Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer 1998 News In Review

By Jim Hanas

DECEMBER 28, 1998:  At least this year they didn’t kill a princess.

That much can be said for the media’s performance in 1998, although the news business did make grand strides toward killing itself via negligence, carelessness, and an excruciatingly public course in self-examination. Here are some of the many things that happened in the last 12 months that have made the media into a different beast than it was a year ago:

  • The Clinton/Lewinsky scandal. It brought harm to everything it touched. Newt Gingrich was no exception and neither was the media. Its dogged and sometimes reckless pursuit of this story left a bad taste in the mouths of many and drew attention to the fact that, despite a constant chorus of “give the people what they want,” the news establishment may no longer have any idea what that is. Confidence in news outlets hit a new low before perking up a bit in August when the reports turned out to be mostly, well, true. Still, the television networks and many mainstream print outlets seemed to be locked in a dangerous, and embarrassing, game of catch-up, thanks to the fact that they hadn’t even broken the story in the first place.

  • The Drudge Report. No, the privilege of breaking the news fell to the Internet and Matt Drudge, representing the first major scoop for both. The Net, in fact, had the upper hand at several points during the proceedings, particularly when it came to providing public access to the cumbersome Starr Report. Of course, Drudge’s initial scoop was only indirectly a story about the president and Ms. Lewinsky. The story itself, about Newsweek holding a story about the affair, signaled a trend toward the media itself becoming the story.

  • Brill’s Content. The media’s new habit of relentlessly reporting on itself reached its peak this year with the introduction of this magazine from self-styled industry watchdog Steven Brill. With its self-righteous tone and undying commitment to full disclosure, its inaugural issue sent insiders howling foul over a cover story on the media’s coverage of Ken Starr. Early critics were on the mark, however, in observing that Brill’s might have trouble avoiding conflicts itself, and contributors like The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz wrestled with the dilemma of covering the Brill controversy in their own papers while still contributing to the magazine. The magazine has thus far featured some interesting behind-the-scenes looks, but has also made it clear that sometimes disclosure is not enough. Brill himself conducted an interview with his pals at CNN and Time about the story both retracted, alleging government use of deadly nerve gas against American deserters in Vietnam, but – like most other news outlets – failed to even mention, let alone take seriously, the claims of the story’s fired producers that the piece holds up. Brill not only owns shares in Time Warner but is admittedly close friends with Floyd Abrams, who issued the report that resulted in the story being retracted. In other words, disclosure is nice, but a disinterested interviewer would have been better.

  • Retractions. CNN and Time retracted their story about Operation Tailwind. The Cincinnati Enquirer retracted a series about Chiquita after it was alleged that a reporter had illegally tapped into the company’s voice-mail system. Several magazines retracted everything wunderkind New Republic staffer Stephen Glass had ever touched. The Boston Globe fired two columnists after determining that they fabricated people and events. And just last week, 60 Minutes executive producer Don Hewitt made his first-ever appearance on the program to admit that a previously aired story about drug traffickers had been based on a fraudulent documentary. The only thing heartening about these mistakes, as far as the news media is concerned, is that it was the news media that eventually discovered them.

  • Network newsmagazines. According to a study conducted by NewsTV, a Kansas-based television production and research firm, the big four networks and CNN devoted just 26 hours to newsmagazines during July 1996. By this July that number had more than doubled to 63 hours. There’s no doubt that the networks are dedicating more time to news programming than ever before, with even 60 Minutes acquiescing to the trend by spinning off a clone. But the expansion of news programming does not necessarily mean that the networks are in fact delivering more news. Instead, most of the newsmagazines tend toward covering true-crime sagas rather than breaking news. According to NewsTV, NBC Dateline aired 20 crime or court-related segments during November sweeps, five times as many as were devoted to breaking news or political coverage. ABC’s 20/20 likewise ran twice as many stories about crime as about breaking news during the same period.

  • The Daily Show. The rise of the newsmagazine meant a field day for Comedy Central’s deft send-up of the genre; frighteningly so, since at times it was difficult to tell the difference. Each episode of The Daily Show ends with a nugget of videotape, a “moment of Zen” they call it, depicting something strange or disturbing. The night Clinton apologized to the nation in August, the show’s “moment of Zen” was simple. In fact, it was news. The other channels were showing it too.

“I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky,” Clinton says, glaring at reporters, during his initial public denial on January 26th.

Comedy may in fact be tragedy plus time, but time just isn’t what it used to be.

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