- - Wednesday, December 31, 2014

One of the country’s best media watchers has turned his attention to some major reporting debacles, missteps and missed opportunities which have had continuing repercussions over the past 20 years.

W. Joseph Campbell’s new book, “1995: The Year the Future Began,” assesses a series of important events from that year, highlighted by the rise of the “World Wide Web” and beginning of the affair between President Clinton and White House intern Monica Lewinsky. In between, the American University professor looks at the coverage of other key news stories in 1995, including the Oklahoma City bombing, the O.J. Simpson trial and the Bosnian peace accords.

The year 1995 “probably is not recalled as dramatically as other years. But once people start thinking and talking about it, they realize it was an important year,” he said in an interview.

Intertwined as a subtext in the book’s review of these events were some major failures of the U.S. media.

Mr. Campbell noted most of the mainstream media scoffed at the Internet in 1995 — a time when few people had access to online news and information. That disparaging attitude led to the failure of many news organizations to adapt to the new technology — a serious miscalculation that allowed online websites to essentially undermine the legacy media and bricks-and-mortar businesses. It was in 1995, for example, that Amazon.com, Craigslist.com, eBay.com, Match.com and others launched their operations.

“The World Wide Web is more robust than anyone could have imagined 20 years ago,” he said.

Consider also the coverage of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995, which killed 168 people and remains the deadliest terror incident committed by U.S. citizens. The media and investigating authorities focused erroneously in the initial days on Middle East terrorists. I would argue — although Mr. Campbell disagreed — that the subsequent investigation of militias took away from the intelligence-gathering on al Qaeda and other international terrorist groups. It seems clear that Timothy McVeigh and two of his cohorts were responsible for the attack, despite the notions of some conspiracy buffs.

The third important event of 1995 — the murder trial of O.J. Simpson — remains a classic case of media hype after Judge Lance Ito unfortunately allowed wall-to-wall television coverage of the legal proceedings. “The trial spread across the year as an indelible stain,” Mr. Campbell said.

Moreover, the press coverage seemed to indicate a slam-dunk win for the prosecution up until the moment the jury announced its verdict of not guilty. That decision stunned many people and exposed a major fissure between whites, who thought Mr. Simpson was guilty, and blacks, who did not.

The fourth event that year — one most people probably do not recall today — was the peace accord to end the conflict in Bosnia, where more than 100,000 people died, including many civilians. As Mr. Campbell pointed out in his book, the war was the deadliest in Europe since World War II. Here, the negotiations, which took place on a military base in Dayton, Ohio, restricted press access because the U.S. government wisely realized media coverage might derail any serious talks.

Finally, Mr. Campbell assesses the long-term implications of the relationship between Ms. Lewinsky and Mr. Clinton, which began in 1995. Newsweek spiked the story three years later; a little-known Web news “aggregator” named Matt Drudge made his name by running it. Also, the media paid little attention to Mr. Clinton losing his law license and settling out of court with one of his accusers who said he sexually harassed her.

“I would not be surprised if [the scandal] resurfaces in 2016 if Hillary Clinton runs for president,” Mr. Campbell said.

But that, along with a thoughtful focus on the legacy of the other trends from 1995, would depend on an inquisitive and persistent press, which the author found wanting in many of the important events he has chronicled.

Christopher Harper is a longtime reporter who teaches journalism at Temple University. He can be contacted at charper@washingtontimes.com and followed on Twitter @charper51.

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