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Pattern of protection

National | Study reveals the media's role in Clinton's 1992 election

Issue: "Disorder in the Court," June 8, 1996

Despite the guaranteed uncertainty of the remaining six months of the 1996 campaign, we can expect that one issue will not dominate the agenda: the media's power, and the way it's been exercised in election years.

Four years ago, reporters publicly admitted their pro-Clinton bias in a post-campaign survey of 250 reporters and media executives conducted by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press: "A substantial majority (55 percent) of the American journalists who followed the 1992 presidential campaign believe that George Bush's candidacy was damaged by the way the press covered him. Only 11 percent feel that Gov. Bill Clinton's campaign was harmed by the way the press covered his drive." Interestingly, that didn't mean reporters felt coverage was unfair. In fact, 80 percent graded election coverage as good or excellent in the survey. Damaging Bush and aiding Clinton weren't just politically satisfying, but journalistically virtuous.

Four years ago, the nation's most prominent journalists beat their breasts about how the days that the national media could kill a story like Gennifer Flowers were gone, that we were entering a brave new world of information unfiltered by reporters. But the cascade of scandalous details that have tumbled out of Little Rock since the 1992 elections suggests that the gatekeepers at ABC, CBS, CNN, and NBC were alive and well and killing potentially damaging stories about Bill Clinton as they arose:

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The Flowers story drew only 14 network stories, but the networks never mentioned the name of Charlette Perry, a black state employee who was denied a promotion so that Ms. Flowers could get a state job.

The first 10 days of the Clinton draft story drew only 13 network stories, while Dan Quayle's 1988 draft story drew 51-15 on the first night. When it was revealed in April 1992 that Mr. Clinton had lied everywhere he went on the campaign trail by claiming he never received a draft induction notice, the networks each buried the story in a sentence previewing the next day's New York primary. When The Los Angeles Times found in September that Mr. Clinton's Uncle Raymond had manipulated his draft status with the help of Arkansas politicians, the networks did one story-except for NBC, which did nothing. Remarkably, Mr. Clinton told USA Today at this time: "Nobody's had a tougher press than I have. No candidate in history has."

Network reporters did even less on Whitewater. Instead of launching new investigative reports on the heels of Jeff Gerth's March 8, 1992, New York Times scoop, the four networks did only five full stories on the Clinton finances in March, and then dropped the story for the rest of the year. Would Mr. Clinton have survived if what is now known on the Whitewater scandal had come out in 1992? From Mr. Clinton's perspective, at least the gatekeepers' brief elaboration of the Flowers and draft stories seemed to put an end to those stories, while Whitewater continues to haunt him.

Despite their competition for readers and viewers, media outlets often conducted what media scholars Robert Lichter and Larry Sabato have called a "race to be second" on many damaging stories about a vulnerable Democratic front-runner who could serve as a promising vehicle for their beliefs. Early in 1992, journalist Hendrik Hertzberg surveyed major reporters in New Hampshire and asked them which Democrat they would vote for: "The answer was always the same; and the answer was always Clinton. In this group, in my experience, such unanimity is unprecedented.... The real reason members of The Press like Clinton is simple, and surprisingly uncynical: They think he would make a very good, perhaps a great, president."

The 1992 campaign is perhaps the best demonstration in modern times of a liberal bias in the news media, and of the damage that bias can do-by leaving the public uninformed about the person it elects to the nation's highest office. George Bush charged Mr. Clinton with engaging in a "pattern of deception" about his personal and political life in Arkansas. But the pattern of deception wasn't simply Mr. Clinton's, but the media's as well. The image of Bill Clinton reporters sold to the country in 1992 would in no way resemble the fuller, much less flattering picture of Mr. Clinton's past that emerged month by month throughout his presidency.

Voters should insist that reporters try something different this year: Putting good journalism ahead of their own partisan politics in setting the public agenda.

Mr. Graham is author of the new book Pattern of Deception: The Media's Role in the Clinton Presidency, published by the Media Research Center. This article is based on the findings in the book.

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