President Clinton’s fall tour of South America raised an important question: What has happened to the adversarial role of White House television journalists? ABC’s John Donvan reported that the President’s photo-op tour of Caracas left Venezuela glowing. He said the President was greeted warmly and that his speech was an overwhelming success. There was a sound bite of President Clinton speaking in Spanish, “Todo esta chevare en Caracas” (sound of cheering). According to Donvan everybody there thought the President was “chevare,” too. That’s “terrific.”

But that is not what really happened, according to many newspaper accounts. The Chicago Tribune headlined: “Clinton trade mission finding few friends.” The article continued, “Despite Clinton’s efforts the crowd that gathered for the speech was small . . . did not come close to filling the plaza.” How close is not close? The Washington Post said, “a crowd of about 2,000 people was polite. . . . The capital’s famed Plaza El Pantheon was two-thirds empty. This was far from the ecstatic popular outpouring the White House aides had predicted would greet the president on his first visit to South America.”

So rather than the enthusiastic greeting described on the network news, the speech was a disappointment. The TV news screen showing the speech was a shot so tight that viewers could see only about ten rows back. Little did they know that most of the plaza was empty. Other White House reporters were also content to report what the White House predicted and desired, rather than what actually occurred.

Why was there so little enthusiasm for Clinton’s visit? Was it because he was asking South America to accept a trade agreement? Or does the Clinton White House have a problem with diplomacy? This administration gave us William Weld as a nominee for ambassador to Mexico. Weld promptly insulted the chairman of the committee that must approve his appointment—not exactly a stroke of genius.

Could this diplomacy gap actually be a chasm? The London Telegraph wrote, “American demands that Brazil prepare for President Clinton’s arrival by putting back its clocks, shutting down railway services and chopping down trees that might conceal snipers, insured a peppery welcome for the ‘arrogant great gringo.'” But no one heard about the “arrogant great gringo” on the TV evening news. Only the print media reported that “The White House declined to comment on a series of diplomatic gaffes which mean despite the neighborly talk of shared values, Mr. Clinton will have to endure the ritual hostility which is the traditional backdrop for presidential visits to the South.” For instance, “Brazil’s Chief Justice Selso de Mello turned down an invitation to dinner with Mr. Clinton in protest to an American embassy document which dismissed the country’s judicial system as inefficient. The American ambassador, Melvyn Levitsky, has spent a week trying to undo misunderstandings and apologizing for a reference to endemic corruption in Brazilian culture.” The goodwill salvaged by the apology was scuppered again that weekend by a White House memo to the American press corps, describing Rio de Janeiro as one of the most dangerous cities in the world. It also said that Sao Paulo commuters make love in their cars during traffic jams and that Brasilia is a dry and sterile city just as soulless as its administration. Even President Fernando Henrique Cardoso showed a flash of irritation after hearing that the White House wanted to change the time of a state dinner at his palace. He said, “Who decides about what time I have dinner at my place? That’s me!” Brazilian Senate Chairman Antonio Carlos Magalhaes referred to the “typical arrogance one can expect from Americans.” And the leader of the lower house of Brazil’s parliament said simply, “I hate Americans!” The Chicago Tribune wrote, “People gathered along the motorcade route to watch Clinton go by, but there was little cheering or waving, mainly stares.”

The presidential tour may have been important for legitimate reasons, but is it not equally important to report whether the white House is handling our national interests adroitly—or ineptly? While America’s TV viewers enjoyed rosy photo-ops and rousing descriptions, print readers discovered that the Clinton tour ended with animal manure thrown on our President’s limousine. UPI reported that dozens of protesters in Rio chanted anti-American slogans and held up signs reading, “Go home Clinton”; one in Portuguese read, “Yankee parasite get out of Brazil.” Later, a rampaging mob smashed the windows of stores and cars, threw Molotov cocktails into banks, and set small fires in stores to protest President Clinton, while he savored an elegant state dinner two blocks away.

One can understand the White House wanting to put a positive spin on such a disaster. More difficult to grasp is how TV journalists can simply surrender their adversarial duty and become the P.R. corps, instead of the press corps. Network TV news viewership has dropped precipitously over the past few years, and for good reason.