Accuracy in Media

The premier edition of the magazine Brill’s Content has garnered attention with an article entitled, “Pressgate,” insisting that the media have functioned like a mouthpiece for independent counsel Kenneth Starr. This is a new magazine that is supposed to review media coverage of current events. But the premise of the article makes no sense. If Starr is using the media so effectively, then why do the opinion surveys show he is so unpopular?

Consider a recent issue of a newsletter published by the Center for Media and Public Affairs, looking at how the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts have covered the latest phase of the Clinton scandals. The evaluations of Clinton vs. Starr show that the independent counsel has fared far worse than Clinton in terms of media coverage. On ABC, Clinton was criticized by 58 percent of the sources and reporters who were evaluated. But Starr’s percentage of bad coverage was worse—73 percent.

On CBS, Starr did even worse, getting an unfavorable rating of 76 percent, while Clinton was criticized 58 percent of the time. On NBC, Starr was attacked 72 percent of the time while Clinton was at 58 percent. The attackers included White House advisor Paul Begala, who said that Starr was conducting “an ongoing campaign of leaks and lies that, frankly, have a political ax to grind and are worthy of an investigation.”

The Center for News and Public Affairs called this kind of coverage a “silver lining” for President Clinton, demonstrating that he gets better press than his accusers. This means that Steven Brill, the publisher of Brill’s Content magazine, is taking us for a ride when he runs an article claiming that journalists are relying on Kenneth Starr to such an extent that it constitutes a scandal called “pressgate.” His success at getting press attention for this outrageous charge shows that the real scandal is the continuing and ongoing effort by the White House to divert attention from the charges against the president. Unwittingly perhaps, Steven Brill is playing their game.

If you examine all aspects of the coverage, Clinton fares much better. If coverage of Clinton’s performance as president is examined, rather than his personal conduct, his ratings go much higher. On these issues, more than four-fifths or 81 percent of the evaluations were positive. An example of this kind of coverage was a Republican voter who told CBS that “I think things are great in the country right now, unemployment is lower than it’s ever been, people are making more money than they’ve ever made. I think we need to get behind [Mr. Clinton] and rally behind him and support him.”

The notion that Ken Starr is playing the media like a violin is ridiculous. White House officials frequently cite the polls showing that Starr is unpopular. They know that they have put him on the defensive, which helps explain why Starr and his deputies have been forced to talk to some reporters on background about the case. These conversations do not constitute “pressgate.” They reflect the desperation of a prosecutor who realizes that many reporters are in the Clinton camp.

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