Presswatch

Monica Media

By From the November 1998 issue

Send to Kindle

Out of the mouth of a babe: a shrewd insight into the media. Monica Lewinsky said she wanted to be an assistant producer in TV, or an assistant account executive in PR, or else do "anything at George magazine." The "wish list" she gave Vernon Jordan made no distinctions. Monica had decided that what qualified her for the one job qualified her for either of the others, and she wanted to enjoy a "comfortable living" in New York. As it happened, Jordan never quite came through for her, although there was nothing wrong with her appraisal. If she could make it in PR, she could make it in TV, and if that didn't work, she could always try a glossy magazine. Obviously she had learned a thing or two in the White House. She knew the difference between the press and the media.

The press has covered the scandal, and, faux critics like Steven Brill aside, it has covered it remarkably well. The Dallas Morning News once reported that a Secret Service agent had seen Clinton and Lewinsky in a compromising situation, but it retracted the story almost immediately, and other than that it is hard to recall a serious factual mistake. Some 140 newspapers have called for Bill Clinton's resignation. Meanwhile Effi Barry, Marion Barry's ex, tells Oprah Winfrey that Hillary Clinton should "wrap herself in God," and Mario Cuomo tells Larry King that Ken Starr's perjury case against Bill Clinton depends on "hypertechnicality" and "exquisite legal technicality." Mrs. Barry seemed real, and Cuomo did not, but whatever their appearance, they were brought to us not by the press but the media. The press reports, but the media obfuscates, and it is both playground and battleground for anyone who wants to talk about Clinton. Democrats are more at home there than Republicans, and on any given day they will tell you which way the wind blows, even if it blows only in very small places.

Think of public television's "Charlie Rose," for example, as a reliable guide to enlightened thinking between East 59th and East 79th Streets in Manhattan. Charlie and his guests seem to have attended the same dinner parties, and it shows in their conversations. The tone is earnest, and the mood is en famille. It's perfectly awful for them to have to talk about sex in the White House, but somebody's got to do it. Also, they can never tell who else might be listening. The day the Judiciary Committee made public Starr's referral to Congress, the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman spoke to Charlie from Washington, and told him that Clinton was "a great and effective leader." The whole country should rally round him, Wogaman declared, "in love and caring and forgiveness." Then Wogaman said he was "a little appalled" by the extensive television coverage of Starr's report. He also said he was "a little surprised" that Starr did not "give the White House the courtesy of an advance look" at the report so it could respond to it "in the same news cycle."

Wogaman, of course, is the very model of a certain kind of modern minister. The Social Gospel, sixties politics, and savvy about news cycles all meet. Still, his praise for Clinton did seem excessive. After all, Clinton was not only a "great and effective leader," he was also "an extraordinary, effective leader," and if Wogaman had thrown in an "our dear leader" he might have been talking about Kim Il Sung. Whatever had possessed him? It may be the New York Times offered an explanation when it reported a few days later that Wogaman would be the new member of the three-minister team that would now counsel Clinton. Had someone at the White House watched him that night on television? His performance might have been an audition.

Another guest that night was Harvard Law School's Laurence Tribe. He told Charlie right off that while he thought of himself as having been "openminded" about what Starr's report might prove, he now had read most of it, and found himself "very underwhelmed." Then he called Starr's charges "baloney." Ten days later, when the videotape of Clinton's grand jury testimony was released, Tribe was back again. This time he told Charlie that Starr and his prosecutors had looked like "a bunch of piranhas," and that whatever Clinton's failures, Richard Nixon's had been much worse. This was standard stuff with no surprises, but then Charlie talked to Evan Thomas of Newsweek. Thomas seemed very grumpy. Newsweek had come out the day before with a story by Thomas and Michael Isikoff that said Clinton would look bad on the videotape. "The president was an angry, evasive witness," they wrote. "He ducks and dodges and at times turns purple with rage."

Charlie did not mention the Newsweek story, of course—that would have been unkind—but he did ask Thomas how he thought Clinton had looked on the videotape.  Thomas said he had looked better than anyone expected. "I say that," he said, "because we expected to see him fall apart before our very eyes."

Then Charlie wanted to know why we expected it. "Who set the bar that way?" he asked. "Leaks set the bar that way or what?"

"Absolutely," Thomas replied. "I think that leaks from the prosecutors' side, and also the general fevered atmosphere. I mean Washington is — it's, you know, Salem in the 17th century. It's in a— it wants to burn some witches.... And I think that that alone set the bar, plus leaks from the prosecutor."

