Students in GW’s School of Media and Public Affairs participated in a CNN town hall meeting at the Newseum Wednesday night as a panel of journalists discussed media coverage of the recent scandal surrounding the White House.
Allegations President Clinton had an affair with a former White House intern prompted a flood of journalists’ interview requests aimed at GW students and professors.
GW students, who accounted for nearly half of the 80-person audience, had the opportunity to question 10 prominent journalists, including CBS anchor Dan Rather and Washington Post columnist David Broder.
Producers of the two-hour meeting called GW Director of Public Affairs Mike Freedman about 24 hours before the show’s live broadcast, requesting 15 students to partake in the discussion. But almost 40 students attended the show.
“CNN knows that GW students are always interested in these opportunities,” Freedman said. “Time and time again, CNN has come to us, and our students always come through.”
The panel discussion, hosted by CNN’s Jeff Greenfield, revolved around the evolution of the news media – from an information source into a business of “all scandal all the time.” Panel members specifically addressed the tactics, ethics and expectations for coverage of the president.
CNN commentator Bruce Morton asked, “Have the mainstream media reached a new high in lurid lows?”
The pressure to get the story first above the pressure to get the story right has led to changing journalistic standards, panel members said.
“There’s a temptation for the story to outpace what is factually known,” White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said via satellite.
But Frank Sesno, CNN Washington Bureau chief, said the current controversy in Washington is more serious than just a race to the deadline.
“I’m sure anybody with an ounce of competitiveness in them would love to be the 90s’ Woodward and Bernstein, but I don’t think that is what this story is about,” he said.
“I think this story is about questions that have been raised, allegations that have been made that go to the core of this president and the presidency that involve not just salacious issues, but potentially criminal issues,” Sesno said.
The panel also examined the Internet’s role in this story and the role of comedians, with panelist Bill Maher, host of ABC’s “Politically Incorrect.”
Junior Jason Haber, an audience member, said discussion among journalists about the nature of the news business and its coverage of the president is essential.
“(The impact of the media) is something that’s really important,” Haber said. “What amazes me is how fast this story broke.”
Twenty-five years ago, the Watergate scandal, which led to the resignation of President Nixon, took two years to develop. But a week after the current allegations against President Clinton arose, impeachment already has been mentioned, Haber said.
“Look at how news is constant. You can’t escape news,” he said. “We’re in a new age and it’s dangerous.”