Newsreal: Toothless hounds

Now that Kenneth Starr's crusade has turned upon the press itself, his loyalists at the New York Times and Washington Post have finally raised a meek and begrudging protest.

By Andrew Ross
Published February 26, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

A government law enforcement official doesn't like how he's being criticized in some corners of the press, so he hauls a perceived enemy into court to explain how such criticisms appeared. A judge sees nothing wrong with the procedure, so the government official's target is forced, under oath, to testify about contacts he may have had with the press, and even to submit phone records of his conversations with reporters. If the person demurs at such an invasion of privacy, he will be slung in jail.

The Soviet Union in the time of Beria? No, it's the United States in the age of Kenneth Starr, the apparently unstoppable "independent counsel" who has now decided to drive a tank through the Constitution if that's what it takes to get President Clinton.

But as most of the nation's elected representatives stand mute in the face of such grotesque assaults on basic rights, and the vast legal machinery that is supposed to ward off such threats remains frozen in uselessness, there are signs that the press may, at long last, be rethinking its Pravda-like role as the unquestioning mouthpiece of the Inquisitor-General.

Belatedly, tentatively, the agenda-setting organs of the Fourth Estate, the Washington Post and the New York Times, have suggested that there may be something wrong with Starr's pursuit of White House aide Sidney Blumenthal, who was scheduled to go before a grand jury, phone logs in hand, on Thursday.

A Washington Post editorial on Wednesday daringly suggested that Starr's actions may be -- may be -- "an abuse of power." As the Post bravely observed: "A grand jury investigation is supposed to focus on allegations of criminal conduct, and a subpoena is not meant to be used as a retaliatory gesture. There is, at this stage, no public evidence suggesting that Mr. Blumenthal's media campaign or his documents related to Mr. Starr are germane to any criminal allegations. Mr. Starr's explanation yesterday -- that the 'misinformation' spread about prosecutors may be 'intended to intimidate prosecutors and investigators, impede the work of the grand jury, or otherwise obstruct justice' -- seems pretty thin."

Under the heading "Ken Starr's Misjudgments," the New York Times editorialized Wednesday that the independent counsel "has failed in his obligation to the law itself. The effort to collect the name of every journalist who talked with a White House communications specialist amounts to a perverse use of the prosecutorial mandate to learn what the Nixon White House attempted to determine through wiretaps."

If Starr has indeed "failed in his obligation to the law itself," one might expect trumpet calls for his resignation to blare from West 43rd Street. If, as the Post states, Starr's actions could justify criticisms that his inquiry is "a reckless and partisan attack on the president," then that paper's investigative hounds, led by Bob Woodward, will at long last be set loose on the office of the independent counsel. Right?

Don't hold your breath. Both newspapers have a great deal to lose should they now choose to storm Starr's ramparts. People might start to wonder where the Times and the Post have been all this time. Embarrassing questions might be asked about their sloppy, biased, error-filled and just plain vengeful coverage of the "Clinton scandals." Too many high-paid reporters and editors at both papers nailed their flags to the scandal mast and they'll be damned if they're going to see their reputations reduced to tatters.

So vested are they in the notion of Clinton's villainy that both papers are now forced into painful contortions to account for Starr's misdeeds. In its Wednesday editorial, the Post describes the clash between the Clinton and Starr camps as "a race to the bottom," and goes on to aver that "the president's defenders have decided that smearing investigators -- rather than answering questions -- is the appropriate means of defending Mr. Clinton." What "smearing" and which "investigators" is the Post referring to? Private detective Terry Lenzner, who quite legitimately has been hired by President Clinton's defense team in the Paula Jones civil suit? Or do they mean the published stories about prior goon-squad behavior on the part of two of Starr's prosecutors, Bruce Udolf and Michael Emmick, which are a matter of public record and which have not been denied?

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In the final analysis, this mess is all Clinton's fault, concludes the Post. "The White House should remember that what is
driving this story," the Post pronounces, "is not the conduct of Mr.
Starr's staff, alleged leaks, supposed media bias or -- in Mrs. Clinton's
now famous words -- a 'vast right-wing conspiracy.' Mr. Clinton is the only
one who can make this matter go away, and he remains entirely free to do so
at any time." Tell that to the Inquisitor-General.

