Newsreal: A massive journalistic breakdown

The nation's media elites have gotten the Clinton "scandals" wrong from Day 1.

By Mollie Dickenson

Published March 27, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

On March 5, Vernon Jordan went into Kenneth Starr's grand jury room to testify without the protection of immunity, and came out to chastise those in the press "who cast doubt on my friendship with President Clinton.

"Ours is an enduring friendship based on mutual respect, trust and admiration. That was true yesterday, it is true today, and it will be true tomorrow." Jordan's statement made for long reporters' faces and short reports on the next morning's news/talk shows. It wasn't what the press wanted -- or expected -- to hear.

Days before Jordan testified, the New York Times reported that Jordan was distancing himself from Clinton and wasn't about to go down with a sinking ship. "That's the way we send messages here in Washington," NBC's Tim Russert coyly, and erroneously, explained to the American people, "on the front page of the New York Times or the Washington Post."

The Post had also swallowed the media-invented rift between Clinton and Jordan, and repeated it again that morning. "Associates said ... that Jordan was not told Lewinsky would be a witness in the [Paula] Jones case when [Betty] Currie called him about career help." Well, no. According to Monica Lewinsky's lawyer, William Ginsburg, Lewinsky's first meeting with Jordan about a job was on Nov. 5, 1997, a full month before Jones' lawyers told the White House they might subpoena Lewinsky.

Likewise, the New York Times the next day omitted the Nov. 5 Jordan-Lewinsky meeting in their tick-tock of events. Furthermore, Lewinsky had had a White House-sponsored job interview even earlier, in October, with United Nations Ambassador Bill Richardson.

The chattering news shows have also made much of the fact that Vernon Jordan helped Lewinsky with her job seeking, and that Lewinsky made "37 visits" back to the White House after she was no longer an intern there. They seem unable to place in context the fact that Jordan is a close friend of Monica Lewinsky's mother's fianci, R. Peter Straus; he delivered a eulogy at Straus' wife's funeral. Lewinsky's mother, Marcia Lewis, is also a friend of New York insurance magnate Walter Kaye, who has donated $350,000 to the Democratic party in the past five years and who recommended Lewinsky for her White House internship. Kaye is a friend of both Hillary Clinton and Betty Currie; he has contributed to Clinton's legal defense fund. It is hardly surprising that Jordan and others would take especially good care of Kaye's protigi.

Wishful thinking masquerading as reporting has characterized much of the news of the alleged scandals surrounding President Clinton. Even so, the Post of late has begun to add a modicum of balance to its coverage. For the first time in its six years of Whitewater coverage, the March 2 edition ran a front-page story about Clinton's virulent enemies in Arkansas. The Times, whose coverage of Clinton has been as negative as the Post's, followed suit with a March 9 story about the weariness, exasperation and intimidation experienced by the citizens of Little Rock, Ark., who have played glum host to Kenneth Starr's overbearing investigators for six years.

Days earlier, Post executive editor Leonard Downie told a gathering of news executives: "Whitewater is far different than Watergate ... And the alleged offenses are quite different. Nixon was accused of misusing government -- misusing the power the American people gave him. That may wind up being part of the allegations in this case, but it began first as an alleged sexual matter within the White House -- which raised this other different and interesting question of when one's personal conduct when you're president of the United States becomes public conduct."

Downie's murky and peculiar statement bears little resemblance to his paper's Whitewater coverage. Whitewater was a 20-year-old land deal involving a former governor of Arkansas. But the Post has treated it as if it were Watergate -- unfortunately, without the great care that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought to the story under former Post executive editor Ben Bradlee.

Downie also stated that the Post has committed no errors in its Lewinsky reportage so far. But the Post has repeated all of the erroneous stories from other news organizations, including the infamous semen-stained dresses that turned out not to exist and the Secret Service eyewitnesses who weren't. More important, it has indulged in omission of facts that are exonerative of the Clintons.

A case in point is reporter Susan Schmidt's interview with uniformed Secret Service officer Lewis Fox. Schmidt quotes Fox as saying that in November 1997 Lewinsky spent "at least 40 minutes alone with Clinton while Fox was posted outside the Oval Office door." Significantly, Schmidt points out, "Fox is the first person to publicly say that he saw the president and Lewinsky alone together," a "critical" statement, she tells us, for Starr in his attempt "to determine whether Clinton did have a relationship with Lewinsky and then attempt to conceal it."

Schmidt omitted to tell Post readers that in an earlier interview in the Washington (Pa.) Observer-Reporter, Fox said, "It would be difficult for President Clinton and Lewinsky to have had any type of sexual encounter there." Because of its many windows, the interior of the office is visible from other parts of the White House, Fox said. In addition, an attendant was usually on duty in a pantry next to the office and a security guard was posted outside the door. With security and other people constantly coming and going, Fox said, he found it difficult to imagine when the president would have had a chance to conduct an affair with another woman anywhere in the White House. "You just can't understand until you go there and see." No small omission.

