BBC News has an interesting little segment on their Web site called "On This Day." It's a daily compilation of major news stories that happened "on this day" at various points in history. Today's edition caught our eye because it highlighted one chapter of one of the biggest media events in history. On Sept. 21, 1998, the videotape of then-President Bill Clinton's grand jury testimony about his relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky was released to the public and broadcast immediately by television networks. In an odd confluence of events, the tape was being shown to the nation just as Clinton was giving a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson was reporting on the release of Clinton's testimony that day and she recalls one of the more memorable elements of that experience – the spin:
My main memory of this day is how effectively the media had been "spun" in advance of the grand jury testimony video being released.
Before the video was made public, leaks had sprung up all over saying that those who had viewed President Clinton's testimony in advance said he "lost his temper," actually uttered cuss words, and stormed out of the room ... all captured on videotape. Rumors of the cucumber-cool president losing his temper on camera permeated all of Washington, D.C., and were even reported before the tape was ever shown.
Then, the tape was released. President Clinton was clearly uncomfortable at times. He certainly didn't come off well explaining about differing ideas of the definition for "is." But there were no outbursts, no cuss words, and he never stormed off camera.
So where did the bad information come from?
Well, without naming names, suffice it to say the advance leaks had come from allies of President Clinton's. The question is why would they mislead us as to the content of the video ... preparing us for a much worse performance by President Clinton than what we actually saw?
We may never know for sure. But the best we journalists could figure, the Clinton allies knew he didn't come off looking good in the testimony. So their strategy was to prepare the public for a worse scene ... a horrible scene. Then, when that scene never materialized, the public would think, "Hey, he didn't do so badly." And that was precisely the reaction I heard most among the public.
Washington, D.C.: The Ultimate Spin Zone.