CyberAlert -- 02/27/1998 -- Should Starr Go?

Should Starr Go?; GOP, Not Clinton, Blamed for Sleazy Fundraising

1) Thursday night NBC said Monicagate is "beginning to resemble a schoolyard brawl" and CNN asked "Should Ken Starr resign?"

2) "Republicans kill the bill to clean up sleazy political fundraising," declared Dan Rather. He and Jennings whined about finance reform while ignoring more evidence of Trie's ties to Clinton.

3) Today's Matt Lauer spent two interview segments on how Starr has "overstepped his authority," then admitted the media eagerly complied with the White House strategy to put Starr on the defense.

cyberno1.gif (1096 bytes)In an approach that serves White House interests, Thursday night NBC and CNN portrayed a confusing personal battle between Clinton and Starr. CBS also aired a Monicagate story, but ABC didn't mention it Thursday night. Each of the broadcast network evening shows opened with a different story: ABC led with the plan to topple Saddam Hussein, CBS with the defeat of McCain-Feingold and NBC a report blaming the gondola crash in Italy on the U.S. military pilot.

Here's how the networks approached Monicagate Thursday night, February 26:

-- NBC Nightly News. Immediately after the Italian cable car story, Tom Brokaw announced:

"In the Monica Lewinsky investigation the fight between the White House and the Ken Starr team is beginning to resemble a schoolyard brawl. There are important principles involved here: limiting first amendment rights, hiding behind executive privilege, but the bitterness between these two camps has turned this into a blood feud and the real purpose of the investigation seems to have been set aside."

Of course, it's a bit hypocritical for Brokaw to complain about that now when weeks ago the networks diverted attention from what Clinton did to Starr's tactics.

Reporter David Bloom began: "Presidential adviser Sidney Blumenthal testified before the grand jury today and then launched into an attack, a tirade against independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr. At issue: is the White House trying to smear prosecutors to derail their investigation, or is Starr abusing his powers to intimidate political opponents."

Bloom showed a soundbite of Blumenthal saying he's not intimidated. Bloom added that the White House insisted attacks on Starr are above board, "But sources say Starr's team now believes it has evidence that prosecutor's personal lives are being scrutinized. Inquiries about divorce proceedings and sexual preferences, what Starr called an avalanche of lies."

Following a clip of Starr Bloom showed a soundbite of Democrat John Conyers labeling Starr's inquiry an "unconstitutional inquisition." Bloom concluded by noting how Clinton "again ducked questions" about executive privilege and how Vernon Jordan is scheduled for next Tuesday.

-- CNN. At the top of Inside Politics Bernard Shaw also blamed Starr, not the media, for diverting attention, and then featured a discussion about whether Ken Starr should resign. Shaw asserted:

"Ken Starr's focus on White House aide Sidney Blumenthal, and possible leaks to the news media, has given the independent counsel something in common with the President: He's diverting attention from Mr. Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

And, as our John King reports, Starr also seems to be contributing to the plunge in his own, unofficial approval ratings."

King began by putting the burden on Starr: "White House aide Sidney Blumenthal was the witness before the Monica Lewinsky grand jury, yet many say independent counsel Ken Starr is the one with questions to answer."

After dueling soundbites from Blumenthal and Starr, King insisted: "Even some longtime friends question Starr's tactics."

Former U.S. Attorney Henry Hudson explained "When Ken Starr began sending out subpoenas to gather information about people that may be criticizing his staff -- if that's his intention, I'm concerned about that, and yes, it does cause me to rethink just how much support I can have of Ken Starr."

King led into a bite from Barney Frank: "Democrats say the independent counsel is out of control." But then King also gave the other side time: "Lawyers who say Starr is well within his rights suggest the independent counsel can't worry about the public relations war."

Concluded King: "Often lost in this bitter tactical fight are the sex scandal allegations that led to the investigation in the first place. No one here at the White House is complaining about that."

King's piece, minus that concluding paragraph, also ran on CNN's 8pm ET World Today. (Yesterday's CyberAlert reported that the February 25 CNN World Today at 8pm ET carried a full story by John King on executive privilege. MRC news analyst Eric Darbe informed me that King's story did not appear on the 10pm ET edition which offered only a sentence on Monicagate leading into a story on how Russian women are writing love letters and poems to Clinton.)

