Media find lying about illicit sex more newsworthy than lying about warrantless domestic wiretapping of Americans

››› ››› KURT DONALDSON & JOE BROWN

A Media Matters review found that, following the revelation of the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program, recent television news coverage has quoted or replayed President Bush's 2004 denial of such a program far less than President Clinton's denial of a relationship with Monica Lewinsky during a comparable period in 1998 following his acknowledgment of such a relationship.

Which is more newsworthy -- a president caught lying about an inappropriate sexual relationship, or a president caught lying about having spied on Americans without court orders?

Media Matters for America has completed a review of television coverage on CNN, Fox News, and the broadcast networks in the 66 days since White House press secretary Scott McClellan was asked during a December 20, 2005, press briefing to explain the apparent contradiction between President Bush's April 20, 2004, statement that "any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires ... a court order" and the recently revealed existence of the National Security Agency's (NSA) warrantless domestic wiretapping program, The review found just 16 instances in which Bush's 2004 remarks were quoted or replayed. In contrast, over a similar period following President Clinton's August 17, 1998, acknowledgment of a relationship with Monica Lewinsky, the same outlets quoted or replayed 73 times Clinton's earlier January 26, 1998, statement denying such a relationship existed.

Media Matters did not review MSNBC's coverage because the Nexis database does not include MSNBC transcripts dating earlier than November 8, 1999.

Using the Nexis database, Media Matters compared the coverage by CNN, Fox News, and the three major broadcast networks of Bush's apparently false statement on warrantless domestic eavesdropping to the coverage these same news outlets devoted to Clinton's false denial of a sexual relationship with Lewinsky. A search* for the text of Bush's remarks from December 20, 2005 -- when a reporter first raised the issue at a White House press briefing -- through February 13 revealed 16 unique hits. But a search** for the text of Clinton's remarks revealed 73 hits from August 18, 1998, when Clinton admitted having a relationship with Lewinsky, through October 22, 1998 -- the same number of days included in the search for Bush's remarks. Searching the Nexis database for each outlet individually revealed more hits for Clinton's remarks than for Bush's remarks.

Most notably:

  • The search for Clinton's remarks on CNN yielded 25 hits, compared with only six hits*** for Bush's remarks -- a ratio of more than 4:1.
  • The search for Clinton's remarks on NBC yielded 18 hits, compared with only two hits for Bush's remarks -- a ratio of 9:1.
  • The search for Clinton's remarks on Fox News yielded 17 hits, compared with only three hits for Bush's remarks -- a ratio of more than 5:1. The results for Clinton's remarks may be significantly understated because the Nexis database provides substantially fewer Fox News transcripts from 1998 than for the current period. Additionally, both results are likely understated because Nexis does not provide transcripts for most of Fox News' daytime programs.

The data from Media Matters' Nexis searches follows:

News outlet

Nexis hits for Clinton remarks,
8/18/98 - 10/22/98

Nexis hits for Bush remarks,
12/20/05 - 2/13/06

Difference

CNN

25

6

19

Fox News

17

3

14

ABC

5

2

3

CBS

8

3

5

NBC

18

2

16

Total

73

16

57

* any time you hear the united states government talking about wiretap or a wiretap requires a court order or when we're talking about chasing down terrorists, we're talking about getting a court order before we do so and date(geq (12/20/05) and leq (2/13/06))

** i did not have sexual relations with that woman and date(geq (8/18/98) and leq (10/22/98))

*** excludes hits from CNN.com, which was not archived in the Nexis database during the 8/18/98-10/23/98 period

Posted In
Justice & Civil Liberties, Domestic Spying
Network/Outlet
Fox News Channel, CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN
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