High-Profile Hearings, Low-Profile Coverage

Article excerpt

It's conventional wisdom that Congress' campaign finance hearings are news the public can excuse. In times of peace, prosperity and cynicism about all things Washington, politics seems particularly remote.

The ongoing shrug presents a problem for Washington journalists: Do they stick with a story they know has the elements of power, money and intrigue they covet, or move on to other subjects?

Before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee campaign finance hearings topped the news in early October with the discovery of videotaped White House coffees, the story rarely excited the press -- though reporters were rewarded with the antics of oilman Roger Tamraz and Buddhist nuns recalling Vice President Gore's visit.

Routine were the days when former Commerce Department officials or intelligence briefers appeared, and the stories were buried or barely mentioned on broadcasts around the country.

Some 100-odd reporters kept coming, though. "It's a sexy subject, and it goes to the roots of democracy -- who has access to policymakers," says Thomas Galvin, congressional correspondent for the New York Daily News. "It confirmed what we always believed, that money buys access."

But lots of others stayed away, rarely dropping in. "Unless you're there constantly, it's not fruitful," says Lolita Baldor, the sole Washington correspondent for the New Haven Register. "It's hard to know what's new and what's not."

And, she adds, the hearings do not seem to be a high priority for Register readers. "They care more about education, health care, defense and jobs," Baldor says.

The Center for Media and Public Affairs found during evening network newscasts from July 8 to 31, CBS offered 22 stories totaling 43 minutes of air time; NBC ran 15 stories and 31 minutes; and ABC had 14 stories and 24 minutes. "Compared to other high-profile hearings," the center concludes, "the coverage was relatively light." The total of 51 stories was far fewer than the 249 stories during the first weeks of Watergate hearings, or the 131 stories during the 1987 Iran-contra hearings; more comparable were the lackluster Whitewater hearings in 1995, which were the subject of 56 evening news stories on the networks.

These hearings have lacked the colorful characters and political gravitas that todays hype-saturated viewers and readers demand. "When these hearings hadn't developed a sexy story line in the first week, people were saying they weren't going well," recalls Baltimore Sun columnist Jules Witcover. "I don't think this is all going to lead to the impeachment of Clinton and Gore, but the media often seems to lack a discipline in covering stories that's essential."

Coverage has also had to coexist with an increasingly Balkanized media universe. …