The Times takes the same tack. Starr's "failure in his obligation to the
law" is, in its view, primarily a PR problem. The zealous prosecutor suffers from a "tin ear." Sure, Starr has launched "an attack on press
freedom and the unrestricted flow of information that is unwarranted by the
facts and beyond his mandate as a prosecutor." But at heart, this is simply just another example of Starr's "chronic clumsiness and periodic insensitivity." If Starr has overreacted, opines the Times, he was provoked. "Mr. Starr may ... be miffed by reports that the White House has turned its trademark tool of personal attack on his prosecutorial staff." In other words, it's the White House's fault.

And when the president's lawyers, with ample reason, complain about
the illegal leaking from the sieve-like office of the independent counsel
(often into the receptive ears of the Times' Washington bureau), it's
"demagogic." In the
Times' view, there are no criticisms of Starr that have not been
engineered and floated by the White House. According to reporter John M. Broder (no relation to Salon's Jonathan
Broder) in the Feb. 25 edition, accusations that Starr was leaking secret
grand jury testimony to the press come from "Clinton loyalists." It's as if Times editors have function keys automatically set to insert boilerplate phrases in all Clinton coverage.

In a sidebar story, Broder and Don Van Natta Jr.
refer, with absolutely no proof, sources or elaboration (another Times
trademark in the Clinton scandal stories) to "a whispering campaign,
spearheaded by White House aides and Clinton loyalists," against Starr's
office. The fact that journalists, politicians and average citizens have been raising questions about the motivations and practices of Starr's
office ever since he was appointed independent counsel three and a half years ago seems to have escaped Van Natta's attention and that of his editor. And, of course, Blumenthal's efforts to point reporters in certain -- quite valid -- directions on the Starr story is simply "damage control." So says the Times' Michael Janofsky in a largely sneering profile of the White House

Perhaps the most telling example of the Times' convolutions in the face of
news it doesn't like to see came in its Feb. 24 story about the latest
New York Times/CBS News poll, which showed that President Clinton's approval
rating keeps climbing, despite the Monica Lewinsky affair. James Bennett and Janet Elder couldn't resist this sideswipe as they reported on this bit of good news for Clinton: "Judging from
the poll, the White House has plenty of political breathing room as it pursues its chosen strategy for dealing with Mr. Clinton's crisis, withholding information and attacking the independent prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr."

The reporters were then forced to explain (16 paragraphs into the story)
why, according to the Times' own poll, Starr enjoyed a 3-to-1
unfavorable rating, right down there with Newt Gingrich when the
Republicans shut the government down. "Perhaps taking a cue from White
House attacks
[my italics], 59 percent agreed with the proposition that
Mr. Starr was 'mostly conducting a partisan investigation to damage Bill
Clinton.'" In other words, according to the Times, the American public has
been brainwashed by the White House spinmeisters.

I could hardly be said to have taken my cue from the White House when I
wrote in Salon, shortly after news of the alleged intern scandal broke, that if
Clinton was lying about the affair -- and encouraging others do
so as well -- then he should resign immediately. I still believe that,
though with far less passion now. It seemed to me then that the most
important issue was the president's behavior and truthfulness, or lack
thereof. I still have doubts about that truthfulness, and as I have written
in the past, I believe that Clinton, if he should fall, will largely be the
author of his own woe.

But another issue is far more critical to the health of the republic --
and it is appalling that the most prestigious institutions of my chosen
profession (for 30 years, if you must know) are blindered to it. It's the
out-of-control independent counsel with his show trials, his crooked "star"
witnesses, his bully-boy assistants and his blatantly partisan political
agenda, which is starting to look like, as Arkansas Democrat-Gazette political columnist and Salon contributor Gene Lyons has said, an
attempted coup d'état.

For uttering such words, I might be the next one to be subpoenaed by Starr, who no doubt is convinced I've been put up to it by Sid Blumenthal. I'd like that. I've seen the ashen faces of others, like Lewinsky's mother,
emerging from a session of this latter-day Inquisition. But in my fantasy, I
stride into the grand jury room and tell Starr and his white-collar thugs
to stuff it. It's about time somebody did.

Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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