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INTERNET NEWS SOURCES AND THE CLINTON IMPEACHMENT: A COMPARATIVE STUDY

by: Peter J. Brown

English 315 Ridenhour March 10, 1999

Table of Contents

Abstract

This is a comparative study between the traditional news outlets and their new Internet counterparts specifically as they have applied to the impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton, the current President of the United States. First traditional information sources will be examined. The public and media reaction will be measured as a standard to assess the effect of traditional media sources on public opinion and to analyze the impact of impeachment. While this is a current event and many people have been saturated by the information on impeachment, documentation will be provided to sample the information and opinions of many major news sources that covered the impeachment. This will make the analysis accurate and fair. Likewise, the same approach is taken with respect to Internet news sources. A sample of web-sites, along with commentary and analysis is made on its report and impact. A list of online polling data that is web-based is used as to qualify the extent to which the online public feels about impeachment. The report shows the Internet has a significant effect on public opinion, being that online readers of news sources generally differ in opinion from the generally sampled populous, and it also shows that the availability of information provided is the key to the disparity of opinion that exists.

INTERNET NEWS SOURCES AND THE CLINTON IMPEACHMENT: A COMPARATIVE STUDY

Introduction

On February 23, 1999, President William Jefferson Clinton was acquitted by the US Senate on two accounts of perjury and obstruction of justice. He had been accused of having an affair with an intern, Monica Lewinsky, and subsequently using his power as a politician and President to cover up an affair that could affect a civil case brought against him by Paula Corbin Jones. The Whitewater Independent Council, Kenneth Star, became involved by investigating the allegations of wrongdoing and the news story went full steam ahead. The country began marching through an overwhelming ordeal, lasting a little over a year with pundits and pollsters, lawyers and jokesters forcing the public to expend a heavy amount of emotion to a debate that lost wind somewhere between Michael Isakoffs aborted Newsweek article on Bill Clintons affair with Monica Lewinsky, and the Star Report (1998), suggesting articles of impeachment be drawn. (www.edmontonjournal.com/ archives/013098scandal3.html ) After much agony and ordeal, the final vote in the Senate was 45 for and 55 against Article One on perjury and 5050 even on obstruction of justice. President Clinton was acquitted and the general public at large was satisfied with the verdict as was shown by the polls. But the online crowd was a different story. They were not satisfied with the verdict. A look at their habits, attitudes, and reactions to the whole debate offers a vastly different picture 3 on impeachment. A large reason is because online readers of news are shown to be heavy consumers of information, while the Internet is a perfect source of this information. This new

culture, vastly growing among American consumers, is a key to the differing attitudes with respect to the Clinton Impeachment.

Traditional News and Impeachment

The Headlines Baffled The traditional media ranging from Time Magazine to ABC News to The Washington Post, ran through the rampage of information overload as they analyzed, polled, and predicted every minuscule aspect of the Monica debate. The public soon tired of it, and the focus of the debate soon shifted from the facts of the case to the sensationalism of sex, lies, and videotape. The Houston Chronicle reported the impact the Star Report had on people was null. In fact, with the Dow-Jones up and investor confidence high, no one wanted the President removed. In the midst of rising nearly two percent, to close at 7,945.35, . . . voters were reluctant to boot Clinton out of office. (Sept. 15 98, Business, A1) Many other contemporary media outlets were on the same road of reporting public opinion as news. The LA Times (Sept. 13 1998 A30) was an example. The Sept. 13th headline was loaded with polling data showing the Presidents approval rating steady at 60 percent after the onset of the Star Report. The article goes on to suggest the possibility of a backlash and the unreliability of fluctuating polls. It was the poll data that grabbed the headline, not the details of the report itself, even though the details were given precisely at the same moment by the Star 4 Report, the document alleging the crimes of the President. Likewise, the bewilderment continued with the actual vote on impeachment. But other trends were being noted as well with respect to how closely people followed this new article. The

AP article given in the Boston Globe illustrates this. A third of the public was said to even follow impeachment news at all. (Dec. 23 1998, A13) The Washington Post reiterates the same idea. The domination of the public and its support or lack thereof was the news of the day, not the terms of the articles of impeachment, or the alleged crimes. (Dec. 21 1998, A17) From this evidence, it is clear that the majority of Americans in the mainstream disagreed with the way the Clinton Impeachment progressed. They were not interested in pursing the controversy with Monica Lewinsky. They were not interested in opening an inquiry. They did not want Clinton impeached, and when he was, they wanted him acquitted.

