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
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
[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.