Did Reporters Let Their Feelings Affect Coverage? : Journalism: Resentment over White House treatment led to overblown and hostile stories about Clinton.
When 86 people died after a federal assault on David Koresh’s Branch Davidian complex near Waco, Tex., in April, some in the media quickly blamed President Clinton.
“As Waco Crisis Ends, Clinton’s Leadership Comes Under Scrutiny,” said the lead headline in the Wall Street Journal the next day.
But the day after that, a USA Today poll showed that most Americans did not blame Clinton; the story was published under the headline: “93% blame Koresh.”
Eleanor Clift, White House correspondent for Newsweek, says she remembers thinking: “The other 7% are in the White House pressroom.”
Why were the media so eager to blame Clinton?
Some reporters say it is because many of their colleagues were angry over the way he and his staff had treated them.
What? Aren’t reporters supposed to scrupulously avoid letting their personal feelings unfairly influence their stories?
Yes. And most do. Most of the time.
But the “overall tone of the press coverage (of Clinton) was about 30% more negative than it needed to be because of the animosity that was felt toward Clinton and the people around him,” Clift says. “The level of hostility in the pressroom, I think, was extraordinary.”
Clift is not alone in that view.
George Condon of the Copley News Service, president of the White House Correspondents Assn., told the Wall Street Journal earlier this year: “A press corps that has been avoided and ignored and treated in a way that is Nixonian is not going to cut the President any breaks.”
Paul Richter, White House correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, says treatment of the media by a President and his staff “really does affect the coverage.”
One explanation is that, despite some speculation to the contrary, reporters are human--and it is human, if not necessarily admirable, to be hostile toward someone who seems hostile to you.
It is equally true that the first syllable of “media” is ME, and there is widespread evidence that the growing clout and visibility of the White House press corps have given these journalists an exaggerated sense of their own importance.
Paul Friedman, executive vice president of ABC News, finds the self-importance of the Washington press corps “amazing.”
James Carville, who managed the Clinton campaign, says: “These (media) people think that they are the world. . . . It is the most masturbatory of all professions.”
It is a measure of journalists’ self-importance that when George Stephanopoulos was shifted from White House communications director to full-time presidential adviser in May, the move was portrayed in the media as a demotion; some reporters began referring to him as “George Stuffin’ Envelopes.”
Only the Washington press corps are so solipsistic that they would regard a shift from spending most of one’s time with the press to spending all one’s time with the President as a demotion, says Paul Begala, political adviser to the President.
But many longtime White House reporters seemed to resent the sudden coming to power of so many young people around Clinton, and Stephanopoulos--extremely bright but thoroughly miscast as the President’s press spokesman--bore the brunt of that resentment.
Some White House reporters seemed committed to proving that they were smarter than he was and knew more about the White House than he did.
When the Administration called in the FBI in the firing of the White House travel office staff in May, Brit Hume, White House correspondent for ABC News says: “I remember thinking to myself at the time, ‘My God, after Watergate, how could anybody make this mistake?’ And then I realized, well, when Watergate happened, George Stephanopoulos was 12 years old.”
Hostile coverage of Clinton may have been driven in part by the same sense of self-importance that led some in the media to misinterpret Stephanopoulos’ move.
Why, for example, was there so much unfavorable coverage of the essentially harmless phenomenon of the President inviting several Hollywood stars to the White House? “Nightline” did a story on Clinton’s relationship with Hollywood. So did CBS News--morning and evening. The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal all put Clinton-Hollywood stories on Page 1.
Writing in Time magazine in May, Kurt Anderson suggested that the media were so critical of Clinton and his Hollywood friends because journalists were “envious of the show business clique for supplanting them as the coolest people in town.”
The self-importance of the press was even more noticeable in coverage of two of the most controversial incidents of Clinton’s first six months--his “$200 haircut” and the dismissal of the White House travel staff.
Most in the media insist that the haircut and travel office firings were legitimate stories. But many say that both were blown out of proportion because of the media’s direct involvement--and because of resentment over previous slights by the Clinton White House.
In fact, Albert Hunt, executive Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal, argues that the major flaw in early media coverage was the failure of reporters and commentators to differentiate between Clinton’s problems on truly serious issues such as the economy and relatively minor incidents such as the haircut and travel office.
The media were particularly zealous on the travel office story.
