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Did Reporters Let Their Feelings Affect Coverage? : Journalism: Resentment over White House treatment led to overblown and hostile stories about Clinton.

COVERING CLINTON: Did Media Rush to Judgment or Merely Reflect Reality? Last in a three-part series

September 17, 1993|DAVID SHAW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

Why?

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.

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