Newsreal: Day of reckoning

With Paula Jones' case thrown out, it's time to expose those responsible for four years of political and journalistic fraud.

By Andrew Ross

Published March 30, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

"A surprise victory for Bill Clinton" is how CNN led its bulletin on the throwing out of Paula Jones' lawsuit. But CNN and most of the rest of the media are the only ones who ought to be surprised by Judge Susan Webber Wright's decision. For the past four years, the Fourth Estate has unquestioningly passed on to the American public the most scurrilous, baseless and fraudulent charges ever thrown at a sitting president of the United States. And every denial, every legitimate legal defense, every question raised about the veracity and motives of Jones and the people who have been pulling her strings is dismissed as so much White House "spin."

It took a female Republican judge, a Bush appointee, to cut through the pollution that the media not only did nothing to fight, but actually helped spread. Judge Wright's decision will likely be appealed, and it is quite possible Jones' case will be reinstated. But a historic moment has been reached. If, as James Carville has said, the effort to bring down Clinton is a "war," then Wright's ruling is its Normandy. From now on, the American public will be treated to the spectacle of a highly disorderly retreat, with the likes of Richard Mellon Scaife, Susan Carpenter-McMillan, the Landmark Legal Foundation, R. Emmett Tyrrell and various Wall Street Journal editorial writers crawling back into the holes from which they oozed.

Kenneth Starr is finished, the gossamer-thin thread of his $30 million investigation into all things Clinton snapped by the stroke of Wright's pen. With the Jones case gone, there is no real legal basis for his investigation of perjury, subornation of perjury and a "pattern of obstruction of justice" triggered by Monica Lewinsky's deposition in the Jones case. What does he have left? He has convicted embezzler David Hale, his chief Whitewater witness, who, as Salon reported, has been taking payoffs from the same people who launched the good ship Paula. Poor Starr is about to go from crusading prosecutor to goat. The only thing more pathetic -- and sickening -- will be the sight of the press corps, like beaten cowards in wartime, changing uniforms on the battlefield and shooting the politically vanquished.

Those few journalists who have dared in the pages of Salon and elsewhere to question the reigning orthodoxy -- Salon Washington correspondant Jonathan Broder and investigative reporter Murray Waas, the Arkansas Democrat Gazette's Gene Lyons and the New York Observer's Joe Conason among them -- ought to feel some sense of vindication. But there is more work to do. There are still a great many layers of deception and fraud to peel away, a great many questions still to ask about just how this and the other utterly bogus "scandal" stories got as far as they did.

For example, just when and under what circumstances did Scaife's operatives first decide to use Jones in their campaign to bring down an elected president of the United States? How much of Jones' ever-changing accounts of what occurred in the Excelsior Hotel in 1991 was composed by others? Has Jones herself committed perjury -- and, if so, who suborned it?

Next set of questions: How was it that Starr, who had written a brief on behalf of Jones' groundless lawsuit but had absolutely no prosecutorial experience, came to be appointed independent counsel? Why has Starr protected witnesses who, documentary evidence suggests, have flat-out committed perjury? What did the independent counsel know about the secret payments made to Hale, and when did he know it? Was there a quid pro quo for the Scaife-funded job that awaits Starr at Pepperdine University? And perhaps most explosive, in the wake of the Chicago Sun-Times story about Republican moneyman Peter Smith's contributions to two of the lying Arkansas state troopers, what has been the involvement of Newt Gingrich's GOPAC in all this?

So, for journalists of integrity, much work remains to be done. But there is also, at least for this writer, a deep sense of anger at the damage done -- not just to my own profession, but to the country of which I am a citizen. The past six years have been filled with poison. A family that arrived with high hopes of doing some good has had excrement thrown on it since the first day it entered the White House. The institution of the presidency has been stained, not, as the Maureen Dowds of the world would have it, by its occupants, but by those who found their presence politically intolerable. One can imagine a constructively ambitious woman like Hillary Rodham Clinton quietly weeping at what might have been were it not for the rats gnawing away 24 hours of every day. And what of the American public, who, to their credit, retained the fortitude to disbelieve so much of what they were reading and watching? How do we measure the damage done to the nation, being constantly bombarded by ever-escalating accusations against its president -- including rape! -- waved through uncritically by the Washington Post and the rest; or night after night of anti-Clinton hate television exemplified by the likes of the screaming Christopher Matthews on CNBC and Newsweek's smarmy Howard Fineman and pompous Michael Isikoff pontificating away on MSNBC?

There are a lot more questions to be asked about Paula Jones and Kenneth Starr and Richard Mellon Scaife. And the rot and malpractice that has corrupted the highest echelons of American journalism for the past six years must be addressed. A reckoning will follow Judge Susan Webber Wright's brave ruling -- and it will not be pretty.

Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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