The travel office staff were longtime government employees who had served through many administrations, Republican and Democrat, coordinating arrangements for the press corps and for the White House staff who accompanied them on presidential trips. (News organizations paid the reporters’ expenses.)
On May 19, Dee Dee Myers, White House press secretary, announced the firing of all seven travel staffers for gross financial mismanagement and said the FBI was being asked to investigate.
The press corps erupted in outrage. They shouted questions and charges, demanded explanations, described the firings as a massacre and accused the White House of cronyism, nepotism, McCarthyism and every other pejorative -ism that came to their perfervid minds.
At one briefing, they asked 169 questions about the travel office firings. Neither Bosnia nor the President’s deficit-reduction package, both major news stories at the time, received a fraction of that attention that day.
Six times, the travel office story made Page 1 of the Washington Post. Four times each, it made the front pages of the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune.
Did the average reader really care that the White House had fired the people who made airplane and hotel reservations for the White House press corps?
Probably not. In fact, Ann Devroy and Ruth Marcus, White House correspondents for the Post, described the firings as “relatively trivial” in a story published 18 days later; by then the Post had run nearly 20 news stories, editorials and commentaries on the subject.
But Myers and her colleagues had not understood the close, long-term relationship between the travel office and press corps.
The travel office smoothed the way for reporters traveling with the President--not only making reservations but arranging for hot meals, communications and overnight laundry service, finding missing baggage, doing the 1,001 small chores that can make the difference between an enjoyable trip and a disastrous one.
There are even tales--vigorously denied by all sides--of such special favors as airline and hotel upgrades and help in circumventing customs regulations.
As the story unfolded, it got uglier: The internal examination that had led to the firings was prompted in part by inquiries by a Hollywood friend of the President’s on behalf of charter operators he knew who wanted to bid on the travel office business--and a distant cousin of the President’s would now run the travel office.
Even the fiercest defenders of the travel office staff concede that the employees were probably guilty of sloppy record-keeping and poor management of petty cash. But reporters were enraged by the way in which the affair was handled--by the implications of cronyism, by the use of the FBI, by the dismissal and defamation of some employees who never even handled money, and by the failure to give some of the employees notice of the charges against them before they were fired.
A subsequent review by the White House conceded: “Irrespective of the financial mismanagement of the travel office, the White House erred in its handling of the incident in several respects.” The review went on to cite virtually all the complaints the press had made.
But Hunt of the Journal does not believe that the press did a good job of reporting that “we had certain conflicts (of interest) in that story. One has to think that part of the original outrage can be attributed to the fact that this was an office that did a lot for the press.”
Helen Thomas of United Press International, one of the leading critics of the travel office ousters, denies that she and her colleagues were motivated by personal feelings for the travel staff.
“We felt that they were human beings, who had given a lot to public service, long careers here, and (they were) . . . thrown out under a cloud . . . ,” she says.
Others in the press corps disagree. John King, White House correspondent for the Associated Press, says some reporters had such close relationships with travel office staffers--and were so angry about their dismissals--that they should have taken themselves off the story.
Although many reporters were able to set aside their personal feelings, several did not, King says. One reporter screamed at him in the White House pressroom and accused him of being unfair simply for reporting that the White House had called in the FBI.
The story might not have exploded if White House press aides had better relations with the media--or if they had not closed off the upstairs press office so grumbling reporters could have come by to serve as an early warning system on the revolt brewing in the pressroom. But the door was closed, the relationship was already hostile and the failure of aides to recognize the bond between the travel office and press corps was “the best indication of how out of touch” the aides were, says Michael Duffy, White House correspondent for Time magazine.
Newsweek headlined its story on reporters’ reaction to the ousters “Don’t Mess With the Media: The White House Press Corps Gets Its Revenge.”
Clinton paid for having offended the White House reporters over the travel office firings again when news broke on his now-infamous haircut aboard Air Force One at Los Angeles International Airport.
“There was a clear sense of retribution” in the media’s “appalling” coverage of the haircut, says Mark Miller of Newsweek, a sense that the media were “pissed off.”
The networks covered the haircut, and it was Page 1 news in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe and Dallas Morning News, among many others.
Because Clinton had reportedly paid $200 for a haircut by a Hollywood stylist with one name--and because he had allegedly inconvenienced many people at LAX whose flights were delayed.