Charlie agreed, and said the prosecutor obviously had made a mistake. "Right," Thomas said. "Classic political mistake, to ever—to inflate expectations."

A minute or two later, Charlie and Thomas agreed again. Journalism—"the profession that you and I care most deeply about," Charlie said—was suffering grave damage to its reputation. Apparently it was being perceived by the public as unfair in its reporting on Clinton. Then Mort Zuckerman, who had joined the conversation, said he was worried about journalism, too. You get a feeling, he said, that some journalists "were no longer acting as reporters, but acting as editorialists." They were "grabbing the American public by the lapel, and telling them, `Hey, this is what you ought to think because we think this way.'" Mort, who made a lot of money in real estate, and then bought U.S. News & World Report and the New York Daily News, said there was "a huge gap between the chattering classes and the American public." He seemed to think he was not a member of the chattering classes, and neither was Charlie or Evan Thomas.

But that wasn't true. Anyone who natters on with Charlie, especially on a first-name basis, obviously belongs to the chattering classes; and the suggestion that the chattering classes are unfair to Clinton wasn't true, either. The chattering classes are happier with Clinton than they are with Starr, and the ongoing nattering proves it. Starr and his people are piranhas. The witch hunt atmosphere is all their fault. Evan Thomas gets the sulks, and then blames Starr for having misled him and everyone else about how Clinton had looked on the videotape. Bob Schieffer seems to have been misled worse than anyone. Newsweek might have had Clinton evasive and purple with rage, but Schieffer had reported on CBS that when Clinton appeared before the grand jury he "was not just evasive, but profane, at times lost his temper, and at one point stormed out of the room." Schieffer said he had learned that from "our sources."

But it wasn't that way at all, of course. Clinton had used the videotaped testimony to his advantage. He lied, equivocated, and pretended to loss of memory, but he did not turn purple or storm from the room, and the news reports that he had done so worked in his favor. The country had been disarmed in advance. The press had told it to expect the worst, but instead it saw the same old Clinton. An embarrassed Schieffer manfully admitted then that he had relied on a Democratic source for his inaccurate characterization.

On the other hand, Evan Thomas told Charlie there had been "leaks from the prosecutor's side," and that they had been "a classic political mistake" — they had raised the expectation of seeing an out-of-control Clinton. That seemed to be in conflict with Schieffer's admission about a Democratic source, but who knows? The only unassailable fact was that the press had been had. It had slipped over from journalism, and acted more like media. It had helped shield a president guilty of morally disgusting behavior from having to face the appropriate consequences.

Battle lines are forming now over this, and strange voices are being heard. Most have access to the media, and indeed some of them are the media. Nobel laureate Toni Morrison writes a bizarre piece in the New Yorker that says Clinton is "our first black president," and insists that "feral Republicans" want to snuff him out. She says his "unpoliced sexuality becomes the focus of persecution." Jack Lang, once the French minister of culture, assembles a group of leftist artists and intellectuals, fading movie stars, and various other international hangers-on. More or less they are the same people who once called for a nuclear freeze, or wanted to stop the deployment of Pershing missiles, but now they want to save Clinton from censure or impeachment. Their close soulmates are found in Hollywood. The same story in which the Washington Post reported that DreamWorks still stood with Clinton also quoted one Haim Saban, an executive at the Fox network, who said, "I think Ken Starr should be tried for treason." That may have been an unexceptionable thought by Hollywood standards, but Saban is the head of children's programming, and you may find in his remark an unwanted moral obtuseness.

But back now to Monica's insight: the difference between press and media. The White House insisted it could not make an appropriate response when the Starr report was released because it did not know what the report contained. Wogaman even brought this up with Charlie. But as Candy Crowley, CNN's congressional correspondent, reported that same night, "Nobody knew what was in this report better than the White House." In other words, the White House had lied. Two days later, David Kendall appeared on ABC's "This Week," and argued, among other things, that Starr had stuffed the report with intimate details only to embarrass Clinton. The next day, however, the Washington Post's David Broder wrote that after watching Kendall "smugly and condescendingly twisting words and denying reality, I can understand what drove Starr to dump every bit of trash he had collected onto the president's head."

The White House had attacked through the media; the rebuttal had come in the press. Monica had known the difference instinctively.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

John Corry is a former New York Times media critic and reporter.