The press corps, happy at last

But why, when they've got the Clintons dead to rights, are they fudging the facts?

Published February 24, 2001 12:48AM (EST)

After eight years of pursuit, the press seems to be inflicting real damage on former President Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary. Particularly in light of the shady Hugh Rodham pardon-for-cash revelations, the Clintons, for now, seem caught dead to rights, without a coherent defense, without willing defenders and without a visible escape route. It could be the press' shining moment. A time to report the facts, stand aside and say I told you so. But the political press is rarely at its best during a feeding frenzy. It tends to get overly creative or unnecessarily sloppy.

Perhaps it's just exhaustion. Writing and talking about the same white collar pardon for four, going on five, straight weeks would test any journalist's mettle. Especially since everyone is in heated agreement; the Rich pardon was a mistake. At least the last time there was wall-to-wall political news coverage, like during the Florida recount and impeachment proceedings, two sides were squared off against one another. Instead, the media's national dialogue quickly morphed into an echo chamber.

Maybe that's why perspective has often been in short supply. This week, MSNBC host Chris Matthews wondered out loud (does he wonder any other way?) why former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak had not stepped forward and "given a speech" about his role in lobbying for the Rich pardon. Perhaps Barak has been otherwise occupied, having just been voted out of office and contemplating whether to accept a Cabinet position in the new coalition government that is facing escalating Middle East terrorism. Maybe that's why Barak hasn't "given a speech" about the Rich pardon.

For syndicated columnist Steve Roberts, the pardon episode simply reaffirmed old suspicions about Clinton. "I think that this is one more example of Bill Clinton saying, 'I'm not responsible for my actions,'" he told CNN's Wolf Blitzer. The timing of Roberts' comment was curious, considering that very same day Clinton's op-ed piece addressing the pardon controversy appeared in the New York Times. It read in part, "I made [the decision] on the merits as I saw them, and I take full responsibility for it."

Maybe the feeding frenzy is the reason why Washington Post columnist Michael Kelly calls Clinton a liar for not disclosing that two tax attorneys who reviewed Rich's case were also paid by Rich. According to Kelly, when someone fails to disclose a fact, any fact he deems worthy, they're guilty of a "contextual" lie.

Maybe that's why journalist James Stewart, who wrote a book on Whitewater, floated a what-if thesis in the Wall Street Journal op-ed page that Hillary played a crucial role in the Rich pardon. Stewart's proof? He has none. Although at one point he speculates about a possible fundraising quid pro quo between Hillary and Denise Rich. Stewart's proof? He has none. (And he wonders why Whitewater was never solved?)

Maybe that's why journalists have portrayed Clinton's going around the Rich prosecutors as such a novelty. According to Blitzer, "One of the things that has outraged a lot of people was the way President Clinton went about this pardon of Marc Rich was the fact that he really only heard from one side of the case."

Perhaps journalists ought to get in touch with Jim Brosnahan. In 1992 he was hired to prosecute former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger for crimes connected to Iran-Contra. Two weeks before Brosnahan was set to begin Weinberger's trial, President Bush pardoned Weinberger. "I heard about the pardon on the news," Brosnahan tells Salon. "They had meetings with defense lawyers in Weinberger's case, but at no time did President Bush or his counsel, Boyden Gray, consult with me about whether this was suitable for a pardon, or not suitable."

Journalists could also revisit pardons Ronald Reagan gave in March, 1981, clearing two FBI agents who had been convicted of authorizing agents to illegally break into the homes of friends and relatives of radical anti-war fugitives from the Vietnam era. The pair were convicted in November, 1980. Their pardon requests were never reviewed by the Justice Department. "Nobody spoke to me about it," John W. Nields Jr., the chief prosecutor, told the New York Times in 1981. "I would warrant that whoever is responsible for the pardons did not read the record of the trial and did not know the facts of the case."

Maybe that's why the term "quid pro quo" has been so quickly adopted to characterize political donations and a possible link to the pardon. For instance, on Sunday the New York Times detailed the central contributions Denise Rich made to the Clinton Library in Little Rock, Ark.: "$250,000 in 1998; $100,000 in 1999; and $100,000 in 2000." The emphasis was on the 2000 contribution because that was "the year that a lobbying campaign to win a presidential pardon for Mr. Rich intensified." Readers were left with the impression the lobbying effort was a yearlong one, which is puzzling because according to the New York Times' own reporting the "lobbying campaign" for the pardon began only in November 2000, and occupied just six weeks of "the year."

The article also failed to pinpoint when Denise Rich's final payment to the library occurred. If the check arrived in Little Rock last November for instance, or better yet, in December during the height of the pardon lobbying campaign, then the quid pro quo argument would be bolstered. On Sunday, the Times offered no further timeline details. Yet one week earlier the paper was more precise, reporting that Rich's final $100,000 library donation was given in May of 2000.

Meanwhile, the paper, like most, had previously reported that Denise Rich was recruited into the pardon effort by her husband's attorney. So according to the New York Times' own reporting -- although spread out over several articles in separate weeks -- Denise Rich gave $100,000 to the Clinton Library in May 2000, then had to be recruited to help the pardon effort, which was not even undertaken until November 2000. Did Denise Rich's contribution affect the president's decision to grant a pardon? Possibly. Will investigators one day uncover "Dear Bill" quid pro quo notes from Denise? Perhaps, who knows? But the public record to date does not support a "quid pro quo" arrangement.

The media's other central question for Denise Rich: Where did a moderately successful songwriter get $1.5 million to donate to the Democrats? A fair question for most. Yet does a woman who owns a $10 million apartment in New York, a $5 million mansion in Aspen, who sued her husband for a $500 million divorce (the final settlement was never made public) and who oversees a $60 million trust fund for her children really need to have money wired from overseas in order to write six-figure checks? The press prefers not to dwell on that part of the story.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

MORE FROM Eric Boehlert

Related Topics ------------------------------------------