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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Stephanopoulos Inaugurates Center on Media and Society

Photo by Gintautas Dumcius
Photo by Gintautas Dumcius

It was supposed to be what they call a “one-day story.”

During the 1992 elections, deputy campaign manager George Stephanopoulos, veteran political reporter David Nyhan, and then-Governor Bill Clinton were coming up the elevator on their way to meet nearly forty reporters in the Boston Globe conference room. Outside, the news crews were assembling in response to breaking news of Gennifer Flowers’ allegations of sexual relations with the Arkansas governor.

“Clinton grabs him by the shoulders and shakes him and says, ‘George, go out there and tell them it’s a one-day story,'” Nyhan recalled. “Well, it wasn’t a one-day story.”

The story continues to three months ago, when Stephanopoulos was in a deposition in Flowers’ lawsuit against political strategist and fellow Clinton advisor James Carville. The case was recently dismissed.

“It shows this story went on for-in my life-thirteen more years, in lawsuits and things like that,” said Stephanopoulos, who came to UMass Boston last week to help inaugurate the university’s new Center on Media and Society and discuss Iraq, politics and the media, and White House occupants past and present. Stephanopoulos is currently the anchor of ABC News’ Sunday talk show “This Week,” and a former “political spear-carrier” for the Clinton White House, as Nyhan, who moderated the discussion, described him. “Have you left the good fight for the dark side, or was it the other way around?” Nyhan asked. Stephanopoulos said he hoped that the two go together. “I think I bring a lot of the same skills to both jobs. Trying to analyze public policy, explain it in as clear a way as I can, and try to identify the key points in confusing issues where people have to make decisions,” he said. “There’s no question there’s a little less stress.”

One of the dangers of media and public policy intersecting is overreacting to daily stories in the media when in government, Stephanopoulos said, noting the October 1993 incident in Mogadishu, Somalia, where eighteen soldiers were killed.

“One of the dangers we saw is that harsh pictures can have a disproportionate effect,” he said of the nightmarish images. “Almost immediately, political support for the operation in Somalia evaporated more quickly than public support did.”

However, “that isn’t an argument for censorship,” he said. He recalled arguments at ABC News the week before about showing pictures from Fallujah, Iraq, now the site of much bloodshed. There is a danger of appearing insensitive to your viewers, he said. “On the other hand, if you sanitize the war, you’re not giving them the tools to make the decision of whether we should be there.”

Another danger on the media’s part is allowing skepticism to slide too easily into cynicism about what administration officials are doing. “For me, I probably err too much on the other side because I served,” he said. “There are just as many times when you’re not-I’m not skeptical enough.”

Stephanopoulos said he was “torn” over the issue of media consolidation. “I think we’re overloaded with information,” he said. “Overall, there’s no problem with information. What we have is relatively few filters.”

There is the possibility of homogenization, he said, citing the “Fox Effect” during the last war when the network was literally waving the flag on its screens, which pressured the other news networks to do the same.

Stephanopoulos later cited the Rwandan genocide ten years ago as an example of the overload. “The political system and the media have a hard time dealing with more than one or two crises at the same time,” he said, calling it a “structural problem.” There wasn’t that much coverage of Rwanda in the American media, so it was “almost easier to say no” and focus on Bosnia. “I can only speak for myself, I don’t think that I was aware of the scale of the killing,” he said. “It was almost too much to comprehend.”

Asked what his prediction for the November elections would be, Stephanopoulos said, “The short and honest answer is I have no idea.” He pointed to historical indicators like President George Bush having no primary, a financial advantage, a focus on national security, job growth, and the continual up tick in the economy. “That leads you to think that the incumbent Republican president should win.”

But the country is evenly divided, he said, with only a small swing vote and twelve to fourteen battleground states. “I don’t think there’s any way to really know,” he said, adding, “[Nader] won’t have the impact he had last time.”

If there was a terrorist strike against the United States before the election, its effect on the election would depend on when it happened, he said. If it happens before September, there is the question of how much can people absorb: how big it is and who’s to blame. “You can’t answer those questions in the heat of the battle, right after an attack. If people had more time to look at it, it could cut a different way,” he said.

It is the same deal if Osama Bin Laden were to be captured. “You have to think it’s a big boost to the president. On the other hand, how long will it last? Saddam Hussein was captured in December, President Bush had one of the best weeks of his presidency. Saddam Hussein captured, the announcement that Libya was going to disarm, in the same week, his approval rating shot back up,” he said. “And then, a month later, David Kay comes out and says there were no weapons [of mass destruction], and starts a three-month slide. So again, it depends on when it happens.”

UMass Boston Chancellor Jo Ann Gora took to the microphone to ask Stephanopoulos’ appraisal of the Bush administration. While stating admiration for their discipline, Stephanopoulos pointed to a downside. “They were so disciplined, they were so controlled, that we didn’t necessarily have a full airing of what exactly was happening in the administration in the run-up to war and in the estimates of what Saddam Hussein had,” he said.

Compared to the Clinton administration, they are better in terms of long-term planning but worse in responding to events and being flexible in dealing with crises.

Stephanopoulos still maintains some semblance of a relationship with Clinton and wife Hillary, now a New York senator. “I’m not going to say we’re close,” he said, adding they have talked on several different occasions, and Senator Clinton was on his show in December to talk about Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I can’t wait to read his book,” he said of President Clinton’s memoirs, set for publication this summer.