Where's the media mea culpa?

Though the final Whitewater report clearly shows the Clintons were innocent, the New York Times and Washington Post arrogantly refuse to admit they were wrong.

Published March 29, 2002 12:49AM (EST)

Anyone who paid the slightest attention to the moldy allegations subsumed under the heading of "Whitewater" has known for years what the independent counsel grudgingly conceded in the final report released last week -- that the prime targets of the investigation of that little old Arkansas land development, Bill and Hillary Clinton, had done nothing that could be prosecuted as a crime. There was nothing remarkable about that conclusion, nor about the independent counsel's strenuous literary effort to justify a breathtaking expenditure of time, not to mention $73 million, in the pursuit of partisan goals.

What may have surprised the naive reader was the concluding commentary in the nation's leading newspapers, whose editorial pages, opinion columns and news accounts had encouraged noxious speculation about Whitewater and the Clintons from the very beginning of the "scandal." Rather than acknowledge the hollowness of the accusations they did so much to publicize, America's most prominent editorialists substituted "spin" for accountability.

The Wall Street Journal, whose editors have published four volumes of bilious frothing on this topic, blatantly twisted the final report's exculpatory findings into a guilty verdict. "The lesson here isn't that there were no facts, but that the coverup worked," according to the Journal editorial, which found a way to compare the Clintons unfavorably with Richard Nixon and to claim, falsely, that Whitewater itself was "a serious bank fraud involving numerous Clinton intimates." In fact, as the report reveals in excruciating detail, Whitewater was simply a land deal that lost money for the Clintons and their partners. The frauds that resulted in prosecutions of various people -- some friends, some enemies and some strangers to the former first family -- had nothing whatsoever to do with that deal or the Clintons themselves.

Fair-minded analysis is too much to ask from the Journal's bitter polemicists at this late date, but the editorial board of the Washington Post might be expected to understand the foundations of this country's justice system. Evidently they do not. Like their colleagues at the Journal, the Post's editorialists seem unable to transcend their newspaper's failed journalistic investment in "Whitewater," their longstanding friendship with former Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr and their inexhaustible fury at the Clintons.

Having long ago convinced themselves (and presumably many of their readers) that the Clintons were guilty of some criminal offense in Whitewater, they continue to insist that the final report is "at the end of the day, inconclusive as to whether the Clintons committed crimes in their dealings with James and Susan McDougal and in their subsequent interactions with investigators," and "leaves ample reason to suspect wrongdoing by both the former president and Sen. Hillary Clinton." Exactly what wrongdoing they don't bother to specify -- the hallmark of a political smear. (They also seem not to have noticed the headline in their own pages a few days earlier that declared the Clintons to have been "cleared" by the independent counsel.)

The Post editors apparently believe that, unlike any other targets of a criminal investigation in the United States, the Clintons aren't entitled to the presumption of innocence. For them, a decade of extraordinarily costly investigation that resulted in no indictments, let alone convictions, is not enough to discourage insinuations of guilt.

That leaves the New York Times, where Whitewater first sprang to public attention in a famously murky front-page story by reporter Jeff Gerth. As the paper's Week in Review section noted last Sunday, the Times "printed articles about Whitewater and Madison Guaranty and editorials urging the Clintons to cooperate with investigators." That's an amusingly bland description of the paper's role in this fiasco, which ranged from repeated accusations of a coverup on the editorial page to repeated announcements by star Op-ed columnist William Safire of impending indictments that never came. (Safire promised to "eat crow" if his predictions proved false, but he has remained strangely silent about the final report so far.)

Gerth's original story suggested that the Clintons' Whitewater partner, James McDougal, might have benefited from lenient treatment by Arkansas regulators while Bill Clinton was governor. That notion gets short shrift in the final report, possibly because the evidence so clearly demonstrates that McDougal received no special consideration from Clinton's appointees. Yet the Times doggedly ignores those facts, a habit that its editorials have exhibited time and again over the past several years.

Rather than forthrightly admit the emptiness of all the multifarious insinuations and allegations about Whitewater (not to mention "Travelgate" and "Filegate"), the Times editorial spews out additional chaff. With its references to "the web of shady dealings that sprang up around" the Whitewater land deal, to "missing files, destroyed documents and unanswered queries," to "charges of tampering with regulators and other questionable behavior" and to the Clintons' supposed "strategy of denials and evasions," the newspaper of record revives the implication of guilt that the final report ought to dispel.

The Times does acknowledge the ultimate judgment of the independent counsel more generously than the Post or the Journal: "If an eight-year investigation fails to find any substantial evidence of criminal wrongdoing by the Clintons, the only fair response is to declare them cleared." Yet in its ungenerous attempt to shift blame for the phony scandal that it did so much to create and sustain -- without a whisper of honest introspection about its own dubious role in this fiasco -- the Times is just as evasive as Bill Clinton at his worst.

By Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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