All this, said the Los Angeles Times in its Page 1 story, raised questions about “whether President Clinton is living up to his carefully groomed image as a regular kind of guy.”
Although Clinton insisted that he had been assured he was not delaying other flights, John McLaughlin, host of television’s “The McLaughlin Group,” told his viewers that the haircut had tied up “ground and air traffic, putting as many as 37 planes in a holding pattern.”
Six weeks later, Newsday used the Freedom of Information Act to acquire Federal Aviation Administration records that showed no planes had been forced to circle the airport, no runways had been backed up--and only one plane was delayed . . . for two minutes.
Newsday, USA Today and the Houston Chronicle gave that corrective story prominent attention. Virtually every other news organization in the country either ignored it or buried it. The Los Angeles Times published five paragraphs, in the local news roundup on Page 2 of the Metro section. The Washington Post ran one paragraph. The New York Times, which had editorialized about “the haircut that tied up two runways,” ran not a word. The three major network evening news shows were equally silent.
The AP’s King believes that the haircut incident ignited the anger that had been building among reporters over the Administration’s treatment of them and especially over the travel office ousters.
Resentment grew, “whether it was conscious or subconscious,” King says, “so when people had a legitimate reason to kick him as a buffoon, they went overboard.”
This resentment was compounded, he says, by the “spoiled” nature of the White House press corps.
Yes, it was “stupid” of Clinton to get that haircut, just as it was wrong of the White House to fire the travel office staff in the manner they did. But King does not believe that the haircut story was “quite the national issue it became.”
Many others in the media agree, and David Shribman, Washington bureau chief for the Boston Globe, says reporters should guard against interpreting events that inconvenience them as suggesting that “the President’s screwing up.”
“Reporters get upset that they have to sit around an airport,” waiting for a politician who is late, “and we think that shows bad organization,” Shribman says. “What we really mean is that we’re impatient ourselves and that it’s a personal inconvenience. Reporters do that too much.”
King says that contributed to media reaction to the Clinton haircut:
“I think a lot of people were mad because their lives got disrupted.”
King says he was on the plane at the time of the haircut and he heard “a bunch of reporters whining that we were sitting on the Tarmac, which meant we were going to get home a little later for dinner.”
“We should be accountants if we’re worried about making it home for dinner,” he says.
But David Gergen understands a reporter’s desire to be home for dinner after a long day--or several days--on the road. Gergen, who in May became White House communications czar and a senior adviser to the President, understands a lot about reporters--especially Washington reporters. He is convinced that the strained relations between the White House and press corps, as exemplified by coverage of the haircut and travel office controversies, “contributed to the negativity of the coverage” of the Clinton Administration.
Better relations would not have “turned around” the Clinton coverage, says Time’s Duffy, but Clinton should have realized, as President George Bush did, that “you buy yourself 10% or . . . some kind of margin” by being nicer and more attentive to the media.
Certainly it is no coincidence that media coverage of the President began to improve dramatically after he brought Gergen aboard.
A longtime Washington insider, Gergen was editor at large for U.S. News & World Report and a regular commentator on the “MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” when he was selected by Clinton. Before that he had been communications director for Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. In the Clinton White House, Gergen immediately began courting reporters, setting up private lunches, dinners and quickie interviews for them with the President.
“What’s going on is about as subtle as an avalanche,” Jeff Greenfield, political and media analyst for ABC News, said on “Nightline” a month after Gergen’s appointment. “The press corps’ ego is being stroked.”
(A personal example of the Gergen treatment: I interviewed Gergen for this series in July; on Thursday, he called me “from the White House” to say he had been reading my “rather extraordinary series. . . . I’m sure you’ve been working on it for months. Very impressive work. . . . I just wondered if you wanted to chat. I don’t know whether I can be of any help before you finish or not but. . . .”)
As Maynard Parker, the editor of Newsweek, puts it: “There’s no question that in Washington, the press--and particularly the big mules of the press, particularly the White House press corps--want to be catered to.”
A longtime big mule himself, Gergen understands that.
Some of the ego-stroking events were in the works before Gergen came aboard. But he changed the tone of White House dealings with the press from acrimony to accommodation almost overnight--starting with his decision to reopen the door to the upstairs press office.
