Media Trial Instructions: Ray Surette s that “media trials are crucial in the social construction of crime-and-justice reality Not surprisingly, media trails involve cases that contain the same elements popular in entertainment programming – human interest laced with mystery, sex, bizarre circumstances, and famous or powerful people. In their coverage the media simplify the task of reporting, interpreting and explaining a trial. As in the entertainment media, recurrent themes dominate media trial constructions, and crime is nearly universally attributed to individual failings rather than to social conditions.
The three most common types of media trials utilize narratives taken directly from entertainment media: abuse of power, the sinful rich, and evil strangers. These themes provide the news media with powerful pre-established conceptual frameworks to present and mold the various aspects of a trial’s coverage.”
President Clinton is accused of obstruction of justice and perjury while attempting to conceal an affair with a White House intern. Verdict: The president is found innocent of the charges as U.S Senate votes on both articles of impeachment fall short of the two-thirds majority required to convict. Defendants: Clinton impeachment (1999)
Find materials on the internet which describe the trial, its outcome, and its media coverage.
Write an analysis (500 words minimum) in which you describe the trial, its outcome, and the media coverage in light of Surette’s statement above.
The Clinton Impeachment Trial
The impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton followed the lawsuit filed by Paula Jones on May 6, 1994 in the United States District Court for Eastern Arkansas for violations of her federal civil rights in 1991 by the president while he was governor of Arkansas and she was an Arkansas state employee, during which time Governor Clinton allegedly made crude sexual advances which she rejected.
The name of Monica Lewinsky, who had worked as a White House intern in 1995 was included in a list of potential witnesses prepared by the attorneys for Ms. Jones that was submitted to the President’s legal team. Ms. Lewinsky’s name was provided by Linda Tripp, a former White House employee, who became a confidante of Lewinsky and had tape recorded the various conversations with Lewinsky relating to her contacts with the president. Ms. Tripp also provided tapes of her conversations with Ms. Lewinsky to Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr, who had been appointed to investigate charges relating to the Whitewater real estate venture in Arkansas of the President and Mrs. Clinton.
Starr expanded his investigations of the President to include the allegations related to Lewinsky and whether the President himself had lied under oath in his own deposition taken in the Paula Jones litigation.
After being granted sweeping immunity from prosecution by Special Prosecutor Starr, Lewinsky admitted on July 1998 that she had a sexual relationship with the President that did not include intercourse but denied that she had ever been asked to lie about the relationship by the President or by those close to him.
On August 17, 1998, President Clinton admitted during his testimony his relationship with Lewinsky but denied that he perjured himself in the Paula Jones deposition because he did not interpret the conduct as constituting sexual relationship. He admitted the same on national television that evening.
In his detailed report to the Congress on September 29, 1998, Independent Counsel Starr maintained that there was substantial and credible information that President Clinton committed acts constituting grounds for impeachment by lying under oath in the Jones litigation and obstructing justice by urging Ms. Lewinsky to file an affidavit that he knew to be false.
On December 11 and 12, 1998, the House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary approved four articles of impeachment for presentation to the full House, of which the House approve two.
The impeachment trial commence on January 7, 1999 in the Senate. The Senate voted on the Articles of Impeachment on February 12, 1999. On Article I that charged the President to have willfully provided perjurious, false and misleading testimony to the grand jury and made corrupt efforts to influence the testimony of witnesses and to impede the discovery of evidence in the Paula Jones lawsuit and on Article II charging the President to have prevented, obstructed and impeded the administration of justice, the President was found not guilty.
Although he was not impeached, Clinton was forced to surrender his license to practice law due to subsequent actions against him in relation to the perjury allegations.1
The Media Coverage of the Scandal
News of the scandal first broke on January 17, 1998, on the Drudge Report website, which reported that the Newsweek editors were sitting on a story by investigative reporter Michael Isikoff exposing the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. The story broke in the mainstream press on January 21, 1998, when it hit the Washington Post.2
Experts observed that it was the media’s coverage that prolonged the trial and that it also affected the outcome. The media had framed the President in a very negative manner, showing every negative aspect of the scandal. What the media broadcasted over and over were the clips from Clinton’s testimony, when he appeared to be under distress and stumbling through his statements. The media also hounded Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp. This represents the perfect idea of media trial. convicting Clinton long before the impeachment trial and this is clearly shown that in the way the media framed the scandal and the trial itself.
There was a radical shift in popular support in favor of Clinton due to the excessive media lynching.
Ellen Shearer’s article in the American Editor on December 2, 1998 portrayed the unfair methods employed by the media. She quoted former Washington Post Ombudsman Geneva Overholser’s comment that the media has allowed itself to be used by leakers. by using unnamed sources, cover was given to people and encouraged their underhanded methods. This reflects the conservative criticism of Clinton and the heated liberal response thereto.
Todd Gitlin criticized, in the Washington Monthly in December 1998, the excessiveness of the media coverage. He repeated Chris Vlasto, an ABC News producer, statement as admitting that their network and the others have stoked the fires.
Infotainment Criteria Analysis
Ray Surette defined “media trials” in “The Media, The Public, and Criminal Justice Policy”3 as “high profile, intensely covered criminal investigations and judicial proceedings in which the criminal justice system is presented in infotainment styled miniseries. Because media trials are inherently infotainment, the news media utilize infotainment criteria to frame their coverage of crime and justice.”
Ray Surette also identified three flavors basic to media trials: 1) Sinful Rich, 2) Evil Stranger, and 3) Abuse of Power.4 The present subject political scandal belongs to the third type. The same elements are popular in entertainment programming.
To further make the subject trial palatable, nay, desirable, the media simplifies the reporting, interpreting and explaining the trial. The media content dominated by infotainment considerations are obviously distorted forms of social construction. The social impact of the media’s content is through the mechanics of social constructionism. The content comes to be important to the extent that we use it to construct each other’s reality.
The Clinton impeachment fits the central conditions of infotainment because the high political position of the United States president is filled with mystery and great power. It is a rare opportunity for people to look into the president’s individual failings and criticize and condemn him. Sex is also central to the story and involves circumstances that allow individuals through their collective opinions to directly see their impact in the political milieu.
The media portrayal of the impeachment trial produces a symbolic crime different from the actual crime subject of the trial. The symbolic crime is accepted by the society and forms part of the social morality and further transformed into social reality in public agenda, in the social weltanschauung and in public policy.
Wikipedia, May 30, 2006. Lewinsky Scandal. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lewinsky_scandal]
Ray Surette in, 2003. The Media, The Public, and Criminal Justice Policy. Journal of the Institute of Justice & International Studies, Number 2, 2003. Papers from November 2002 Crime, Media, & Public Policy Symposium. Institute of Justice & International Studies, Department of Criminal Justice, Central Missouri State University, Wassensburg, Missouri.
Rays Surette, 1989. Media Trials. 17 Journal of Criminal Justice.
Todd Gitlin, December 1998. The Clinton-Lewinsky Obsession – excessive media coverage of presidential scandal. Washington Monthly.
Ellen Shearer, December 2, 1998. The Scandal: A Self-Examination. Inside the Beltway. American Editor.