Back to Thursday's Inside Politics, Shaw opened the next segment: "Now let's discuss the question: Should Ken Starr resign? Former federal prosecutor Henry Hudson joins us on Inside Politics along with Stuart Taylor, a senior writer for the

National Journal and a contributing editor for Newsweek. First to you, Stuart. Should Starr pack his bags?"

-- CBS Evening News. Scott Pelley actually focused more on White House stonewalling than Starr's tactics explaining that CBS and other news organizations have asked the judge to reveal if witnesses are using executive privilege. Over video of Clinton ignoring reporters, Pelley observed: "The President is fighting off the question as though it was a plague. And the White House has been stonewalling for a week."

After a clip showing Mike McCurry refusing to answer questions, Pelley moved on to Blumenthal and showed a soundbite of him denouncing Starr.

-- ABC's World News Tonight. Zilch on any aspect of Monicagate, as if Blumenthal were never called.

-- Fox News Channel. FNC's 7pm ET Fox Report included a complete report on Sidney Blumenthal's appearance and the 6pm ET/9pm PT Special Report with Brit Hume added a profile piece on Blumenthal, featuring a scintillating soundbite from me.

cyberno2.gif (1451 bytes)More evidence became public Wednesday night and Thursday about White House demands for other government officials to help Charlie Trie, now indicted for illegal foreign donations. But instead of telling viewers about that, the three broadcast networks Thursday night highlighted how, as Dan Rather so elegantly put it, "Republicans kill the bill to clean up sleazy political fundraising."

Wednesday night the networks worried about the "chilling effect" Starr's subpoenaing of media contacts might have on the First Amendment, but Thursday night the networks didn't care about how more government regulation of campaign speech would "chill" free speech.

-- On ABC's World News Tonight Peter Jennings delivered this argument disguised as a news report:

"The Senate has effectively killed political campaign finance reform for the foreseeable future which means that even though a majority of Senators declared themselves in favor of trying to change the way politicians raise and spend money, there were not enough votes to end a Republican filibuster. Together the Senate and the House of Representatives spent more than $9 million dollars to hold more than 30 days of hearings on how to change the rules, and even though so many Americans believe that money is more important to the process than their vote -- which is not a pretty picture -- and though many, many politicians believe the system is flawed, they will not be fixing it, just yet."

-- Jennings offered a calm and reasoned summary compared to Dan Rather on the CBS Evening News. "Republicans kill the bill to clean up sleazy political fundraising. The business of dirty campaign money will stay business as usual," declared Rather in his top of the show tease. Instead of portraying the Senators as civil rights heroes as a conservative would, for defending freedom of speech and the right of all citizens to make their views knows, Rather delivered the liberal line in this loaded and slanted take on what the Senate did:

"Good evening. Legislation to reform shady big money campaign fundraising is dead in Congress. Republican opponents in the Senate killed it today. It was the latest in a long running attempt to tougher loose laws that shield hidden donors with loose wallets and deep pockets. As CBS's Bob Schieffer reports, when it came to the crunch today on campaign finance reform, it was all talk and no action."

Bob Schieffer began his story, which assumed that the answer to law breaking is not to enforce the law but create new ones: "For all those promises of bipartisan cooperation to clean up the system, for all the investigations into White House coffees, Buddhist temple fundraisers, stories about top Republicans chasing campaign money in Hong Kong, and slick operator Roger Tamraz bragging about buying appointments with the President, for all of that Senators took a deep breath and killed campaign finance reform for another year."

Schieffer offered a very limitd summary of the bill's impact: "The bill, sponsored by Republican John McCain and Democrat Russ Feingold, would have tightened campaign laws by banning unlimited contributions to political parties. But Republican leaders claimed it violated free speech and used a filibuster to block it from ever being voted upon...."

Schieffer asked Senator Fred Thompson: "You must be a little disappointed. You brought out some things that seem to be serious violations of this law and yet the Congress seems to be unwilling to do anything about it."

Thompson agreed, and Schieffer concluded: "....This legitimizes all of those loopholes the candidates found in 1996 which mean campaign costs and less accountability will be the rule in future campaigns."

-- NBC Nightly News. Gwen Fill actually included a soundbite of Senator Mitch McConnell making the First Amendment point, but she portrayed all the hearings into illegal activity as a waste of money now that they did not produce more government regulation: "Months of congressional hearings into campaign finance abuse, complete with tales of money laundering and suspicious foreign contributions. Total cost: nearly $6 million..."

