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NYT vs. WSJ - Editorial face-off on Bill Clinton.

I spent most of my senior year in college thinking about Monica, Bill, Ken, The New Times, and The Wall Street Journal. And that was months after the impeachment/trial hoopla, not to mention Lewinsky's appearance on Saturday Night Live. As a senior vying for some legacy at my university; I chose to study the Lewinsky affair for my undergraduate honors thesis. Unlike the majority of media scholars who prefer researching news coverage, I analyzed editorials written about the scandal.

I had no earlier research model to emulate, so developing and carrying out the methodology proved arduous. Luckily, I studied the works of two of the most informed editorial boards in the world.

My research had two levels: First, I compared the opinions of editorials in the Times and the Journal to one another; second, I very generally compared the papers' editorial musings on President Clinton to public opinion poll data.

Using Lexis-Nexis and looking at every month from January 1998 through February 1999, I found a total of 177 editorials dealing with the scandal in the two papers -- 102 from the Times and 75 from the Journal. I looked in depth at 91 of those editorials, but don't laugh, because I had to analyze every independent clause (and its dependents) in each editorial, thus, 3,009 units of analysis. Among the findings:

* Both editorial boards gave the scandal exceptional prominence on their pages, and about 80% of the time the scandal-related pieces led all other editorials. The Journal spent more energy on the topic by devoting to it a higher percentage of commentary (13%) than the Times (7%). The difference was significant, especially considering that the Times publishes more often and writes more editorials.

* The Times devoted about a quarter of its commentary to stating direct opinions or commands, while the Journal devoted only 15% of its ink to opinions/commands. Along with being more opinionated, the Times also used more analytical writing than the Journal (56% to 46% of evaluated clauses were categorized as "analytical/predictive").

Meanwhile, the Journal used quotes from outside sources three times as often as the Times (18% to 6%), relying on other people's opinions to convey its own, something I consider a rather weak tool.

Just from reading the editorials, though, I have to admit I'd take a Journal editorial over one from the Times any day. They're simply more creative, while the Times' editorials tend to be rather dry. (Was that the sound of a job opportunity flushing down the toilet? Forgive me, Howell Raines!)

* To their credit, both papers overwhelmingly -- about 80% of the time -- framed the matter as a legal issue, not a sexual one.

* The Times criticized Clinton in 17% of its clauses, beating the Journal's 13%. Considering how passionately the Journal dislikes our president, its shortfall here proved surprising. I have to agree with one of my advisors, professor Chuck Stone, who said the Times apparently had more to prove when the man it endorsed turned out to be slimier than originally anticipated.

* As far as Kenneth Starr ... well, most of the time, the editorials ignored the independent counsel, neither praising nor criticizing him, though they did mention his name or office fairly regularly. This was a disturbing finding, indeed. Starr was clearly the second most important figure in the scandal, yet the Times criticized him in 2% of the evaluated clauses and the Journal in 1%. Support for Starr was even less. Where were you guys?

In Part Two, which dealt with public opinion polls as well as editorial opinions, I stuck to the very basics, using Gallup Polls and my eyes -- not software -- to note some general fluctuations in charts. Sorry, but I only had eight months.

Clinton's job approval ratings were fairly steady -- and high -- throughout the course of the scandal; the editorials, meanwhile stepped up their criticism of him after he admitted lying to the country on August 17, 1998. If anything, this signified a disconnect between public and editorial opinion. However, a dip in Clinton's "favorability" rating after August 17 correlated with an increase in editorial dissatisfaction with the president. The increase in his favorability ratings during the last two months also coincided with less criticism in the editorials, but the decrease in commentary was probably because the writers focused more on Congress than Clinton at that stage.

Clinton's approval rating "as a person" was consistently low and corresponded with high criticism levels in the papers that began even before this poll question was asked. During the impeachment and trial process, Clinton's personal rating dipped even lower while editorial criticism decreased -- in the Times more than in the Journal. Once again, however, this decrease was probably because of a change of focus by the writers.

These conclusions rely on a methodology I designed and the numbers it produced. But after spending so much time on the topic, I'm convinced that editorial writing is one area where formulas, percentages, and statistical software can offer only cursory and ephemeral conclusions. Numbers simply cannot explain the intricacies, fluctuations, and beauty of written opinion, and they can offer only limited responses to the ultimate question: Do editorials make a difference?

None of those few-and-far-between journal articles about editorials claims to offer universal, timeless answers to that question, and perhaps it's just as well. It's too easy to adhere to concrete conclusions and established formulas. And if there's one thing editorial writers need to do, it's take risks and not conform.

Nahal Toosi graduated this year with highest honors from the University of North Carolina at chapel Hill, where she majored in journalism and political science.
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Publication:The Masthead
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2000
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