Monica, UBL, Fox, CBS, and the Washington Post

Today’s WashPost introduces a forthcoming book, “Bad News,” by Tom Fenton, who retired from CBS and writes about his years there. (

The article indicates that Fenton wanted to report on Osama bin Laden, for example, back in 1996, but was debarred from doing so by his network, for business reasons.


Fenton’s apparently well-placed criticisms of “corporate bean counters” probably deserve a better send-off than this Howard Kurtz piece (which appeared in print this morning but is billed as an “online-only column” on the web site). Kurtz has had something of a heyday for him, this fall, running thousands of words criticizing CBS over those truthful memos about George W. Bush’s ducking combat in Vietnam. The memo articles ran to far more length than the Post devoted in those same weeks to, for example, Iraqi dead.


That aside, if you’re going to criticize CBS for not running much early material about Osama bin Laden, it might occur to you to check the same topic for your own organization.


A quick Lexis-Nexis check shows that the Washington Post mentioned UBL a total of seven times from 1990 to 1996. Obviously, with little video footage of bin Laden available, he wasn’t going to land on TV much. The Post beat CBS by 7 to 0, or one item per year, for those 7 years.


In 1997, CBS mentioned UBL two to four times. The Post mentioned him 3 times – on pages A30, A7, and A34 – yes, a mention that bin Laden had made threats “against the United States and its 40,000 citizens in Saudi Arabia” actually got into a 626-word article on Page 7.


In 1998, the score was 253 hits for UBL on CBS, 150 for the Post. That year saw the embassy bombings in Africa, Clinton’s missile strikes, and a federal indictment linking bin Laden to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. In 1999, it was 250 for CBS, 139 for the Post; in 2000 the score was 154 hits for UBL on CBS, 135 in the Post.


Admittedly, Lexis produces some duplicate hits, and more for transcripts than for print reports. For additional perspective, let’s turn to another topic.


In 1993-94, Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey got 83 mentions in the WashPost, compared to 1 (one) for UBL. In 1995-96, they got 58 mentions in the Post to UBL’s 7. In 1997 they trounced UBL 136 to 3 in the Post. Even in 1998, Willey and Jones still stomped on UBL by 978 to 150; in 1999, by 263 to 139. Only in 2000 did that particular vein peter out.


But by then it had been replaced by Monica. In 1998 – right around the time bin Laden was starting to make the US news cycles, as luck would have it — the whole Lewinsky mess hit the fan.


In 1998, Monica Lewinsky (or Monica S. Lewinsky, if you prefer), previously even less a household name than Osama bin Laden, made it into the Washington Post some 2,144 times. (That’s 2144 to 150, for those of you keeping score.) In 1999, she got 738 hits in the Post (to 139 for UBL); in 2000, she still got 363 mentions (to 135 for UBL).


Of course, CBS also hurled itself into this pitfall, with over 3400 hits for Monica in 1998, 818 hits in 1999, and 168 in 2000. Still, Dan Rather was among very few highly placed news people who complained early about the Monica saturation and tried to resist it. Once Lewinsky became combined with impeachment, resistance became impossible.


In fact, once you notice that the rightwing onslaught of criticism about Lewinsky successfully displaced assaults on US embassies by Osama bin Laden in the news, and that thousands of FBI man hours were removed from counter-terrorism and trained on Bill Clinton instead, you have to wonder how any fervid GWBush supporters get away with using a word like “treason.”


That brings us to Fox News. According to the transcripts database, throughout all the years from 1990 through 1997, Fox News mentioned Osama bin Laden a total of zero times. In 1998 – year of the embassy bombings, etc. – Fox mentioned UBL a total of 16 times. In 1999, UBL got 48 hits on Fox; in 2000, he again got 16.


Fox, of course, is a smaller network. Still, it managed to mention Lewinsky 743 times in 1998, 689 times in 1999, and 300 times in 2000. UBL was even more thoroughly trounced by Monica on Fox than he was in the Post.


By the way, those hyper-sophisticated film savants at Fox also mentioned “Wag the Dog” 41 times in 1998, and 5 of those hits are in combination with UBL. So you can subtract those five from Fox’s 16 mentions of UBL in 1998.


Looks as though nobody working for Rupert Murdoch had any inkling, any at all, that someone like bin Laden could pose a threat to Americans.


One more note: in 1998, CBS mentioned Osama bin Laden in connection with the World Trade Center 28 times. Doesn’t sound like much, maybe, considering that the 1993 bombings of the WTC had been linked to persons associated with bin Laden. But the Washington Post mentioned bin Laden in connection with the WTC, that same year, only 18 times.


And Fox News? Fox mentioned bin Laden in connection with the World Trade Center exactly once in 1998. The item was on August 25, on “Fox Special Report with Brit Hume,” with a vacationing Hume replaced by Tony Snow. The UBL item was rather quickly dispatched at the top of the program, superseded by leaks from the Monica investigation.

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