The Pundits Pontificate Editorialists had a different perspective, even though it changed the public opinion little. CNNs AllPolitics program suggests that the media was universally against the president, with op-ed pages calling for his impeachment or resignation, but with polls of people dominating the day in the opposite direction. The obsession with the polls and not the facts of the case seemed to be the universal domination of the front pages while stark chastisement of the President could be seen by the editorial staff. Clearly the media was not on Clintons side and either wanted him to resign or be impeached. They thought the evidence of perjury and obstruction of justice was too overwhelming. (Sept. 15 1998, # 98091504V15 </div>) Bill Bennett, a prominent columnist and writer of The Book of Virtues (1996) stated 5 people believed that presidents should be removed for committing perjury or breaking laws of any sort. Most American thought Bill Clinton perjured himself, yet two-thirds of the public were unwilling to trade him for another President. They could not follow conclusions that their own moral judgements asked them to draw. (Hadley Arkes and William J. Bennett, The Wall Street

Journal, Oct. 13, 1998). Where was the outrage of the people when the media so consistently hounded Clinton to resign? The accessibility of information by the media was immense, the columnists continually harping on Clintons culpability. But the public interest was strangely quiet. Part of the reason was that people werent even following the impeachment. They werent watching it on the news. They skipped over it in the newspaper. They didnt argue with their friends and family. A closer look will show that two-thirds consistently didnt want Bill Clinton impeached while two-thirds didnt follow the impeachment at all. The correlation is striking.

Public Opinion Polls A look at public opinion and the polling data shows the consistency of this one-third, twothirds ratio of people against the President versus those for him. Polls taken right before the Senate vote on the articles of impeachment reveals this pattern. The ABC NEWS poll had 33% voting for removal and 65% voting against it. The CBS-New York Times Poll found 66% say President Clinton should not resign; 31% say he should. Similarly the CNN/USA TODAY/GALLUP poll had 32% for and 63% against with a very small margin in all the polls undecided. (The Times-Picayune,</div> <div align=center> Jan 13, 1999, p A8) Poll after poll would relate the same 6 story. Again, the one-third, two thirds ratio summoned curiosity about not only the publics opinion, but its involvement in a supposed heated debate. Furthermore, other professional and scientific pollsters like Zogby and the Pew Research Center for Public Policy and the Press show similar result. They also show from 25 to 35 percent of Americans even following the news item of Impeachment. (Pew Research, 1999).

Pew has catalogued some other intriguing numbers: only 31% in their poll followed the Senate trial daily, 24% didnt discuss impeachment at all with others at all, and 41% didnt follow impeachment because they concluded they wouldnt change their minds anyway. (www.peoplepress.org/jan99rpt.htm) Obviously the evidence that people wanted the President to stay in office was strong as was their propensity to not even follow the Impeachment throughout its ordeal. But are the polls reliable? Yes, says Geoffrey P. Lantos, a marketing professor and mathematician of Stonehill College, North Easton, Mass., in an article written for USA Today, but only if the sample is truly random, large and the questions not misleading. Some in the media were suggesting that polling data was rigged to support the President. Dr. Lantos doesnt believe in the fact that the polls are rigged, but he helps voice the discomfort the baffled onethirds feel by explaining underlying statistical assumptions. The article reveals the methods by which polling is done. From the selection of a random sample to selecting of questions another contributor to the same article wrote: When polling by telephone, randomness is impossible because only people answering their phones and agreeing to be polled are counted. People with knowledge of the issues may

be unavailable; some have no phones; others have no time or don't want to be disturbed. This could result in skewing the results. The margin of error stated in the 7 many polls becomes meaningless as a result. (Jan. 5 1999, 16A) Many of the media, along with many Americans, have engaged this argument about polling because they see the how the polls are disguising the facts because of the way they are being presented. The fact that polls measure the opinion of informed and uninformed alike while ignoring such obvious errors as sampling only those who answer telephone calls at dinner time may be startling, but they work this way. In America, the views of the ignorant masses are still

pertinent. They can still vote. But how would America feel about the impeachment debate if all chose to engage in fact finding? The medium of Internet news can give us a good idea about this perspective.

