As ABC, CBS, and NBC all dived into live coverage today to report the indictment of Vice President Cheney's top aide Scooter Libby, this is not at all the way the networks covered indictments of cabinet officers in the Clinton years.
In September 1997, we reported in Media Watch that when former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy was indicted on 39 counts, the networks aired a single evening news story. Three of the four networks -- ABC, CNN, and NBC -- underlined that the Smaltz inquiry had so far cost $9 million. None of them noted civil penalties originating from targets of Smaltz's inquiry amounted to more than $3.5 million. The next morning, CBS's morning show, called CBS This Morning, didn't even mention Espy's indictment. Months later, I noted in a Media Reality Check that on December 11, former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros was indicted on 18 counts for misleading the FBI about payoffs to a mistress, Linda Medlar. NBC Nightly News filed one story; ABC's World News Tonight gave it 18 seconds. CBS Evening News didn't arrive on the story until the next night, and gave it nine seconds, a fraction of the two minutes Dan Rather gave the nightly El Nino update, about the weather "giving a gentle lift to the monarch butterfly." The morning shows were worse: NBC's Today passed on two anchor briefs, and ABC's Good Morning America and CBS This Morning ignored it.
Worse yet was the comparison with slighter stories: Since it began in July, the Bill Cosby-Autumn Jackson paternity-blackmail trial drew nine evening news stories on ABC, CBS, and NBC. The morning shows were much more devoted to the story, with 12 full news stories, 45 anchor briefs, and 11 interviews (nine of them on NBC's Today).
The news magazines weren't any better in their December 22 editions: the Cisneros indictment drew 29 words in Time, two paragraphs in U.S. News & World Report, and a hero-brought-low story on page 70 in Newsweek headlined "A Star's Fall from Grace." Remember that both Time and Newsweek had Rove-in-trouble cover stories this summer.
To close, two Notable Quotables on these scandals. NPR's Nina Totenberg dismissed the Espy indictment as "slightly chicken-turdish." More precious was Bryant Gumbel's predictable angle on NBC before the indictments, in a question to Ted Kennedy in 1995. The scandals had a racial animus:
"Janet Reno has asked for an independent counsel to investigate charges against HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros. Commerce Secretary Ron Brown is being investigated. Questions have been raised about Transportation Secretary Federico Pena. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy resigned under pressure, as did Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders. The Clinton White House seems to be having a hard time retaining high-profile minorities particularly. Do you think, Senator, they are being held to a higher standard in Washington than their white predecessors?"