For four and a half years, Schmidt, Peter Baker and their editors have alleged various wrongdoing by the Clintons, partially through publishing damaging leaks about them from Starr's office. As noted in Salon in February, the Post's cozy relationship with the independent counsel may be related to then-Judge Starr's dismissal of an $11 million libel suit in 1987. Starr, of course, has assiduously cultivated many others in the media. In his new book, "Spin Cycle," Howard Kurtz reports that White House reporters "liked Starr and his prosecutors and tended to give them the benefit of the doubt." On "Inside Washington" recently, National Public Radio's Nina Totenberg said, "I consider Ken Starr to be a friend and a colleague," even as she criticized Starr's subpoenaing White House aide Sidney Blumenthal to testify about his contacts with the media.

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The mocking tone of the newspaper and television coverage of the Clintons springs out of the scorn and derision -- loathing, even -- heaped on the Clintons in private
by the media elite in Washington and New York. Washington Post writer Sally Quinn exemplified the attitude in a recent Sunday Post magazine story. Of a
recent embassy dinner, she wrote, "You could sense the distinction Washington
makes between one of its own -- Vernon Jordan -- and the president
he serves, who is not of this town and who will be gone in less
than three years, if not sooner." Quinn added that a "scandal of this sort
can be divisive for the establishment," but can also be a good thing, "in
part because the elite rallies to preserve its institutions against
interlopers [perhaps the Clintons] who might corrode or undermine them."

In Washington, as everywhere, everybody wants to belong. Having out-of-the-mainstream views on Clinton is not the right
prescription for rubbing elbows with the media and social elite,
which in this town are almost one and the same. People with
minority opinions mute them: As Texas columnist
Molly Ivins has observed, "Washington has the lowest level of
discourse of any place in the country." In fact, it is somewhat
dangerous both personally and professionally to be out of the mainstream on this story.

In this case the story, as told, is flawed, misleading and just plain wrong. What we have witnessed in the Clinton "scandals" is a massive journalistic breakdown that has been building since Whitewater first broke. Led by the nation's two preeminent newspapers, the New York Times and the Washington Post, the elite band of reporters and editors swallowed false allegations from the get-go, thanks largely to their failure to fully understand the complicated legal and financial transactions that underlie the original Whitewater story.

Similarly flawed reporting has appeared in Newsweek (Michael Isikoff, Howard Fineman and Evan Thomas), the
American Lawyer (Stuart Taylor, who bought into Paula Jones' increasingly
discredited stories)
and the New Yorker (Peter Boyer, James B. Stewart and the
Clinton-loathing Michael Kelly), and has filtered down to newsrooms across the country.

The Times' Maureen Dowd summed up the elite view of Whitewater: "By now we all know the Clintons did something wrong in Arkansas." Based on what? After four
years of investigating the Clintons, Starr has brought no charges based on those allegations against him. Instead,
American taxpayers have paid for a six-year smear campaign, beginning in
Arkansas with convicted thief and con man David Hale (who, Salon recently revealed,
was getting payoffs from Richard Mellon Scaife's scurrilous "Arkansas Project") and ending with a prurient probe, based on
illegally taped allegations, into a president's sex life.

The lack of hard information on the Lewinsky story
hasn't stopped the unalloyed presumption of Clinton's guilt,
either. As comedian Al Franken said on "Larry King Live" recently,
"I get my best information from the retractions in the Dallas
Morning News, ABC-TV and the Wall Street Journal."

But there are finally signs
of some serious rethinking going on. In a March 24 column, Robert Scheer
accused his own paper, the Los Angeles Times, of relying in part on the
"same dubious sources" used by David Brock and the American Spectator for
its own "Troopergate" story in 1992. He also repeats one of the trooper's
more recent charges, in a sworn deposition that was originally reported by
that a Los Angeles Times reporter "put words in my mouth."

In the March/April issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, veteran
political reporter Jules Witcover takes a hard, critical look at the "major
piling-on by much of American print and electronic journalism" covering the
Clinton "scandals." The two-source rule that Washington Post editors
applied to Watergate "was summarily abandoned by many news outlets. As
often as not, reports were published or broadcast without a single source
named, or mentioned in attribution so vague as to be worthless." Witcover's
observations apply not just to tabloid programs like "Hard Copy" but to the
New York Times and the Washington Post.

Former Atlanta Constitution editor Bill Kovach, now chairman of the
Committee of Concerned Journalists and curator of the Nieman
Foundation at Harvard University, criticizes his colleagues for misusing
the word "scandal" in the Lewinsky affair. "To me,"
Kovach said at a press conference in Washington last month, "the word 'scandal' means something that has actually taken place that is
reprehensible. And after a month of this story we still don't
have enough facts to know what, if anything at all, has taken
place that could be termed scandalous."