Internet News and Impeachment

News in Cyberspace The phenomenon of Internet news is relatively new. An AP article reported in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune shows that by 1996 about 23 percent of Americans used the Internet mostly to access technology and news related web-sites. (Jan. 15 1999, 4A) The traditional outlets, not to be overtaken by technology, have launched their own web-sites. They report daily articles that are different from their aired transcripts and staff editorial writers unique only to the Internet. Msnbc, a cable-based mirror of NBC News, has even incorporated chatting into their 24-hour cable shows as a reflection of public opinion. Not to be undone, some of the Internets most prominent companies have thrown their hats in the ring like Yahoo! and America Online. While the traditional news is puzzled and at times despondent about the public apathy Page 8 over such an important historical event, the Internet is foaming with people who cant get enough, so says David Futrelle, a columnist for Newsday. With all the political talk shows, Dave Letterman, and Jay Leno, every night, Futrelle states, YOU MIGHT THINK that most Americans would respond to the prospect of still more information on l'affaire Lewinsky like they were getting some sort of sickness. But these [junkies] prove they cant get enough and even ignite their obsessions with personal web pages devoted to the debacle. (Newsday Oct. p b15)

The Upstarts and their New Medium Some of these so-called junkies have taken their personal info hobby literally to a career. The most prominent of these is Matt Drudge (www.drudgereport.com), the first journalist to break the Monica Lewinsky scandal that eventually led to impeachment. When he broke the story, it was mostly discredited as a gossip written by an Internet wack-o. However, Matt Drudge has changed the nature of news reporting forever, so says David W. Almasi of the National Center for Public Policy Research. He broke the Clinton scandal when a Newsweek staffer (Isakoff) alerted him about the impending article because Newsweek had decided to can it. Months later, the Clinton Administration is still reeling and trying to recover from this communique. Not bad for a 30year-old operating out of his cluttered apartment. Almasi says tongue-incheek. (www.edmontonjournal.com/archives/013098scandal3.html)

Drudge, while being the most prominent Internet newsman, hasnt troubled the Clinton Administration as much as Larry Klayman and Judicial Watch. They are a conservative watchdog organization that has put a judicial noose around the Justice Department. Since the 9 alleged suicide of Vincent Foster, one of Clintons former aides, they have been investigating and deposing every major scandal from Whitewater to Filegate to Chinagate. They have remained relatively silent about Monica Lewinsky, but their web-site, www.judicialwatch.org is linked heavily to other impeachment-related sites like www.resignation.org. You can have a smorgasbord of information on this site from scanned documents given to

Linda Tripp in her videotaped deposition, or the accusatory Interim Report, a little-known study given to Congress which deals primarily with the other Clinton scandals.

The Online Crowds Reaction The online polls the Internet news sources have set up to measure this reaction suggest a startling disparity than the scientific, and randomly sampled polls of the mainstream press. Some web-sites like www.abcnews.com and www.msnbc.com do not archive their polling data and many of their articles, making it hard to check their sources. However, the author of this project went to these sites many times a day during the height of the impeachment debate and visually saw the impact of these online polls stating 70 and 80% of respondents were solidly in favor of impeachment. Others are more careful to archive their articles. Time magazines online poll, from Sept. 22, gives these interesting results: 67% want the President impeached, 15% want him to be censured, and 19% want nothing done at all. (www.cgi.pathfinder.com/ cgi-bin/time/daily/gdml3/osform/generic). The online CNN poll at an earlier time was less stark, with 54% supporting the initial inquiry with 46% wanting nothing done at all. However, Freerepublic, a grassroots web-site, cites a 63-35 ratio of those for or against impeachment from a Harris/Excite poll. This particular online poll registers the opinion of those that visit the very Page 10 popular Excite Internet search engine, receiving millions of hits daily from all corners of the globe. (www.freerepublic.com/forum/a36c5a5ee26d8.htm) As an exercise in democracy, some local news journals have set up online polls that correspond directly with their publications. The Atlantic Monthly has 77% for impeachment and 22% against (www.theatlantic.com/cgi-bin/execdec/polld.cgi/poll 04), and the Salem, Oregon

community online poll has 62% expressing that justice was subverted when Clinton was acquitted. (www.salemopinion.com/poll.cgi?id=100198165250&view=archive)

