An Indictment of the Washington Press
Two journalists give thumbs down to coverage of the Clinton scandals.
Get a huge sheet of paper and title it “Cast of Characters.” Then break it down into columns. They might be headed, “Immoral people.” “Unethical people.” “Vicious people.” “Lying people.” There would be famous and infamous, notable and notorious in each category. And, sadly, there would be journalists in each category, too.
For “The Hunting of the President” not only chronicles that vast right-wing conspiracy—and there was indeed one—that set out to destroy the Clintons, but also chronicles how the press were co-conspirators, some wittingly and some half-wittingly. It is a depressing book; for news people, it is especially depressing.
You don’t want to believe it. You don’t want to believe that reporters from big newspapers were playing footsy with prosecutors who had become persecutors. You don’t want to believe that reporters from big newspapers were sometimes ignoring one side of the story. You don’t want to believe that reporters from big newspapers were lying to their readers.
“Lying” is not too harsh a word. That’s been made clear by the recent trial in Washington where Charles G. Bakaly III faced charges of criminal contempt of court. Bakaly was the spokesman for Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel who finally turned to investigating the President’s sex life after investigations into his financial and political life turned up nothing.
The Bakaly case is as misguided as the whole Clinton prosecution. Bakaly faced trial because a federal judge was incensed about leaks to newspapers about the deliberations in the independent counsel’s office. But misguided or not the case clearly shows, among other things, that The New York Times lied to its readers during the Whitewater-Lewinsky impeachment doings. A Times story about the views of various people in Starr’s office said that Bakaly “declined to discuss” the matter. But this summer’s trial proved that Bakaly had indeed been a source for the Times on the story.
That’s outrageous, but it gets worse—if there is anything worse than lying to your readers. “The Hunting of the President” makes clear that often the papers told just one side of the story, the side being peddled by the office of the independent counsel and by the ragtag team of Clinton-haters who were living high on Richard Mellon Scaife money as long as they could dream up ever-more-bizarre tales about the President and his wife. These were tales that the press often bought into without checking them out.
It was a time of what Conason and Lyons call naive cynicism, “in which a reporter remains naively ignorant of basic information while cynically assuming the prevalence of corruption.” On occasion, reporters traded information with those who worked the seamy side of the street, “Arkansas yokels who tried to con the big-city sophisticates.” A Los Angeles Times’s reporter had “an oddly symbiotic relationship” with two of these peddlers. One bragged that he had a videotape of the President sitting next to a bowl of cocaine. The New York Times and The Washington Post “almost instantaneously transformed” Little Rock judge and bogus businessman David Hale “from a recalcitrant embezzler into a credible source.”
Another time, “documents leaked to The Washington Post had made their way into the hands of an embezzler under indictment [Hale]—an embezzler who then utilized them, in concert with unscrupulous political operatives, to concoct charges against the President on national TV.”
Yet facts exonerating the Clintons were all but ignored. In June of 1996, the news side of The Wall Street Journal (whose reporters should in no way be identified with the fabulists on the editorial page side) printed a story that a special report being prepared by a San Francisco law firm that was hired to look into the Clintons’ Whitewater investment “corroborates most of President and Mrs. Clinton’s assertions about their Whitewater real-estate investment.” Others papers made no mention of it at the time.
The report, commissioned by the Resolution Trust Corporation, came out in December. On December 18, The Wall Street Journal again ran “a straight, clear summary of its findings.” According to the book’s authors, the report “in hundreds of minutely detailed pages, thousands of footnotes, and documentary exhibits…demonstrated that the premises of the Whitewater ‘scandal’ had no factual foundation.” The Washington Post mentioned the report only briefly; the Times waited a week, until Christmas Eve, “then hid Stephen Labaton’s perfunctory summary on page 12.”
By the time of the impeachment, write Conason and Lyons, “most Americans intuitively understood exactly what was happening. As the most powerful and largely unaccountable institution in American public life, the Washington press, appeared to have joined forces with a partisan prosecutor to void the results of two presidential elections.” Most Americans, Conason and Lyons say, realized they were watching “a ratings-driven coup d’etat.”
Oddly—on second thought, it’s not odd at all—many newspaper reviews of this book don’t mention that it’s an indictment of the press as well as an indictment of the office of the independent counsel. The case against the press is strong. While Conason, who is a columnist with The New York Observer, and Lyons, a columnist with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, deal in opinions, they work with facts. The facts they have compiled are devastating.
Indeed, if Watergate is to be thought of as bringing out the courageous best in reporting, then Whitewater must be listed as bringing out the careless worst. The episode was not a proud time for the nation, nor was it a proud time for the press.
Footnote: None of this is meant as a defense of the morality of President Clinton. While “The Hunting of the President” proves that the President and his wife did nothing wrong financially, further proves that enemies old and new ran a vicious crusade to destroy him, and finally proves that the office of the independent counsel was anything but independent, it makes no attempt to defend or deny the President’s sexual behavior.
But there’s a difference between impeachable and impeccable. Conason and Lyons know the difference. Many others in journalism don’t seem to.
Michael Gartner has been editor of papers large and small and president of NBC News. In 1997, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing. He now is ombudsman for Brill’s Content Magazine.
Here’s how to read this book about the Clinton-haters by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons: