strike you?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: I looked at it as theater; I looked at it as story, a story that found its form in theater, Terry. If you go back to January, this – people are interested in the story, what is the story here and they're interested for a specific reason, because they want the true story, or the best story. So we got fragments in January of rumor and then we got a little more, and as the story went on from January to now, we finally got a printed version in the Starr Report. And then we got this – this videotape. And I was fascinated by this videotape, by the way, and watched all four hours. And the reason I was – and I think this was not a typical – was that while the Starr Report in terms of story structurally was successful, that is, on this day this happened, on that day that happened, and so forth, it was not a layered story, because the main character of the story, that is, the character in which the American people is most interested, the president, was not alive in it. Now, on videotape, though reluctantly, he was alive in it. And anyone inclined to sympathize with him – no matter what they thought of the veracity of – or the effectiveness of his testimony as law – I think wound up sympathizing more than he or she expected to.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, did you – what caught your attention when you watched this?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON, Annenberg School for Communication: The first thing that I was surprised by was how very different the experience was, depending on which network you paid attention to. In your early report you featured the fact that CNN ran quotes from the Starr Report with little pictures of the person who was supposedly being quoted as Clinton was speaking. That makes CNN's coverage very adversarial for Clinton. It also creates, I think, a fundamentally unfair frame for him, because, as we know, Starr was building a case. He was being selective in the evidence that he was using, and exculpatory material wasn't in the Starr Report. That means that exculpatory material wasn't getting up on the screen in CNN. I think CNN made a mistake. By contrast, NBC by pulling away at the graphic parts increased the likelihood was a perspective created around the rest of the videotape, because they spent more time on commentary as a result. So different stations created a different angle of viewing on this videotape, creating very different experiences. Now, the day after, print is doing the same thing. If you look across the headlines in the nation's newspapers, you'd think if you read one paper, that Clinton was irate and sad, but in another, that he was evasive.
TERENCE SMITH: Ed Fouhy, what did you notice from a perspective of television news and even television presentation?
EDWARD FOUHY, Former network news executive: First, Terry, I think we have to say that this was not particularly newsworthy. This was television. There was not a lot of news value in this. We have heard almost everything. It had been leaked, or it had been in the Starr Report.
TERENCE SMITH: But now we could see it.
EDWARD FOUHY: We could see it, and there is where the television comes in. Television is not very good at communicating the fine points, but it's wonderful at communicating emotion. So we saw a sort of anti-TV. We saw a medium shot for four hours. There was no eye candy at all. There was no relief. You had to sit there and watch it. It was bank surveillance television. There was no sense of place. The off-camera voices gave it a sort of Kafkaesque feeling. One could have said this was an interrogation going on in a police station for all the sense of place that one had about it.
It was the oddest sort of television, but, in a sense, that gave it a greater importance, because we used a television that's hyper kinetic. If you look at a commercial, a 30-second commercial, there will be 25 or 30 images in 30 seconds, here we had one image for four hours. It communicated something that I think we've never seen before in television, a certain gravitasse, and it gave us the opportunity to watch that – the man who's the master of television, run this huge gamut of emotions.
Was the editorial judgement there?
TERENCE SMITH: Kathleen Jamieson, it also – you referred to this before – was something of a high wire act for those networks that chose to run the feed as they received it – unedited and unscreened. What justified that, or did anything justify that, in your opinion?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Well, one thing that might have justified was confidence that everything that was controversial had already been leaked, and so they had some sense of anticipation. Very shortly into the process they also had transcripts, which meant that very quickly there was some editorial judgment being exercised. But all of the networks did something that I think was important; they had tape delay capacity that was available, if someone had made the decision that something was inappropriate, they had the capacity to cut away. NBC made the decision to do that. But I think it's important that people recognize that they were making that decision minute by minute on an ongoing basis. In other words, there was someone tending the shop.
