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The Power of Words: Written and Spoken


Multimedia engages reading, listening, and viewing. The vast majority of source material for scholars comes from text which we process and evaluate through reading. Sometimes we forget that text is a substitute for oral or visual communication. When the text and other sources of information conflict, which one do we prefer and why do we prefer it?

To explore this issue, we have chosen a high-visibility example that illustrates the limits of the printed word to convey the "truth" surrounding an event. As you read -- and listen -- ask yourself whether the printed or the spoken word is the better basis for your judgment. The point we wish to make is aptly illustrated by the contrast between the written and spoken record. The example has contemporary flair.


The Paula Jones controversy continually hounded President Bill Clinton. The story as originally reported in print stands in contrast to the story told by other media. Our purpose is to compare the impressions created by print and audio sources of the same event. You can judge whether or not "All the News That's Fit to Print" is all the news.

Allegations of then Gov. Clinton's dalliances began to surface in December 1993, when two Arkansas state troopers alleged that they had arranged meetings for Clinton with several women. Paula Jones later stepped forward alleging that she had met with the Governor in a Little Rock hotel room.

The trooper story broke on December 22, 1993, a day the White House had scheduled for year-end meetings with reporters. The meeting was audiotaped. Gwen Ifill accurately reported President Clinton's response to the troopers' allegations in the New York Times on December 23, 1993. The story follows below. The link will connect to the audio portion of the interview.

Clinton Denies Trying to Stifle Charges


December 23, 1993; p. A14 (National Edition)

President Clinton said today that he had never tried to use the weight of his office to suppress accusations by state troopers that he had conducted sexual liaisons while Governor of Arkansas.

Asked if he had offered jobs to the two Arkansas state troopers who have said in several recent interviews that they helped arrange meetings with several women for Mr. Clinton and hide those meetings from his wife, Mr. Clinton responded, "That absolutely did not happen."

Avoiding saying anything that could lend credence to the troopers' accusations, Mr. Clinton refused to answer questions about the most personal elements of the allegations. He said that a formal White House statement on the matter, combined with comments made Tuesday by his wife, Hillary, included all that needed to be said about the matter.

"The stories are just as they have been said," he said in an interview with radio reporters in the Oval Office. "They are outrageous, and they are not so. We have not done anything wrong. The allegations on the abuse of the state or the Federal positions I have, it is not true."




Focus on Role as President


Mr. Clinton suggested that questions about his personal life were not relevant to his role as President and added that he would address the accusations only to assert that he had not betrayed the public trust.

"The only relevant questions are questions of whether I have abused my office, and the answer is no," he said in a subsequent interview with National Public Radio. "We've otherwise responded clearly to the allegations that were made, and I just don't think I should say any more about it."

Mr. Clinton made his comments in a year-end interviews that had been scheduled for today before the accusations were reported, and he was reluctantly drawn into discussion about them by repeated questions. In the interviews, Mr. Clinton also touched on other issues, saying the low point during his first year in office was the death of 18 American soldiers in October when a military operation in Somalia failed. He said he was most surprised as President by an entrenched resistance to change in Washington.

[The story continues for several more paragraphs.]



Does the audio account of the news conference match the impression created by the Times article? How might the Times have reported the story to match the impression created by the audio account? What is the responsibility of the press -- and of editors -- to capture the "emotive" element in spoken words? Do journalists have reliable standards to employ when they go beyond the words themselves? We certainly do not have any authoritative answers to these questions. We simply thought to pose them with the hope that you will think about the power of words, written and spoken.