Smut Glut Rebut

News toppers defend Clinton scandal coverage

SAN ANTONIO — While fessing up to some sins of excess, the top execs at CBS News, CNN and Fox News Channel aren’t ready to apologize for TV’s never-ending interest in l’affair Lewinsky.

“For us not to carry (stories about) it is almost censoring information,” CNN topper Tom Johnson said during a panel discussion with CBS News prexy Andrew Heyward and Fox News chairman Roger Ailes at the annual Radio and Television News Directors Assn. confab Thursday. “I don’t think we can block information.”

As for media watchdogs concerned about televised debates over oral sex and discussions of nontraditional uses of cigars, “We’re not the ones who introduced these terms into the public (consciousness),” Heyward argued.

Still, Johnson admitted that CNN “overdid it to some extent with Monica madness” during the first few months of the scandal. He also said he agreed with CNN’s chief foreign correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, who has said she’s “troubled” by how Lewinsky coverage has affected the amount of time CNN spends on overseas news.

The news leaders also agreed the scandal was not going away any time soon.

‘Dominant story’

“This story … will be a dominant story for the next several weeks,” Johnson predicted.

During their time together onstage, neither Johnson nor Heyward directly addressed rumors about a possible joint operating agreement between CBS News and CNN. Heyward, however, seemed to hint at the need for such an arrangement — not just for CBS, but for all the webs.

In an era of cost-cutting, “the old network news model of sustained worldwide newsgathering is becoming harder and harder to pay for,” he said. “One of the issues will be: How do you provide worldwide hard news-gathering at a time when no one has a large audience?”

Operation Tailwind

Separately, Johnson used Thursday’s forum to once again apologize for the fiasco surrounding CNN’s investigation of Operation Tailwind.

At times seeming on the verge of tears, Johnson said the story “never should have gotten on the air … I regret deeply that it happened.” He also expressed the hope that CNN’s viewers would continue to trust the all-news cabler, citing opinion polls taken since the incident which show CNN still gets good scores for trustworthiness and creditability from the public.

Johnson’s mea culpa received a supportive round of applause from the audience, as well as a show of solidarity from both Heyward and Ailes. “I do think it’s time to move on,” said Ailes.

The Fox News topper was less generous in his comments about NBC News prexy Andy Lack.

Noting Lack’s absence from the panel, Ailes started his remarks by quipping, “We’re going to try to muddle through here today without America’s News Leader,” a reference to NBC News’ on-air slogan.

Lack had never been scheduled to take part in Thursday’s discussion, citing a previous personal engagement as reason for his absence.

ABC News prexy David Westin was an announced panelist, but begged off at the last minute because of internal business at ABC and the crush of news out of Washington.

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