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NEW YORK — Former President Bill Clinton, in a relaxed speech to the Variety Front Row conference Tuesday, assailed the media’s excessive coverage of popular gameshows and reality skeins over stories of political issues and social ills around the world. Clinton also disabused Hollywood of any notions that he would board the DreamWorks bus.
Asked by Daily Variety after the speech whether he had any desire to join the Dream team, Clinton simply said, “I’m a moviegoer, not a moviemaker.”
In fact, any idea that Clinton might use this speech to signal his interest in a Hollywood role was dispelled. He clearly indicated that he planned to focus his post-presidential energies on global political and social issues.
Clinton’s speech elicited warm applause from the 700-plus attendees –despite a mini-controversy that ensued when Credit Suisse First Boston downplayed its presence as a confab co-sponsor with Variety in response to pressure and complaints from clients and customers about the former president.
Clinton appeared indifferent to the Credit Suisse rebuff. Looking relaxed after an eight-year grind, Clinton made light of the national media’s ongoing obsession with him.
“Even though I was good at making news, and apparently still am, I won’t be talking about any of this today,” he joked.
In his speech, the former chief executive quickly hammered home the need for the media to go after stories of substance rather than fluff.
“The American people need to know, care and understand more about what happens beyond our borders, and it simply can’t happen without the press,” Clinton said.
He cited 24,520 news stories he found about the ABC show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” while he could point to only 8,335 pieces on the money being saved by his Global Debt Relief Initiative.
Clinton noted that 12,476 stories were done on the hit show “Survivor” last year in the U.S. media, while only 2,567 articles appeared on the spread of AIDS in the former Soviet Union.
Clinton complained that editors and news stations showed little interest in exploring social and political issues behind the obvious one of war.
“I gave speeches while president on topics like climate change until I was blue in the face, but they were not deemed newsworthy by you,” Clinton said.
At times, Clinton sounded as though he were addressing a room full of journalists, even though the Front Row confab audience is more heavily populated with Wall Street analysts and investors.
A relatively subdued Clinton pointed to the need for the media to cover critical subjects such as global warming, the AIDS epidemic, poverty, illiteracy and education around the world — and to make those stories relevant to the American people.
He cited a New York Times piece about Brazil’s success in lowering the HIV infection rate in that country as an example of how journalism can work to inform Americans and give them the tools necessary to change policy.
Clinton did say he understood that making public service profitable is not an easy task, but he urged the audience to shift their thinking enough to affect policy.
“I can’t answer for the pressures you’re under, and believe it or not, I can sympathize,” he said. “There may be more tools to entertain, but you also have more tools to inform than ever before.”
Clinton opened his speech by citing Thomas Jefferson’s view that newspapers without a government are better than a government without newspapers. In the Jeffersonian age, he said, competition among newspapers was just as cutthroat as it is now, but they still managed to cover politics in an aggressive fashion.
“When I was a boy growing up in the South, it took real bravery for journalists to tell the truth about civil rights issues,” an almost wistful Clinton remembered.
He then pointed to other acts of journalistic bravery in such diverse areas as Bosnia, the Middle East and Africa.