The Committee of Concerned Journalists issued a report, based on the first
week's reporting of the Lewinsky affair, titled "The Clinton Crisis and
The Press: A New Standard of American Journalism?"

"From the earliest moments of the Clinton crisis, the
press routinely intermingled reporting with opinion and
speculation -- even on the front page," the report begins. "A
large percentage of the reportage had no sourcing -- 41 percent of it was
journalists offering analysis, opinion, speculation or

The study examined the front-page coverage of
the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Washington Times, the
Los Angeles Times and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, plus the
nightly network newscasts, prime-time magazines and specials,
"Larry King Live," "The Charlie Rose Show," "Nightline," the morning news
shows, the Sunday talk shows and Time and Newsweek.

The study found that the most common statement by
journalists about the crisis was a conclusion not based on fact -- "that
Clinton was in big trouble," followed by the conclusions that "Clinton was
dissembling, and that impeachment was a possibility." Unverified salacious
details, such as ABC's report about a semen-stained dress possibly useful for DNA
evidence, were repeated and attributed to other news organizations without
independent verification.

Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief of the
Los Angeles Times, cited a journalistic axiom that seems to govern so much
of the reporting on this story, one to which he says he does not subscribe:
"There is no penalty in being wrong. The penalty is being second."

Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein, now an analyst at CBS News, defends the
coverage of the story by his alma mater. However, Bernstein acknowledges
that the press, including the Post, has been slow to cover one aspect of the
story: Clinton's enemies. "It may have taken
Mrs. Clinton talking about a vast right-wing conspiracy on the
'Today' show to do that," he acknowledges. Bernstein also questions whether the Lewinsky
affair is even a legitimate one for investigation. "This is not about a
constitutional abuse of power like Watergate was."

Walter Mears, a veteran political reporter and
president of the Associated Press news service, says, "There is a very odd
pressure in some organizations to do stuff in order to get on television --
to break something so you'll be part of the story." Mears says everybody
is playing off the 20 or so reporters covering the story full time and
believes most people shouldn't be on television "pontificating about it
with no base of expertise."

The Washington Post, through managing editor Robert Kaiser, says it is "not responding to requests for comment from Web publications -- for now. No disrespect, but we receive so many calls." Michael Oreskes, Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, says, "We don't talk about stories we are working on."

Perhaps the most venomous of Clinton's elite-media critics -- even more so
than the Times' Dowd and William Safire -- is former New Republic editor Michael Kelly. Kelly, who now writes columns for the
National Journal and the Washington Post, has called
Clinton "a shocking liar." In the Feb. 21 issue of the National Journal,
Kelly wrote, "When -- it is not a question of if -- the
full nature of the relationship between Clinton and
Lewinsky becomes known, people like [Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and
Education Secretary Richard Riley] are going to walk away from
this President." In an earlier column, Kelly announced that
"Ken Starr is going to tell
Congress that there is serious evidence that the President
violated one or more laws."

In an interview with Salon, Kelly rated Clinton
a "good to pretty good" president. On domestic issues, he was "pretty good to very good." He credited Clinton for reshaping the Democratic party
into something "coherent enough to become a
majority party."

What Kelly can't forgive Clinton for, he says, is that he
has crafted "a legacy of lowering ethical standards." How so? Kelly cites
"campaign fund-raising and the Lewinsky scandal." What? All
these years of sliming Clinton, and it's because of campaign
finance and the Lewinsky story?

Kelly says, "Clinton and his teams kicked the slats out
from under the liberal principle" that government should be
clean. Clinton, says Kelly, "set up a wholesale money laundering
operation with utter contempt" for the liberal tradition of driving
out corruption.

But hasn't Clinton always been in favor of campaign-finance
reform? "He's always been on the record for it, for sure," says
Kelly, "but he's done nothing about it." Hasn't Clinton always
said he wouldn't unilaterally turn down soft money? Kelly says
you can't believe Clinton. "You have to parse his statements
carefully because he always leaves wiggle room." He cites
Gennifer Flowers as an example of Clinton denying he had an "affair" with
Flowers, then admitting in a deposition in the Jones case that he had
one sexual encounter with her. As for Lewinsky, "There's enough
circumstantial evidence out there ... and all of that is suspicious."

And that is all Kelly, and his colleagues among the Beltway press corps,
have: Clinton is somehow "suspicious." Yet so invested are they in presumptions of his guilt that one is forced to raise the disturbing question of whether they would rather see Clinton and his presidency go down than face up to and renounce their years of erroneous and selective reporting.

Mollie Dickenson

Mollie Dickenson's articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Miami Herald and other publications. She is the author of "Thumbs Up," a biography of Reagan Press Secretary James Brady.

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