Whitewater, Troopergate And The Media p. 16

By: Debra Gersh Hernandez Report shows the media have shied away from stories involving
President Clinton's alleged sexual indiscretions but zealously
pursued reported improprieties in the Whitewater matter sp.

THE PRESS, IT seems, is a little squeamish when it comes to sex, particularly if it involves the president of the United States.
According to a report from the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA), the mainstream press shied away from stories involving President Clinton's alleged sexual indiscretions, but zealously pursued allegations of impropriety in the Whitewater matter.
"The key difference between the president's personal controversies and his financial problems involves the media's view of the legitimacy of the subject matter," wrote Larry Sabato and S. Robert Lichter in their report, "When Should the Watchdogs Bark? Media Coverage of the Clinton Scandals." The researchers discovered that while coverage of the Whitewater scandal has followed the path of "a traditional feeding frenzy," the Troopergate matter (allegations from state troopers who said Clinton misused state employees and was a "rampant womanizer") and the lawsuit from Paula Jones (a former state employee who accused Clinton of sexual harassment after he made improper advances in a hotel room when he was governor) are part of a "newer and separate category of character controversies.
"The ways in which the coverage of these personal scandals adhered to, or veered away, from the norm of Whitewater frenzy is revealing ? not just for these individual scandals but also for the press corps' standards in the 1990s," according to Sabato, professor of government at the University of Virginia, and Lichter, co-director of CMPA.
Sabato and Lichter also found that "treatment of the stories has also been different, as Whitewater stories of even modest importance were much more likely to reach the front page than those concerning the sex allegations."
The CMPA research team based its findings on interviews with 36 major media journalists (13 broadcasters and 23 print reporters), most of whom covered one or more of the scandal stories.
They also looked at 311 TV news stories and 1,235 print articles (1,082 from newspapers and 153 from magazines) about Whitewater, Paula Jones and Troopergate.
"Our study identified 1,290 stories that focused on Whitewater-related news, compared to only 256 on all aspects of the allegations by Paula Jones and the Arkansas troopers," they reported:
"Every major newspaper published more than five times the number of stories on Whitewater as on Troopergate/Paula Jones."
The researchers found that the media not only "demanded a higher standard of proof" for stories about the president's personal life than reports about Whitewater but they also questioned more closely the motives of Jones and the troopers, as compared to those of accusers in the Whitewater matter.
In exploring why the press behaved as it did, Sabato and Lichter reported that "perhaps most telling is the mainstream media's general unease about dealing with sexual issues ? even in the era of tabloid journalism ? particularly when they involve the president of the United States.
"Other factors include the media's inability to see the more important allegations that were hidden behind a sexual facade," they wrote.
"Also present were certain distractions in both stories that offered journalists easy justifications for not covering them," the report added.
Sabato and Lichter further suggested that journalists shy away from such "tawdry" stories, because they view themselves as professionals, and such "lowbrow scandals" are "unworthy of their attention."
In addition, they wrote that "it may be that the media's extremely tough critique of the Clinton administration's policies . . . has been partly a substitute for, or a channeling of, journalists' disapproval of Clinton's private activities."
The "tabloid and ideological sources" for these personal allegations also may have dampened the spirits of mainstream media. Ironically, in a business where being scooped is anathema, Sabato and Lichter found that when it came to the Troopergate and Paula Jones stories, "the mainstream media were locked in a race to be second."
The fact that the personal scandal involved the office of the president ? as opposed to sexual allegations involving Sen. Bob Packwood (R.-Ore.) or Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas ? was also found to "magnify [the reporters'] aversion to covering them . . . . [F]ew in the mainstream media would take comfort from diminishing the office of the presidency without a reason of constitutional proportions."
The study discovered that the different standards for reporting the allegations may come from the effect of the stories.
"A traditional scandal, short of one with impeachable offenses found in a mega-frenzy such as Watergate, certainly damages an individual president's credibility. Nonetheless, a skillful politician can emerge with political stature intact," Sabato and Lichter wrote.
"Coverage of a president's personal scandals, however, can produce a type of embarrassment that permanently damages the moral authority necessary for governance," they added.
The Troopergate and Paula Jones incidents, however, were more than merely sex scandals, the researchers noted.
In the former case, there were allegations that the then-governor misused his office and public employees, and later there were charges that the troopers were offered jobs in exchange for their silence.
In the Jones case, sexual harassment of an employee was an undercurrent given much less attention than the similar allegations against then-nominee to the Supreme Court Clarence Thomas.
Sabato and Lichter found elements of each story that gave journalists excuses to dismiss the troopers' and Paula Jones' allegations against Clinton.
