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MediaWatch: June 1, 1998

Vol. Twelve No. Eight

NewsBites: The Alexis Nexus

The Alexis Nexus. Before she was confirmed as Labor Secretary, Alexis Herman figured in several Clinton scandals, including Ron Brown's use of Commerce Department trade missions as fundraisers, and the White House's possible funneling of campaign donations to allegedly "nonpartisan" tax-exempt voter registration groups.

But when Attorney General Janet Reno requested an independent counsel on May 11 for charges that Herman accepted cash for influence as White House Liaison, it attracted the same TV news buzz as other Cabinet probes: almost nothing. The decision drew a lead story from ABC's World News Tonight (where investigative ace Brian Ross first broke the story in January.) As with Ross's scoop in January, the competition balked: CBS gave it 26 seconds, NBC 18. CBS and NBC have yet to offer a full evening story on Herman's scandal.

Thirty minutes before the new probe was announced, CNN's Inside Politics was already piling on doubts. Anchor Judy Woodruff began: "At a time when many Americans are uneasy about the work of independent counsels, and the Clinton administration is downright fed up, another counsel appointment may be in the offing." Woodruff's second story asked how much the counsels have cost. The next day, all three TV morning shows offered stories, but only ABC's Good Morning America had an interview segment. Host Kevin Newman asked legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin: "How much is this going to cost?"

Arafat Allies. The Clinton administration gave Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu an ultimatum: cede 13.1% more of the West Bank to Yassir Arafat and the Palestinians, or the U.S. will stop acting as facilitator in the peace talks, thus setting Israel up as an obstacle to peace if they didn't accept the loss of territory. The media followed that lead, painting Netanyahu as the stumbling block, while ignoring Arafat's flaunting of the Oslo Peace Accords as well as other Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

Between May 4 and May 21, the big three networks and CNN made 15 mentions of the administration's ultimatum, but only Mike Lee of ABC News noted what Netanyahu pointed out on his U.S. trip: Israel had given up 27 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians already. As Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer noted, Albright's 13.1 percent figure was based not on careful consideration but to indulge a whim of Palestinian leader Arafat: "It was picked because Arafat already had 26.9 percent of the territories, and 13.1 would produce a nice round number: 40.0." The only hint that Palestinians might have to make concessions of its own was a vague comment from ABC's Gillian Findlay suggesting that Palestinians would have to "offer tougher security."

ABC's David Ensor committed this bizarre analysis May 13: "Albright today will try one more time to convince him [Netanyahu] that nonetheless, unless he's willing to make sacrifices for peace, his country will never be secure." As if Israel's people and soldiers who have died by the thousands in terrorist bombings and attacks, have never "sacrificed" trying to keep peace in Israel.

The Gail Gaffe. On ABC's World News Tonight May 14, anchor Peter Jennings assured viewers: "Whenever the President travels we watch him like a hawk." Really? Jennings was introducing video showing Clinton having trouble maneuvering because of a bad back, but ABC skipped video they surely would have highlighted if it involved Dan Quayle.

At a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift Clinton praised "the countless acts of individual kindness, like Gail Halvorsen, the famous Rosinenbomber, who dropped tiny parachutes of candy to Berlin's children. She is here with us today, and I'd like to ask her to stand." He stood.

None of the broadcast networks or CNN touched it, not even CNN's Inside Politics. FNC's Brit Hume highlighted it at the end of his show. Two days later on the CBS show Saturday Morning, Mark Knoller showed the flub, but blamed Halvorsen's mother: "It's probably not the first time that a man named Gail has had this happen to him." Co-host Russ Mitchell chimed in: "Those things happen, Mark."