TERENCE SMITH: Roger Rosenblatt, there's another aspect to this, perhaps a new paradigm in television coverage, which is the elimination of the middle man. If the product is going directly to the consumer, there is no editorial judgment being exercised? I don't know, is this a good thing or a bad thing?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: I think it's a great thing. And I think anybody who objected to any aspect of media coverage of this story when it started. Really, I had a chance to take an entirely different apprehension of the story with this direct contact with the president. I think it was Ed who was talking about the Kafkaesque aspect of it. And that certainly struck me, and I'm sure others, just hearing this unseen prosecutor or several prosecutors asking these questions. But watching the president was something else, you know -- the nervousness – the blinking – the going-for-the-Diet-Coke. Even if you change not a wit of your opinion of the issue or of him during all four hours and you thought, for example, that he was a liar, if you thought he was a liar in print or through gossip before. Here there was a distinction to be made. You saw a man lying, or a man not telling the truth. And the human element – by cutting out the editorial faculty – the human element was very strong.
Humanizing the president.
TERENCE SMITH: Ed, despite the rough edges to the television presentation you were talking about, the polls show an increase in his approval rating, and many people found him a more sympathetic figure than they had before. How do you explain that?
EDWARD FOUHY: Well, I think two things are at work here. One is traditionally after a major television broadcast that's seen by a lot of people, the president's numbers almost always go up. This was also the first time that the president had a chance to refuse some of the things that were in the Starr Report, and in some aspects he was quite effective, I thought. And it's – it's really way too soon. I talked to Dan Yankelovich last week – kind of the godfather of American polling – and he made a very good point, I thought. He said this is such an important emotional issue – sex and the presidency – two things that trigger a lot of contrary thoughts in our heads as Americans, he says it's going to be a couple of weeks before people really work through all of the documents and all of their own emotions and listen to their clergymen and talk to one another before they really come to some kind of a consensus.
MSNBC: The Clinton Impeachment Channel?
TERENCE SMITH: Kathleen, you referred – the past you've referred to MSNBC as sort of the Clinton impeachment network. What do you mean?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I think the 24 hour news access has created a very unusual circumstance for MSNBC as the youngest all news network on the air, because they essentially have become all Monica all the time, and the breathlessness and the gleeful anticipation on MSNBC is often unbecoming reporters. It suggests that they're more interested in hyping the story and in anticipating the outcome than they are in reporting the news. I think there's something else that's important as we look at the broader frame of the story. By viewing this Clinton exchange with the prosecutors live, we were able to hear a context that now increasingly is going to be missing for Clinton. In the first day's coverage, because the networks went to an hour, the amount of time that they could excerpt was larger, which meant that the prosecutors' questions often stayed in the news. That's what makes it possible for people to judge the tone of Clinton's response and to say, well, if he sounds irritated, that's because in that context, this sort of question might have provoked that. In today's news cycle and broadcast, however, increasingly the prosecutors' questions are being dropped, and the most irritated moments for Clinton and the most explicit moments are beginning to be edited together. And, as a result, a fundamentally different experience of that four hours is being created for those who are now coming into the news cycle and experiencing it for the first time. And also, for those of us who now are having it digested that way, this interpretive capacity of news is inviting us to rethink and refrain, which is why I agree with Ed that I think we need to wait to see what the public thinks after this has had a chance to settle in.
A sign of things to come?
TERENCE SMITH: Roger, is this what we're to expect in the future, more raw development, if you like, on television?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: It's hard to imagine the context in which these things would occur -- everything seems so special and so shockingly odd about this story. But I like the idea of what one does now – and I'm not sure that we're going to get the time to – in fact, I'd almost hope that we don't get the time to digest how we feel about this. I think the president – acting in reaction to looking at this videotape himself – if he did that – would be well advised to go before Congress or go before the American people and capitalize on the very emotional and artistic quality of a president facing his people.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, he may be able to change opinion that way. Ed, in the few seconds we have left, should we anticipate the rest of this story to be played out on television?
EDWARD FOUHY: Oh, it'll be played out on television certainly, Terry. Those hearings will be on television. If there's an impeachment trial in the Senate, C-Span will be there. And I'm sure the other networks will as well.
TERENCE SMITH: So, we will go on, despite what the public –
EDWARD FOUHY: -- the president – that's how he got elected, and maybe that's how he'll leave office.
TERENCE SMITH: Thank you all very much.