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Media Walk Tightrope on Clinton Coverage

Fourth Estate: Tonight's State of the Union address will provide the ultimate test for news organizations--can they achieve balance?


NEW YORK — President Clinton's State of the Union address tonight looms as a test of the competitive and ethical challenges for the nation's media. News teams are caught between salacious charges that make for spectacular TV news and tabloid headlines versus the weightier subjects facing the American people.

Most outlets are trying to have both.

"Unless things change, we are not going to use the occasion of the president walking through the halls of Congress to recap lurid details" of the allegations, said Frank Sesno, CNN vice president and Washington bureau chief.

In fact, CNN will recap those details in the hour before the speech, the network announced Monday, in a program called "Investigating the President."

Broadcast executives for other networks said that the story is moving so quickly that it is virtually impossible to predict a day in advance what their State of the Union coverage will be. Still, they will cover the speech, they promised.

"This is the president's State of the Union address on important issues facing the country," said ABC News President David Westin. "At the same time, the American people would find it fairly ludicrous if we covered the State of the Union address without discussing the news of the day."

"This isn't as bizarre as when the O.J. Simpson civil verdict was coming down at the same time as the last State of the Union," said CBS executive producer Lane Venardos. "But it is up there on the bizarre scale."

Broadcast network executives said they will stick with their original plans for coverage of the address, 6-8 p.m. PST, which will include the president's address in the House chamber and the Republican response by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi. Following will be the traditional analyses that this year will include critics who are well-versed on details of the sexual allegations against the president.

ABC-TV will feature former Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos, who has already called for his former boss's resignation if the allegations against him are true. NBC News will include Clinton biographer David Maraniss and Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff.

What this means is that even though Clinton is not expected to mention the allegations, the media will probably put his speech in the political context of last week's charges and countercharges.

The focus on Monday was on the president's angry denial of allegations--contained in tape-recorded conversations between former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky and a friend--that Lewinsky had sexual relations with Clinton.

At the same time, the White House began complaining to networks that charges against the president are being reported before the White House has a chance to respond.

"The White House came down on me like a ton of bricks," said CNN White House correspondent Wolf Blitzer, who reported that some of Clinton's advisors and aides had begun to discuss the possibility of the president's resignation.

Blitzer told the White House critics that his report was accurate and that he had included a Clinton spokesman denying it.

Some Clinton advisors were also particularly upset about an ABC News report that other news organizations had treated much more skeptically. The report by Jackie Judd on ABC's "This Week" said, in part, that "several sources have told us that in the spring of 1996, the president and Lewinsky were caught in an intimate encounter in a private area of the White House."

After complaints from Clinton aides, Judd later reported on ABC's "World News Sunday" that "several sources have told ABC News that [independent counsel Kennneth W.] Starr is investigating claims that, in the spring of 1996, the president and Lewinsky were discovered in an intimate encounter."

ABC's Westin said the original report was "accurate as written," but he said that the news organization wanted to make it clear that it is a charge that the independent counsel is investigating.

The White House issued a statement Sunday that former Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta and former Deputy Chief of Staff Evelyn Lieberman, who were on duty at the time, said they were never told of such an incident.

The New York Post, which has long given its biggest headlines to any bad news about Clinton, did not seem to be worried about the niceties. Their front page headline on Monday's paper was "Caught in the Act."

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