Networks Hype Vague Cain Charges, Ignored Sexual Harassment Claims Against Clinton

Since the Herman Cain sexual harassment story broke late Sunday night, the broadcast networks have covered it extensively: full stories on Monday's morning news shows (ABC's Good Morning America led off their broadcast); full stories on Monday's evening news shows (the CBS Evening News made it their top item) and ABC's Nightline; and the top story on all three Tuesday morning shows.

Cain's accusers are still anonymous. Three women publicly accused Bill Clinton of far more serious instances of sexual harassment in the 1990s, but the networks all but ignored them. The coverage that did exist was often skeptical, insulting and hostile, an astonishing double standard.

- Paula Jones, who accused Bill Clinton of exposing himself to her in a hotel room when she was a state employee in Arkansas, held a public press conference in February 1994, CBS and NBC ignored those charges, while ABC devoted just 16 seconds to Jones' press conference. 

As a January 29, 1998 Media Reality Check pointed out, "The rest of the media waited three months, until Jones filed suit, and the networks then did just 21 stories in that month."

Appearing on the late Tim Russert's CNBC program, then-Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw dismissed, "It didn't seem to most people, entirely relevant to what was going on at the time. These are the kind of charges raised about the President before."

In the Jones case, the networks were openly disdainful of covering her accusations. "It's a little tough to figure out who's being harassed," NBC Today host Bryant Gumbel smugly asserted (May 10, 1994).

After ABC's Sam Donaldson interviewed Jones for Prime Time Live in June 1994, anchor Charles Gibson wanted to know: "Why does anyone care what this woman has to say?"   

Gibson continued to pile on, adding, "Bottom line, Sam: Is she not trying to capitalize on this, in effect to profit from impugning the President?"

Newsweek editor Evan Thomas, who sometimes appears on the networks to offer analysis, derided Jones as "some sleazy woman with big hair." (This was on the May 7, 1994 Inside Washington.)

- In the case of Kathleen Willey, who said Bill Clinton groped her in the Oval Office while President, the networks gave minimal coverage to that story when it was broke by Newsweek magazine in late July 1997.

On July 30, 1997, the CBS Evening News aired a story, but managed not to mention Willey by name. Reporter Bill Plante warned, "But unless and until this case is settled, this is only the beginning of attempts by attorneys on both sides to damage the reputations and credibility of everyone involved."

A March 20, 1998 Media Reality Check explained how ABC delicately approached the subject:

In an August 8, 1997 presidential press conference, ABC reporter John Donvan asked about Willey without naming her. Donvan confessed: "Even for those of us who don't have much appetite for this entire subject, this particular answer in this particular category seems needlessly evasive. My question to you is: Is it your wish that it be answered this way, and is it consistent with your intention to run an open White House?" But ABC continued to avoid the story despite the question.

CBS gave it one minute on the July 30 Evening News, with brief items on the July 31 CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News. Willey eventually became a big news story when CBS's 60 Minutes interviewed her in March 1998, during the Lewinsky scandal.

"Wow! That was something," Today co-host Matt Lauer exclaimed on March 16, 1998, reacting to the 60 Minutes story. There was no introspection as to why it took Today and other outlets so long to cover the charges. 

- In the case of Juanita Broaddrick, who publicly came forward to say Bill Clinton raped her while he was the Arkansas Attorney General and a candidate for Governor, the networks offered weekend coverage in March 1998, when the charge surfaced in a court filing by Paula Jones' attorneys. NBC interviewed Broaddrick for a Dateline special in January 1999, but the airing was delayed until February 24, 1999, after the end of Clinton's impeachment trial.

The March 1999 Media Watch pointed out the disparity of coverage of Broaddrick versus Anita Hill:

In the first five days of Hill’s charges (October 6-10,1991), the network evening shows (on ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC, and PBS’s NewsHour) aired 67 stories. (If a count began with Jones’ February press conference, the networks supplied just a single 16-second anchor brief; if the count began with her sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton in May, the number was 15.)

But in the first five days after Juanita Broaddrick...charged the President with rape in The Wall Street Journal (February 19-23), the number of evening news stories was two. That’s a ratio of 67 to 2.

During the period of February 19-28, as NBC prepared to finally air its Dateline special, ABC virtually ignored the controversy. World News and Nightline skipped it. Good Morning America allowed two brief mentions. This Week briefly discussed it.

CBS allowed just one story on the February 20th Evening News.

Considering that NBC had the scoop, it's not surprising that the network offered more coverage. While Nightly News ignored it,

Today aired only a brief until the Myers interview. The morning after the interview, it carried a report by Claire Shipman and a Katie Couric interview with Clinton ally Alan Dershowitz and Dorothy Rabinowitz, who wrote the Wall Street Journal story. On the 26th, Matt Lauer asked NOW’s Patricia Ireland tough questions, including whether she’d ask Clinton to resign, since that’s what she demanded of Sen. Bob Packwood. On the 28th, most of Meet the Press focused the Broaddrick story.

When one contrasts the sexual harassment scandals of Democrat Bill Clinton, which included on the record accusers, with the hazy allegations against Republican Herman Cain, it becomes clear that the networks have enthusiasm for one and ignored the other.

Scott Whitlock
Scott Whitlock
Scott Whitlock is the senior news analyst for the Media Research Center and a contributing editor for NewsBusters.org