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THE STARR REPORT

For TV News, Report Presented a Quandary

Media: Anchors, correspondents had to deal instantly with document while deciding on appropriateness.

September 12, 1998|GREG BRAXTON and BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Television's big-gun anchors and top political correspondents found themselves locked in an extremely competitive and sensitive race Friday, wrestling with the need to provide instant analysis of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report on President Clinton while grappling with explicit sexual details that might otherwise be deemed unsuitable for air.

Without time to process details or determine what was appropriate for telecast, senior White House correspondents wound up instantly reading excerpts of the 445-page report to viewers.

In a sign of the changing times, some of them read from printed copies while others relied on the Internet, where the document was posted by the House of Representatives.

Some reporters and anchors edited their reports as they went along, while others were more explicit in discussing the alleged sexual acts between the president and former intern Monica S. Lewinsky, warning viewers to tune out if they didn't want to hear the intimate and sordid details.

CBS-TV news correspondent Bob Schieffer, who discussed the president and Lewinsky engaging in "a sex act of a kind," appeared uncomfortable with the material, editing himself as he went through the bulky report. ABC-TV news anchor Peter Jennings mentioned the Starr report's graphic descriptions, "which we will not deal with in any specific way on television." CBS-TV anchor Dan Rather noted that the report contained "lurid details," adding, "We have had to speak euphemistically in some cases."

On the other hand, CNN correspondent Candy Crawford, reporting live in front of an office computer, read excerpts off the Internet that detailed the sex acts, warning viewers that the content was explicit. As she read, portions of the report were shown on the screen in close-up, including details of fondling and of a sex act allegedly involving a cigar.

CNN, Fox News Channel and the networks also posted the uncensored version of the Starr report on their respective Web sites, as did numerous other news outlets.

Steve Haworth, senior CNN spokesman, said that dealing with the sexual material "made it extremely difficult in terms of live news. We would normally relish a day like this, but having to make wise judgments in a case like this is awfully hard."

Added John Moody, vice president of news editorial for the Fox News Channel: "Technology is so fast-moving now that the only part missing is the human element, the thoughtfulness. The mind can't work as fast as a computer."

He said that detailing the sexual specifics of the alleged affair was irresponsible for any news organization.

"Despite what some may think about the news media, we still have standards," Moody said. "I've been a news executive for 23 years, but I'm also a father. We've all heard the concerns of viewers, saying, 'My kids are asking about oral sex.' You can't censor the news, but we can make sure we are getting the information across without brazenly offending people."

Other networks also said they believed they could tell the story without delving into its content with excessive specificity.

"We're trying to balance our responsibility to keep the viewers informed with our responsibility to broadcast in good taste," said Bill Wheatley, a vice president at NBC-TV News. Wheatley said in broadcasting salacious material executives tried to take into account that information "must be relevant to the question of whether the president committed what might be considered an impeachable offense."

In fact, network representatives said they were conscious of the fact that those people seeking greater detail from the report could find that information on the Internet or in newspapers.

William J. Drummond, a journalism professor at UC Berkeley, has monitored reporting of the Lewinsky story for the past several months and sees it as a low point in modern journalism.

Of Friday's TV coverage, he said, "In the incredible rush to get everything out there and beat the Internet, they were reduced to this ludicrous job of trying to read text. There's no evaluation, there's no context."

After the report's release, some TV reporters did stress that its contents contained accusations against the president that offered no rebuttal. CBS-TV correspondent Phil Jones pointed out that this was largely Lewinsky's story without cross-examination, adding, "It right now is 'She said.' "

NBC-TV preempted most of its daytime schedule while ABC-TV and CBS-TV preempted some programming before resuming regular scheduling in the afternoon on the West Coast. All the networks planned special broadcasts Friday night.

In a bit of a coup for a fledgling news operation, the Fox News Channel was first to broadcast the report summary, a little after 11 a.m. PDT, beating other networks by a few minutes.

Although some speculated that the report may have been leaked to Fox early because of a perceived pro-Republican bias and its hiring of cyberspace "bad boy" Matt Drudge, executives said that breaking the news first was good journalism.

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