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Sex, lies, on videotape

National | A salacious investigation? It's just TV as usual

Issue: "Life is not a party," Oct. 3, 1998

Journalists may have turned against President Clinton, but they seem to hold independent counsel Kenneth Starr in similar disregard. In the wake of public disclosure of a videotape of the president's Aug. 17 grand jury testimony, the latest-and most inadvertently humorous-line of attack was that Mr. Starr's "salacious" investigation threatens to corrupt America's children. This from reporters for television networks whose own lowest-common-denominator prime time programming is a monument to salaciousness.

The theme of prosecutorial prurience was already building before the release of the videotape. "It's so salacious; it's so graphic," said ABC's Barbara Walters on the Sept. 11 20/20. "There will be many people who feel it's disgusting [and will] wonder what they'll tell their children. It might cause a backlash for Ken Starr." And CNN's Wolf Blitzer grilled House Republican Conference Chairman John Boehner the night before the videotape was released: "How do you feel about releasing all of these videotapes and this other salacious material at a time when children are going to be obviously exposed to it?"

When the tape was released on the morning of Sept. 21, ABC, CBS, and NBC sacrificed millions of lost advertising dollars and joined various cable channels in showing the entire videotaped testimony. ABC and CBS carried warnings that some of the content was graphic, and NBC cut away during some of the most lurid discussions. NBC News Vice President Bill Wheatley told The Washington Post: "We were mindful that despite the warnings, some viewers still might be deeply offended, and there might be unsupervised children."

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During a break in the testimony, NBC's Tom Brokaw asked correspondent Lisa Myers: "What about the possibility of the Ken Starr backlash? And the backlash against the ... House Judiciary Committee Republicans for having released all of this? A lot of people said before it came out, 'We don't need to see this, we get the big picture here.' But there it is in vivid and very discomforting detail." Mr. Brokaw later echoed this theme going into a break on that evening's Nightly News: "When we come back, the other excruciating details, the documents, [and] explicit details from Starr's investigation. Thousands of pages released today, but is this more than anyone needs to know?"

Putting aside the argument that going into minute detail is necessary when investigating a man who seeks to define away words like "is" and "alone," what about the networks' own unparalleled record of airing salacious material? Example: Less than an hour after Mr. Brokaw vented his concerns about "explicit details from Starr's investigation," nearly every joke on NBC's sitcom Suddenly Susan had to do with sex. The next evening, on NBC's Mad About You, explicit references to the male anatomy dominated the entire episode. And nearly every episode of NBC's Friends is little more than a compilation of jokes about sex.

Such explicit programming isn't unique to NBC. An entire episode of ABC's Spin City was devoted to sex organs, and sex is a running theme on other episodes of the show, as it is on The Drew Carey Show, another ABC sitcom. Believe it or not, cigars were even used as props for a joke about oral sex on The Nanny, a CBS sitcom.

These aren't isolated anecdotes, either. The networks average more than two sexual references an hour each night during the first hour of prime time (8-9 p.m. EST), commonly known as the "family hour," according to a Parents Television Council study. Ms. Walters's network, ABC, had the most sexual references of all the networks, registering almost 3.5 per hour, but the others weren't far behind. CBS anchor Dan Rather may have been correct when he said of the Clinton videotape, "Blockbuster Video wouldn't rent some of this material," but the television networks gladly air similarly graphic fare nearly every night.

Timothy Lamer
Timothy Lamer

Tim is managing editor of WORLD magazine.

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