Starr troopers

In his debut column, Joe Conason argues that Steven Brill's story revealed what the public knows but the elite media refuses to admit: The national press has rolled over for the independent counsel.

Published June 22, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

What began for Steven Brill as a devastating review of the American media's Lewinsky orgy has devolved into a nit-picking contest -- to the relief of a press anxious to hide its dirty laundry. The editor in chief and publisher of Brill's Content now stands accused of committing journalistic sins -- misquoting sources, misusing facts, concealing his own bias and violating off-the-record confidences -- not so different from those he found in the scandal coverage by the mainstream press. As he presumably realizes, such harsh scrutiny is always the price of massive publicity (and a sold-out printing of a hot first issue).

But if Brill's targets believe they can rehabilitate themselves by finding fault with various aspects of his 25,000-word "Pressgate" opus, they're wrong: The broader meaning of his indictment still stands. His case study of the symbiotic relationship between independent counsel Kenneth Starr and the most prominent organs of the national press is definitive proof, if any more were needed, that the major media's pious claim to be "objective" in its coverage of the Clinton scandals is at best one part delusion and two parts fraud. Although that observation is scarcely new, it is rare to have the proof laid out in such copious and damning detail. That's why discrediting Brill is so urgent not only for Starr -- who dubiously insists his leaks to favored reporters didn't violate grand jury secrecy laws and laughably justifies them by saying, "We have a duty to promote confidence in the work of this office" -- but for mainstream journalists and organizations who benefited from Starr's strategic garrulousness.

The heart of Brill's complaint is that the press has failed in its First Amendment responsibility to provide "a check on the abuse of power," specifically the power of the independent counsel. He is dead right about where the press went wrong, but the reasons for this dereliction are more complex than he seems to imagine. He believes certain reporters were simply captured by their best source in the tumult of a competitive breaking story. Yet other motivations are equally important.
At the Washington Post, for instance, there is a palpable desire to relive the glorious Watergate experience of deposing a president. At the New York Times, there is an equally powerful impulse to even the old score with the Post, which beat the paper of
record badly during Nixon's final days. And at both papers, there exists a feeling of indebtedness to Starr, who helped the Times and the Post escape libel judgments in the not-so-distant past. Insofar as those two newspapers shape coverage of every important story, especially in Washington, their biases are reproduced on television and in other media across the country.

To those few journalists who regard Whitewater and the other "Clinton scandals" with doubt, it was evident long before anyone heard of Monica Lewinsky that Starr enjoyed undue influence at the commanding heights of the news industry. I learned that firsthand in April 1996, after Murray Waas and I published an article in the Nation about Starr's conflicts of interest. Among the most hostile responses was a telephone call from ABC producer Chris Vlasto, who has worked the Clinton scandal beat at the network for several years. After swiftly dismissing our story, Vlasto proceeded to berate me for criticizing Starr, and condescended to inform me that the corrupt liars were in the White House, not the independent counsel's office.

The possibility that Clinton and Starr both might need skeptical interrogation evidently didn't occur to Vlasto, who works closely with ABC White House correspondent Jackie Judd. Two years later, as Brill notes witheringly in "Pressgate," it was Judd who
became one of the most eager purveyors of Starr-inspired leaks and anti-Clinton rumors, including the now-legendary "semen-stained dress" fiasco. But to the extent that Judd and her producer were vulnerable to manipulation by Starr, these people were hardly alone. As Howard Kurtz makes clear in his account of the White House press corps in "Spin Cycle," frustration about Clinton's seeming invulnerability to scandal was growing for months and years before it finally exploded in the Lewinsky blowup. So the press's outraged reaction to Brill's challenge is hardly surprising; they were hoping to bring down the president, a goal so evidently noble that any and all means were justified -- including taking dictation from the independent counsel.

Nor is it surprising that many, if not most, journalists are unable to endure the kind of criticism they routinely dish out. Last year, the Washington Post's editors were predictably furious when they learned that Hillary Rodham Clinton had once commissioned an analysis of flaws in the scandal reporting of Susan Schmidt, a Post reporter she felt was biased against the White House. That project was swiftly killed by Press Secretary Mike McCurry because he understood, quite correctly, that to question the fairness of an elite news organization would be "crazy," tantamount to public relations suicide.

Brill, with his flair for marketing, has proved that the public knows better -- and that it has grown weary of the pious, self-serving rhetoric of "objectivity" too many in the press use to conceal their sins. He has articulated the doubts of news-consuming Americans, whose confidence in the information they receive has dropped so precipitously since last January. Whether he can shake the elite media out of its fatuous torpor is another story.

By Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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