Whether Jennings' $9 million or Ifill's $6 million, viewers would have a better understanding of what their money produced if the networks told them about the findings. On Thursday's Inside Politics, Brooks Jackson revealed:

"Republican investigators are tying President Clinton just a little closer to indicted Democratic fundraiser, Charlie Trie. And to Trie's business associate, Mr. Wu....New documents show Mr. Wu carried a total of $333,000 in cash, during six visits to the U.S.; visits that included stops at the White House. Nothing illegal, just a reminder that Mr. Wu's money allegedly financed Trie's donations. The documents were released by Chairman Dan Burton, of the House Reform and Oversight Committee. They also included a reminder of the President's long friendship with Trie, whose name is noted as coming from Bill Clinton's personal phone list, in the computer files of the '92 Clinton campaign.

"Also released, an interview with former Democratic Senate aide, Steve Clemons, who told Burton's investigators, he, 'did everything he could to stop Trie' from being appointed to an advisory commission on trade, but was told by administration officials that Trie was an, 'absolute must appointment' that had come, 'directly from the highest levels of the White House,' and Trie got the job. Trie funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Democratic National Committee, and now faces federal charges of fraud and conspiracy. He pled not guilty."

Though this story of an award for illegal foreign cash moved Wednesday night on the AP wire, ABC, CBS and NBC all ignored it and CNN did not put it on its 8pm ET prime time show.

cyberno3.gif (1438 bytes) Thursday morning ABC's Good Morning America played into the White House strategy by giving equal weight to their noise about Starr as to their own misbehavior. But at least ABC suggested the Clinton team may have done wrong. NBC's Today, in contrast, focused on "Has Ken Starr gone too far?"

Here are GMA co-host Lisa McRee's February 26 questions to Ed Rollins and James Carville as transcribed by MRC news analyst Gene Eliasen:

-- "Ed, I'm going to start with you. Has this escalated out of control? What right does Kenneth Starr have to subpoena aides to the President about their conversations with reporters?"

-- "But doesn't using subpoenas to get information out of aides about their conversations with reporters have a chilling effect on all of us?"

-- "The [New York] Times said that the White House may exert executive privilege on behalf of the President before a federal judge as early as this week or possibly next. Why? And why would conversations about Monica Lewinsky be protected under the executive privilege?"

-- "Mr. Carville, again, we have one minute left. Why would conversations, if you could just give a straight answer, why would conversations about Monica Lewinsky be protected? Not a matter of national security, not official government business, and the Supreme Court ruled during the Nixon Administration that they didn't, that the President did not have a right, a blanket right to keep his conversations private."

Opening Thursday's Today, Matt Lauer declared: "White House adviser Sidney Blumenthal is scheduled to testify before Ken Starr's grand jury later today and his subpoena has caused an uproar in Washington over Starr's practices. Has Ken Starr gone too far? We'll talk about it in our first half hour."

First, Lauer interviewed Stuart Taylor of the National Journal, asking: "Big fuss this week was over Ken Starr's subpoena of Sidney Blumenthal. And he is expected to testify before the grand jury later today. Apparently Starr thinks that Blumenthal may be spreading negative and incorrect stories about his team to the press. Has he overstepped his authority?"

Taylor somewhat humorous replied: "I don't know as a legal matter. But any subpoena that succeeds in making a First Amendment martyr of an amusing fellow like Sidney Blumenthal and that succeeds in getting Starr criticized by his natural allies, The New York Times and Washington Post editorial pages, must have something wrong with it...."

Lauer's second question: "The subpoena of Sidney Blumenthal came on the heels of a grilling of Monica Lewinsky's mother before Ken Starr's grand jury. Do you think he overstepped his boundaries in that matter?"

Up next, another interview segment that Lauer kept mostly to Starr's tactics. As also caught and transcribed by MRC news analyst Geoffrey Dickens, Lauer stated:

"Cynthia Alksne is a former federal prosecutor herself and Ben Ginsberg is a former general counsel for the Republican National Committee. Good morning to both of you. Cynthia what do you think about this subpoena to Sidney Blumenthal? Did Ken Starr overstep his authority in your opinion?"

After noting that the Attorney General had given Starr the okay to widen his probe, Lauer returned to how the negative publicity is Starr's fault for allowing the White House to hit him in a way the media eat up:

"Cynthia you have to admit that the White House is spinning this pretty hard in their direction. I mean if they start talking about the First Amendment they scare the heck out of the press and they get us talking more about Ken Starr's behavior than the President's behavior."

It has certainly worked as the White House found an eager audience in journalists.

-- Brent Baker

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