The Media’s Obsession
It was the night when two of our embassies in East Africa had been bombed. Hundreds were dead, thousands more injured. For one single 30-minute segment, NBC Nightly News did not mention Monica or the presidential sex scandal. After hoping for weeks to hear some other focus in the news, as I watched that half-hour report I sadly thought of the saying: Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.
The next night the scandal was back.
Ten days later, after appearing before a federal grand jury, Clinton addressed the nation for four minutes that Monday night. His few comments were immediately attacked, dissected by the media as too little, too defensive. He was criticized because he didn’t say the word "apologize." How dare he attack Ken Starr, they huffed. Junior-high fashion, they wanted to know if he was wearing a special tie to signal Monica. How tasteless, they said, for the president to explain that his motivation to conceal an inappropriate relationship was to protect himself and his family from personal embarrassment! He had not been sufficiently contrite, commentators scoffed. Straight-faced reporters said that Monica was miffed.
Then, the following Thursday morning, the voice of Katie Couric on the NBC Today Show was somber. The "national obsession" with the Monica Lewinsky scandal had been "shattered," she said, by the U.S. missile strikes on Sudan and Afghanistan. The strikes on a Sudanese factory and an Afghanistan training camp, she reported, had been called by President Clinton in response to the terrorist bombings two weeks before.
Before the dust had even settled, reporters were honing in on Clinton’s motives. Had he ordered the action two days after his embarrassing confession on national television, and on the very day Monica was again testifying before a federal grand jury, to deflect attention from Ken Starr’s investigation? Were the air strikes a technique copied from the movie "Wag the Dog," in which a fake war is started by a president to divert attention from a brewing sex scandal? The author of the book on which the movie was based said he was surprised by the timing of the strikes—he had expected them the day of Clinton’s testimony. A skeptical reporter even asked Defense Secretary William Cohen if he had seen actual military footage of the actions. Was this indeed a real event?
That news conference was a troubling sight to see.
At the core of this very disturbing phenomenon is the fact that Katie Couric was wrong.
The whole sex scandal involving Monica and Bill was and is not a "national obsession." It is a media obsession. And it has been for the last seven months despite repeated polls, which reporters announce with great astonishment, that declare the American public couldn’t care less.
Sure, I’m finally convinced that Bill Clinton is a sleaze-bag of a husband. But that hardly justifies the media’s incredibly obscene distortions of the historical importance of the situation. Why is this whole mess "the biggest crisis in Bill Clinton’s presidency"? Apparently because the media says it is.
You understand, of course, that from the perspective of the national media, the scandal was both safe news and their big chance. The one story the press likes best is when somebody big falls. A whole new cadre of reporters want their turn to cover an impeachment, to be part of history. Add rumors of raw titillating sex, and there’s no way they could lose. The media smelled raw meat, and they pounced like a pack of wolves, throwing their professional integrity to the wind. Unnamed sources, they assured us, were "reliable," despite the repeated retractions, particularly early-on in the investigation. (It appears many of them may have been complicit in Ken Starr’s illegal release of grand jury information.) With Bill Clinton the ultimate public figure, there was no risk of being sued for libel. No matter to them that the evening news and the daily paper had to be X-rated, and people were turning away in disgust.
A presidential sex scandal is an adrenaline rush, but also safe. It was not at all like if they tried to do real investigative pieces on real issues—the health care crisis, the failure of our schools, the ruining of our environment by chemicals that are killing us or messing with our gene pool. That kind of thing would be riskier than a banana peel on a slippery slope, as well as not cost effective. Advertisers, or corporate bosses, would not like it. People could get fired for doing their jobs too well.
After all, they rationalize, it’s only politics. Nobody died.
But did nobody die? Does the Washington news media really think that all their scandal bombs have political fallout only on Capitol Hill? Can they disavow any connection between their news reporting and the decision by terrorists to blow up our East African embassies, where people did die?
All indications point to the bombings having been carried out by religious fundamentalists. In Afghanistan, one of the targets for our retaliatory missile strikes, the ruling Taliban have banned women from work and schools, and have ordered them covered head to toe when in public. We heard reports that Osama bin Laden and his compatriots use sophisticated internet and other communications links. They knew what our national broadcasts were saying about Clinton. I suspect that some of them had even seen "Wag the Dog."
The minds of macho military men on a holy mission are frightening to contemplate.
From here of course, the entire Washington press corps now looks completely ridiculous, without any shred of credibility left.
Unfortunately, people on the other side of the world don’t necessarily see it the same way. They watch, fascinated as President Clinton is disgraced, scorned, and denigrated by the national media, night after night. His detractors are many and line up to comment, his supporters are dismissed out of hand. Sunday after Sunday, on all the political talk shows, this goes on. What did they think of all the alleged sordid details being incessantly recounted in public, and of our documented national boredom by it all? Was it just more proof of a decadent and evil America?
I think it is more than just possible that bin Laden and his cohorts took all those news reports at face value. I think they sincerely believed what they were hearing—that Clinton was in crisis, was ruined, would resign or be run out of office for his sins. They had to kick him—and us—while we were down. It was the perfect opportunity.
What better time to bomb embassies? Clinton would be taken by surprise. He would be confused about what to do. He wouldn’t dare retaliate, either because he was now so weak (all the news reports said so) or because powerful reporters would accuse him of copying foreign policy out of the plot of a Hollywood movie, further discrediting his decision-making abilities.
Katie Couric seemed genuinely surprised and sobered by the sudden change in the national story. The bubble had burst. Slick Willie was not staying in his media-made box. President Clinton was acting like Commander-In-Chief, taking charge, doing Presidential things. The American public was being supportive. And there wasn’t a damn thing anyone in the media could do about it.
Yet notice that even in her opening words, she linked the very real missile strikes on real targets in response to hundreds of real deaths in Africa with the contrived Washington sex scandal.
The failure of the Washington media to responsibly do their jobs is not a new phenomenon. Couric and her kind have been players in this game for a long time. Silly on its face, it is a deadly contest of wits, with very serious consequences. The hundreds of people who lost their lives in the two embassy blasts are only some of the victims.
A friend of the Clintons struck the nail on the head a few years ago when he wrote of Washington, "Here ruining people is considered sport."
Sound familiar? That is a line from what is purported to be Vincent Foster’s suicide note.
© March 1998 by Jean Hay, Bangor, Maine.