"Most of the justifications offered by the press were wrapped in the language of journalistic professionalism," they wrote. "Yet these highlighted standards of good journalism were selectively applied to produce an easy exit strategy of an unsettled press."
Among the excuses uncovered by the study were:
? "It's old news": Since voters already knew that Clinton had been unfaithful to his wife, and elected him president, anyway, the assumption went that the "new sex stories were irrelevant."
Sabato and Lichter point out, however, that this argument is "dubious" because of the additional allegations in each charge and because they imply that infidelities occurred after the Gennifer Flowers incident and the 1992 election.
? "They did it for money": This was believed to be particularly true in the case of the troopers' story, when the rumor of a book deal was alluded to in news coverage and "seemed to turn many journalists away from the story."
In fact, the troopers never realized financial gain but did suffer stigma that blighted their lives, which was ignored by many journalists.
? "The accusers were 'discredited' and 'incredible' ": After it was learned that the two troopers had lied in an auto insurance scheme, their credibility came into serious question, even though much of what they claimed was corroborated by records and state documents.
As for Jones, reporters "remain unsure about the veracity of her . . . allegations, and about the specific details of her private session with then-Governor Clinton."
On the other hand, the credibility of two of Clinton's chief Whitewater accusers, former judge David Hale and former development partner James McDougal, was considerably more in doubt.
Sabato and Lichter noted that, "even a split decision on [the credibility of] these two central Whitewater figures seems to put them well behind Jones and the troopers on a credibility scale.
Yet, at the time the troopers' and Paula Jones' allegations were made public, the press bent over backward to argue that these accusers were not credible."
? "The conservative taint": Sabato and Lichter found that the involvement of right-wing partisans, who helped bring the charges forward, turned off many journalists. However, Sabato and Lichter also found that reporters received and followed up on a number of tips regarding Whitewater from Citizens United and other Clinton adversaries.
? "Troopergate lacked 'legs' ": Two factors contributed to this, the researchers explained. One was the fact that the troopers' claims seemed to be simply a piling on of repeated allegations, and the other was the discovery that most Republicans "shied away from making either sex scandal a partisan football."
? "The CNN signal": A few months before filing her lawsuit, Paula Jones held a press conference to make her allegations public.
CNN did not carry the press conference which Sabato and Lichter believe "may have assisted reporters and editors in ignoring Jones' allegations until the filing of her lawsuit."
CNN did air interviews with the two troopers, which may have prompted both the national media and the White House to take them more seriously.
? "Paula v. Anita: Class bias in the press": The difference between the treatment of Anita Hill and Paula Jones appeared to stem from journalistic elitism, notably in the characterizations of Jones ? described by one bureau chief as a woman "from a trailer park with big hair."
The study noted, however, that a crucial difference also was the fact that Hill's allegations were made during a Senate hearing and Jones' statements came at a press conference during a conservative political convention.
Besides offering a simple explanation for the disparity in media coverage, Sabato and Lichter also proposed some remedies.
"A preliminary and necessary step," they wrote, "is for the national press corps to recognize that stories about a presidential candidate's sexual transgressions can no longer be hidden from public view by a small number of media elites . . . .
"First, journalism needs to come to better terms with character issues, and serious news organizations need to do so with standards that are thoughtful and mature," Sabato and Lichter suggested.
"Second, it is particularly important for the mainstream media to confront these issues so that the stories are not defined only by tabloids, the ideological press or radio talk shows," they added.
In addition, the authors said that even though many journalists believe a candidate should be judged solely on the basis of his policies and accomplishments, it is the electorate who should do the judging.
In the future, Sabato and Lichter suggested, news organizations should examine the following factors when determining the shape of their coverage: whether the timing of the charge is a contributing factor, whether the coverage is commensurate with the transgression, and whether sex is not the entire story.
"By considering these factors separately and together, news organizations might be able to resolve some of their anxieties about stories of a personal nature," they wrote. "One lesson is clear: The media should avoid lumping all such stories into one nonreportable category."
The researchers agreed that these topics are difficult and unpleasant to tackle, but "The early manifestations of the personal life issues now plaguing Bill Clinton's presidency should have been more fully, carefully and thoughtfully explored during the 1992 presidential campaign.
"That they were not is a major failure of electoral journalism for which the country is still paying."
?( Every major newspaper published more than five times as many stories on Bill Clinton (right) and his involvement in Whitewater, as they did on Clinton/Troopergate/Paula Jones (who's pictured at left), according to the report.) [Photo & Caption]
?( In the Jones case, sexual harassment of an employee was an undercurrent given much less attention than the similar allegations against then-nominee to the Supreme Court Clarence Thomas.) [Photo & Caption]


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