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March 5, 1998

American Experience features journalist Sam Donaldson

Sam Donaldson thought he had seen every slick trick of media manipulation during his first stint as ABC-TV's chief White House correspondent, from 1979 to 1989.

But then he returned to the White House beat this year — and confronted President Clinton's staff.

"Oh, they're much slicker" than even Ronald Reagan and his people, Donaldson said during a March 2 discussion with local reporters.

"Jimmy Carter's people would say, 'We're going to stage this event. We hope you'll put it on the air. Of course, we'll let you cover other things, too, but we hope this is the one you use,'" Donaldson recalled.

"The Reagan people would say, 'We're going to stage this event, and it's the only one we're going to let you see today. Now, you can take a pass [on covering this event], but you'll have nothing else to report today.

"The Clinton people say, 'Just send us your cameras. Our boss will do it all for you. He's Peter Jennings. He's Ted Koppel. He walks with children. He does town meetings. We don't need your reporters, but we do need your cameras — on our terms." Such effrontery is "kind of breathtaking," Donaldson confided. "We reporters fight against it, but we're competitive, you see, so it's almost irresistible to fall in with their plans. We don't want to miss out on anything." There's no such thing as absolute manipulation of the news media, though, according to Donaldson. "Let's say you're Willie Sutton and you've robbed the bank. Even though you know how to use the techniques of television, you're going to the slammer, in my view, if we have the evidence." Most TV viewers think "slicker is better," Donaldson said. "Remember that television is a two-edged sword. We're better informed as a people than ever before, thanks in large measure to mass communications. The other edge of that sword is that we like Hollywood values and production." Donaldson made his remarks prior to speaking at the invitation-only American Experience Distinguished Lecture in the David Lawrence Hall Auditorium.

–Bruce Steele

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