Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Man on the Street

By Jim Hanas

SEPTEMBER 21, 1998:  So how ’bout that Starr Report? Huh? Huh?

Whether you pulled it off the Internet, read it in the paper, or watched network anchors reverently read from it, you’ve either seen it or heard about it, and either way, you’re sure to have an opinion. More on that in a minute.

To recall, this whole saga began with an apparent triumph for new media when Matt Drudge scooped Newsweek on its own story about an alleged affair between President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, who is sure to be remembered by history – forever, as if frozen in time – as a “21-year-old White House intern.” If the Drudge Report won the first battle on behalf of the Internet, the decision to post the Starr Report online may have ended the war.

Traditional news organizations were irretrievably scooped. There was no way they could fail to be. The release of the Starr Report was a case in which the news and its breaking were simultaneous – were in fact the same event. The only news to report on Friday, in other words, was that the news was already out.

Once released, then, the report became a simple matter of branding, with the networks offering up versions of the report on their respective Web sites. Locally, The Commercial Appeal linked its site to the Associated Press’ text of the report.

Once upon a time, this would have been a dream story for print news outlets: text-driven and light on visuals. Daily newspapers would have been the only medium equipped to offer adequate coverage of the report by printing it in full. But given the timing of the report’s release, the earliest that dailies such as The Commercial Appeal could get the report in print was Saturday. By then, many had already read it online.

“It certainly didn’t cut the demand for newspapers on Saturday morning, I’ll tell you that,” says Henry Stokes, managing editor at the CA. Stokes says the report’s online release actually helped the daily’s coverage, since it allowed the paper to have immediate access to the text, which, to its credit, it printed in full, unlike The (Nashville) Tennessean, which only ran 10,000 words of excerpts.

As for the public’s online access making the newspaper’s coverage superfluous, Stokes says he sees it as “not much different from a big meeting at city hall.” The Starr Report may have been a public proceeding and a lot of the public may have been in attendance, but the public still relies on journalists to sort things out. “The job of journalists is to boil things down,” says Stokes.

But over the weekend, some traditional journalists appeared to sense their own superfluity. Friday night, NBC news pre-empted programming to offer a special report, The President & the People, that was a picture of redundancy.

Anchor Brian Williams sat casually in a chair, reading excerpts from the report as though he were introducing Masterpiece Theatre. Many viewers had already read it, so all that was left to Williams was its performance.

NBC and other news organizations found themselves in the awkward position of trying to cook up breaking stories about the breaking of the story. The Internet is really busy (a particularly ironic angle, tantamount to an anchor reporting, “A lot of people are getting their news somewhere else right now”). How to talk to your child about the Starr Report. That sort of thing.

It was meta-coverage. Not news, exactly, but news about news getting out and about what happens once it gets there. Looked at another way, it was water-cooler patter transformed into headlines.

The networks, in truth, didn’t seem much better positioned to cover the story than the rest of us. And in the end, they admitted as much by promoting the man on the street to the role of pundit. “Local reaction” has long been a way for newspapers and TV stations to customize national stories to their audience. The CA’s Saturday coverage included a story about the reaction of plain folks from the president’s home state, and I will bet, without even looking, that no local television station missed the opportunity to solicit opinions from random Mid-Southerners.

But public access to the Starr Report led even the networks to parade the opinions of ordinary people. You knew you had an opinion about the report, but did you know it was news? NBC’s Friday-night coverage included an interview with two people in a restaurant in Miami, one taking Clinton’s side, the other finally fed up. They volleyed back and forth with only occasional guidance from the reporter, who, at any rate, didn’t have anything to add that we didn’t already know. It was just two people talking. It could have been any two people sitting at a table, around a water-cooler, over at the coffee machine.

We have seen the media, and it is us.

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