The unscientific manner of online polls, the wide variety of results, and the possibility of stacking votes and attracting a certain politically conservative slant can obviously skew these polls. However, they cannot be altogether discounted, for of all the variety of online polls, none reflected the polling data we normally see from the traditional news outlets. Other studies have gone against the conventional wisdom of the biased-ness. The Pew Research Center for Public Policy and the Press, has expressed interest about the impact of these new resources. The profile that Internet news readers were overwhelmingly conservative and highly polarized Republicans didnt fit the Pew profile of the average online reader. In fact, they found Internet users were more likely to be mainstream than a few years ago. People who went online for information were more likely to want information and news than those who didnt go online. Moreover, they were increasingly coming from the middle and working classes and from women. While they were more technology oriented, the only consistency was their hunger for information. (www.people-press.org/tech98sum.htm) 11 All of this online polling evidence states clearly that the majority of the people on the Internet did want Bill Clinton impeached, and furthermore acquitted. They also thought a great injustice was done when he was acquitted. This impact has come at the abundance of information sources, sources which can be undisciplined, but nevertheless have a tremendous impact on a well-rounded segment of society. The ease with which one can investigate, the cost of publishing,

and the ability to search for news and receive up-to-date information hourly has definitely been the driving force behind this news-gathering revolution. Instead of relying upon political spinsters and media analysts which strain their information sources, the Internet has allowed people to be more interactive with their sources, to express their opinions more freely, and to do it at their own time and pace. Its like going from the retail source to wholesale.

Conclusion The Internet has indeed made a fascinating impact on the public. Part of the influence comes from the lack of editorial review that normally goes on in traditional media circles. Peer review and politics is as much a part of the American media as it is of the governing process. The media has become so overladen with hyper-pluralistic policies that many times the cold, hard facts dont make it out there as much without strain. Yet they are still very consuming; they just consume public approval. Their 24-hour cable circuits recycle the same questions and pontificate the same responses. The normal man tires of the babbling, repetitive parrot. It is not surprising that the general populous tuned Clintons woes out along time ago. Despite this, the consumers of knowledge were not swayed not into perpetual apathy. 12 They were swayed onto the Internet instead, where they already were spending hours surfing for information of all kinds. They discovered their new medium for news, the hourly updates of factual information leveling this case to the ground, and the excitement of being able to go directly to the source before Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings got their fingers on it. These information mavericks were disgusted with what they learned about the President, without the wisdom of the talk show circuit to tell them how to think and to sell the talking

points given to them by their political commanders. The Internet made the difference. The new tool has many wrinkles to iron out, separating the kooks from the scoops. It may not be as balanced, as fair, or as scientific as our traditional sources, but neither is it as anesthetic, as repetitive, nor as bureaucratic. Constitutionally, it is doing better with the freedom of the press, and it obviously has had an effect.

13 References

Internet Sites www.theatlantic.com -online version of The Atlantic Monthly publication www.abcnews.com - traditional Internet outlet for ABC news. wwwmsnbc.com - traditional Internet outlet for NBC news. www.cbs.com - traditional Internet outlet for CBS news.

www.zogby.com - professional and statistical research firm that provides a variety of data. www.cnn.com - traditional Internet outlet www.judicialwatch.org - a conservative watchdog group dedicated to government oversight www.impeachment.org - a web page dedicated to the Impeachment of Bill Clinton www.resign.org - a web page dedicated to the resignation of Bill Clinton www.drudgereport.com - the hottest Internet news site that lists a variety of news organizations www.people-press.org - a professional research firm that polls press and public issues www.salemopinion.com - community information online for Salem, Oregon www.pathfinder.com - traditional Internet outlet for Time Magazine. www.newsweek.com - traditional Internet outlet for Newsweek.

Articles Associated Press (1999, Jan. 15) Internet Users and News browsers more closely resemble the face of the nation. Star-Tribune (Minneapolis, MN) p. A4 Bennett, William J. (1999, Feb. 10) He details a list of the alleged crimes Bill Clinton 14 committed, and debates the public mood and opinion as related to the President Wall Street Journal A22 Futrelle , David (1998, Oct. 11) The virtual communitys obsession with impeachment, list of web sites dedicated to Bill Clinton. Newsday p. B15

CNN Inside Politics(1999, Feb. 18). A review of the polling statistical process. www.cnn.com/allpolitics/stories/1999/02/18/polling Morin, Richard (1998, Dec. 21). Public Wants Punishment of President, Not Removal; Sentiment for Resignation Drops After Impeachment Vote, Poll Finds; Job Approval Rating Remains High. The Washington Post, p. A17 Online Newcomers More Middle-Brow, Less Work-Oriented (1998) The Internet news audience goes ordinary. www.people-press.org/tech98sum.htm Senate Trial, Little Viewer-ship, Little Impact (1999, Jan.) A review on some analysis of public reaction to the Senate trial. Many didnt follow. www.people-press.org/jan99rpt.htm Judging Opinion Polls (Jan 5, 1999) Two experts share ideas and doubts about public opinion polls and how they should be read. USA Today p. 16A