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Mixed Messages

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Mixed Messages

Article excerpt

President Clinton told a group of newspaper editors he thought coverage of his administration was "good," but when later asked about a reported incident at the White House, he bristled and noted that "rumormongering" does "little to advance the public interest."

The incident reportedly involved a general at the White House who was told by a staffer there that she cared little for the military.

That alleged exchange, reported in the Washington, D.C., papers and elsewhere, also was mentioned by former presidential candidate Ross Perot the day before.

Both Perot and Clinton made their comments last week during the American Society of Newspaper Editors annual conference. Perot spoke at the convention hotel in Baltimore, and Clinton at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

Clinton called the story an "abject lie," and said people who run such "gossip" ought to be ashamed. Published reports, however, indicated that the general confirmed the story.

"I don't think we ought to be out here rumormongering. That does little to advance public interest" the president said, also chastising Perot for his criticisms from the podium.

In earlier remarks, however, Clinton recognized that when "any freedom is enshrined in the Constitution, it is as certain as the sun will rise it will be abused.

"Freedom of speech is abused every day," Clinton said, but "that is the price we pay for freedom."

Paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson, Clinton noted that, if given the choice between government and freedom of the press, he would choose the latter.

"Great strength in the face of criticism is sometimes the greatest test of democracy" he added.

Nevertheless, the president said, "on balance" coverage of his administration "has been remarkably fair and thorough."

His "only frustrations relate far more to the commercial imperatives" than with any unfairness.

For example, Clinton said he saw a survey that asked whether people thought he was spending enough time on the economy and health care. The results showed people thought he was not spending much time on the economy, he said, yet that is what occupies most of his time.

The reason for this perception is that the health care issue is under intense scrutiny from the media.

Further, he continued, because of the emergence of CNN and other outlets that give people "direct access to facts... there is more pressure than there used to be to find a unique angle, a twist."

That new challenge, Clinton said, has "changed the dynamics of how we relate to each other"

Clinton's media strategy

If any ASNE attendees had doubts about those new dynamics, they were due for a wake-up call when during another session Clinton media adviser Mandy Grunwald explained how the administration targets new media.

Stressing that the new positioning does not mean a loss for the traditional media, Grunwald explained that during the campaign strategists found Clinton thrived on the longer, informal format, such as talk shows. The approach became known as the "Arsenio Strategy:'

The campaign also took Clinton and his message to media that reached certain voters--such as MTV for young voters--who do not read newspapers, explained Grunwald, a political media consultant at Grunwald, Eskew & Donilon.

Although the president has been criticized for not holding more White House news conferences, it is not because he is afraid of answering questions, she said.

Grunwald contended that the White House press corps tends to ask questions that are irrelevant to people, so the president instead picks forums where he can talk to Americans directly about the economy, for example. …

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