Clinton to ABC News: It's payback time

The former president chastises Peter Jennings for ABC's "sleazy" coverage of Whitewater -- and he's right.

Published November 23, 2004 10:57PM (EST)

President Clinton's prime-time interview with ABC on Nov. 18, in conjunction with the opening of the Clinton presidential library, was for the most part a feel-good, nostalgic affair, as Clinton looked back on his presidency with ABC anchor Peter Jennings. But Clinton flashed real irritation when Jennings suggested some historians thought that Clinton's presidency had lacked "moral authority," without mentioning its having been tarnished by independent counsel Kenneth Starr's multiple investigations.

"You don't want to go here, Peter," snapped Clinton, who proceeded to criticize the reporting of ABC News, in particular, in the 1990s. "Not after what you people did and the way you, your network, what you did with Kenneth Starr. The way your people repeated every little sleazy thing he leaked. No one has any idea what that's like."

In truth, Clinton's criticism of the media's overheated and often conspiratorial scandal coverage could be applied to a host of mainstream news operations. But it was fitting that the comment was directed at ABC, which occupied a unique role amid the seven-year, $70 million media feeding frenzy surrounding Starr's probes. At times ABC, led by reporter Jackie Judd and producer Chris Vlasto, seemed to act as the broadcast counterparts to the print reporters relying on news from the Office of the Independent Counsel -- making an early investment in the Whitewater story and determined to see it pay off.

"Jackie Judd and I are proud of the work we did," Vlasto told Salon in an interview. "It's unfortunate [Clinton] feels that way, and I don't want to relive the history. But we did a lot of [scandal] stories over a lot of years and our stories speak for themselves. They have stood the test of time."

But a number of independent observers judge those stories to have failed journalistic standards. Some have even suggested that Vlasto took on a unique role as a kind of unofficial advisor to the Starr legal team as he worked behind the scenes and confronted fellow journalists who did not hew to Starr's line. In 1998 Salon's Joe Conason wrote, "After Murray Waas and I published an article in the Nation about Starr's conflicts of interest ... [a]mong 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 ... it was Judd who became one of the most eager purveyors of Starr-inspired leaks and anti-Clinton rumors."

According to Starr himself, when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke on Jan. 21, 1998, Starr's top deputy, Jackie Bennett, spent the day talking "extensively" with a handful of reporters, including ABC's Judd, the one TV reporter on the shortlist at Starr's office. In November, ABC's loyalty was rewarded when it beat out its network competitors, including CBS's "60 Minutes," by landing the first lengthy television interview with Starr.

Judd and Vlasto were, in the end, accurate in their exclusive and eyebrow-raising report that Lewinsky had kept a semen-stained blue dress from an encounter with Clinton -- a story leaked by Starr's office. But other scoops from unnamed "sources" did not stand up. On Jan. 25, 1998, Judd appeared on ABC's "This Week" and reported, "Several sources have told us that in the spring of 1996, the president and Lewinsky were caught in an intimate encounter in a private area of the White House." The revelation set off a month's worth of cable TV chatter, but the report that Clinton and Lewinsky were found out proved to be fictitious.

The Los Angeles Times later reported, "Judd did not say who her sources were, how many sources she had or what the sources' affiliations or allegiances were. She had not spoken to the alleged eyewitness herself and didn't know who the eyewitness was or even, as she conceded on the air, whether the alleged witness was a Secret Service agent or a member of the White House staff."

Although Vlasto was covering the Whitewater story on an ongoing basis for ABC, he took the unusual step in April 1996 of writing a conspiracy-minded Op-Ed for a competing news outlet -- the right-wing editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. The column, which opened with key Whitewater figure Susan McDougal telling Vlasto off the record, "I know where all the bodies are buried" (a claim McDougal denies ever making), ran the same day McDougal appeared before a Little Rock, Ark., grand jury to answer Whitewater questions or face a criminal contempt indictment. Starr's prosecutors entered Vlasto's column as evidence to bolster their assertion that she was withholding information.

Vlasto says the Wall Street Journal piece was approved by his ABC bosses and that while covering the Clinton scandals, "there was nothing I did that any other journalists wouldn't do."

Two years earlier Vlasto, who dined with Paula Jones' legal team on the night of Clinton's deposition in 1998, had been instrumental in getting McDougal's husband and one-time Clinton business partner, Jim, to alter his Whitewater story and cooperate with Starr's investigators at a time when they were desperate to move the investigation into the Clintons' inner circle. In his book, "Arkansas Mischief," written with Curtis Wilkie, Jim McDougal credits Vlasto with persuading him to cooperate with Starr's investigation. Convicted in the first Whitewater trial of conspiracy and fraud, the ailing McDougal was afraid he'd die in prison. "You don't have to go out this way," Vlasto told him. "If you walk in to see Ken Starr, he will greet you with open arms." (When McDougal died, Vlasto wrote an obituary for Rupert Murdoch's conservative Weekly Standard magazine.)

Perhaps ABC's most egregious journalistic misstep while chasing the Whitewater story came during a December 1995 "Nightline" broadcast, which cast an extraordinarily damning light on Hillary Rodham Clinton's explanation about previous Little Rock billings her law firm did on behalf of Jim McDougal's Madison Guaranty. Did Clinton, or a young lawyer named Rick Massey, do the work? After ABC's crude bit of editing of a 1994 press conference held by Clinton, "Nightline" viewers saw Clinton tell reporters: "The young attorney, the young bank officer, did all the work." Next the screen showed handwritten notes taken by Hillary Clinton's aides during the 1992 campaign: "She [Hillary] did all the billing," the notes indicated. The "Nightlight" telecast all but labeled the first lady a liar.

What viewers did not know was that ABC not only had taken Clinton's response out of context but had edited out 39 words from Clinton's 1994 press conference response to create a damning scenario. As Conason and Gene Lyons noted in their book "The Hunting of the President, "ABC News had taken a video clip out of context, and then accused the first lady of prevaricating about the very material it had removed." Vlasto produced the segment.

History will show that the Clintons were exonerated of all the Whitewater accusations and that the president was acquitted of all charges in the impeachment trial. For refusing to testify before the grand jury to implicate the Clintons in crimes as Starr had demanded, McDougal was held in prison for 18 months, sometimes in solitary confinement. And when she finally did testify, she said she knew of no wrongdoing by them; she was acquitted of all charges in the case.

No wonder Clinton's still mad at ABC.

By Eric Boehlert

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

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