He also switched the scheduled time of the daily White House press briefing from 12:30 p.m. (which often interfered with reporters’ lunches) to 11:30 a.m. (although in keeping with the Administration’s now-mythic disdain for punctuality, the briefings seldom begin then).
“On the whole, what reporters respond to is attention and information,” says Time’s Duffy, so Gergen has not only courted them, he has buried them in information. Having complained of too few White House briefings, the media have been briefed so often under Gergen that at the G7 economic summit in Tokyo, reporters were “screaming for mercy,” says R.W. Apple, Washington bureau chief for the New York Times.
Three weeks after Gergen was appointed, so many commentators wrote favorably of Clinton that USA Today published a roundup of “What people are saying about a Clinton ‘comeback.’ ”
“What does it say about us, about the depth of our independent judgments, that all it takes to turn us around on the President of the United States is for one paid public relations specialist to be nice to us?” asks Ronald J. Ostrow, who covers the Justice Department for the Los Angeles Times.
Gergen does not deserve all the credit for the turnaround in Clinton’s coverage. There is an inevitable pendulum swing to journalism, and Clinton was “overdue for the pendulum to swing back” in his favor when Gergen came aboard, says Adam Nagourney, who covers the President for USA Today.
Moreover, some journalists may have felt they had been unfair--or at least premature--in judging Clinton so harshly.
“The press wanted to pull back,” Gergen says. “I think people felt . . . a very great hesitancy about . . . endangering the institution. . . . My instinct was that at the end of 150 days or so, there was a sense in the press: ‘We don’t want to be responsible for Bill Clinton going over the side of a cliff.’
“But the White House had to make it possible” for the media to pull back, Gergen says. “The performance within the White House had to improve. End the mistakes. Get some victories. Show a greater sense of command and drive. . . . And be nicer to the press.”
Apple says it was the improvement itself--the victories--not any decision on the part of the media to avoid jeopardizing the presidency or to correct for having been too critical that led to more favorable coverage of Clinton.
“I wrote . . . a notably upbeat story from (the G7 economic summit in) Tokyo because I thought, and my European and Japanese colleagues and contacts thought, that he did very well in Tokyo,” Apple says.
Others in the media make similar points. Just as the largely negative early coverage of Clinton was to some degree an inevitable response to his many stumbles, they say, so his more positive coverage of late is to some degree an equally inevitable response to a series of Clinton triumphs: Congressional passage of his deficit-reduction package, his national service program and his legislation reforming campaign finance laws. The selection of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the U.S. Supreme Court. His impressive performance at the Tokyo summit.
Many in the press, eager to minimize their power when they come under criticism, insist that what they say about the President is of only marginal significance.
“He got elected because people thought he would give them a better deal economically and the subset of that was health (care),” Apple says. “If he delivers, the rest of it won’t matter much.”
“The coverage in the end is going to follow substance,” he says.
Besides, Clinton has always been a fast study; both he and his staff learned--and improved--on the job.
But media perceptions are important.
When Clinton took office in January, 64% of the American people held a favorable impression of him, according to a Los Angeles Times poll. But increasingly negative coverage accompanied the symbolic 100-day mark of his Administration in late April and his poll ratings dropped precipitously.
By early June, a USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll showed only 37% of the public approved of how he was doing his job.
Did Clinton fall in the polls because he had performed so poorly? Or did he fall because the media said he had performed poorly?
Media coverage of Clinton “tends to drive the polls,” says Nagourney of USA Today. “When you have a spate of negative stories or piling-on stories, which you had, you usually see within two weeks (that it’s) reflected in the polls.”
Nagourney believes that may contribute to a cycle of negativity. Reporters who wrote that Clinton was not doing a good job may have seen his subsequent fall in the public opinion polls as “some sort of validation,” which may have led to another round of negative stories, which . . .
Robert Lichter, co-director of the Washington-based Center for Media and Public Affairs, is convinced that news coverage frequently drives public opinion polls, and his findings of negative Clinton coverage followed by negative poll results early in the Clinton Administration seem to confirm that.
But negative coverage not only sours the public, it emboldens congressional opponents, weakens congressional supporters and may even prompt a president to compromise or retreat--do almost anything, in fact, to win something and stem the critical tide.
Jacci Cenacveira and Peter Johnson in The Times editorial library assisted with the research for this series.
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