CyberAlert -- 06/15/1998 -- Brill a Clinton Lapdog

Brill a Clinton Lapdog, Not a Media Watchdog; Nets Skip China & Lindsey

1) Steve Brill promised that his Content magazine would "hold journalists' feet to the fire," but instead he decided to join the media's conventional wisdom by disparaging Ken Starr.

2) The Clinton administration knew long ago that China was using U.S.-sold satellites for military purposes. CBS, CNN and NBC ignore the disclosure.

3) Bruce Lindsey's contacts with witnesses before they testified angered the judge, but all three broadcast networks skipped the evidence of possible witness manipulation and testimony coordination.

4) Rush Limbaugh: "This effort by Steve Brill's Content to implement and advance that accountability and hold everyone's feet to the fire is exactly what we need." Oops.


cyberno1.gif (1096 bytes) "At last, the media's free ride has come to a screeching halt." So exclaimed huge lettering on the outside of a direct mail piece pushing the new Content magazine. Since re-named the more egomaniacal "Brill's Content" after founder Steve Brill, the premiere issue generated plenty of publicity over the weekend not for taking on the media but for taking on Ken Starr. How original and unique. And many reporters acted as if the revelation that Starr talked to reporters was new when, in fact, they must have know colleagues who had been to Starr's office.

(Brill created CourTV and his American Lawyer magazine carried Stuart Taylor's November 1996 article detailing the case for Paula Jones. But now Brill dismisses Stuart as a "partisan." Ralph Nader and Rush Limbaugh endorsed Content in an insert in the direct mail package for the magazine.)

The cover of the premier issue announced: "In Watergate reporters checked abuse of power. In the Lewinsky affair they enabled it by lapping up Ken Starr's leaks which he now admits for the first time." How does that correspond with what Brill promised potential subscribers? A letter from him in the direct mail package asked: "Name the industry that, when it comes to power, lack of accountability, arrogance, and making money in the name of sacred constitutional rights, actually makes lawyers look good." His answer was not the bar or independent counsels but "The media."

A color flyer in the subscription package, with a dog on the cover, declared: "Now there's a fearless media watchdog," and as you turn the pages you read, "that holds journalists' feet to the fire...exposes incompetents & charlatans...applauds the ones who get it right...separates wheat from the chaff on the Web...debunks long-standing myths...and helps you get to the truth...introducing Content."

Yet, in his 28-page article he denounces Starr's investigation as an "abuse of power." To the extent he takes on the media he does so from the left, from an anti-Starr point of view, thus hardly offering a fresh or unique watchdog role. CNN aired an anti-Starr special, "Investigating the Investigator," back on February 5! And as any CyberAlert reader knows, questions about whether Starr has "gone too far" and labeling him "partisan" are a regular feature of network news.

The cover story "contains considerable criticism of the press as a 'cheering section' for Starr and unsubstantiated reporting," The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz observed in a June 14 story. Kurtz elaborated: "Brill said The Post's [Susan] Schmidt 'does stenography for the prosecutors' and NBC's David Bloom does 'lapdog-like work' as 'a virtual stenographer for Starr.'"

Someone really interested in offering a refreshing publication "that holds journalists' feet to the fire," would go outside of conventional media wisdom. How about a look at how good a job the media did in providing their readers and viewers with both sides when one side (the White House) had a staff of current and former flacks while the other side (the independent counsel) had nobody on staff and was constrained from talking about the very issues the White House put into play. I haven't seen Brill's piece yet, but that doesn't sound like an issue he considered.

Despite Brill's promise to be a watchdog on the media like they are on everybody else, the founder, CEO and Editor-in-Chief of Content spent Sunday morning denouncing not the media but Ken Starr. Brill popped up on Fox News Sunday, Face the Nation and CNN's Late Edition as well as NBC's Today to claim Starr had violated federal evidence Rule 6(e) which prohibits disclosure of grand jury testimony.

Bob Schieffer opened Face the Nation: "Today on Face the Nation: Has Ken Starr been manipulating the media to get the President? Our guest today, the editor of a new magazine about the media, suggests he has..."

Brill made no effort to move beyond attacking Starr and when challenged about how Starr's interpretation may be correct in that he can brief reporters before testimony and in order to make sure reporters know the facts, Brill insisted: "Every court that had to take a look at it has flatly contradicted the use of that kind of loophole." On Late Edition he argued about the matter with a former Attorney General -- Richard Thornburgh.

Brill's story is so one-sided that it even embarrassed the Washington press corps. Examples:

-- On Face the Nation, Gloria Borger of U.S. News & World Report, propounded: "Ken Starr's people might say that the media had been manipulated in fact by the White House on this story."

Bob Schieffer made the obvious point that Brill's theory is contradicted by reality: "Do you think in fact this has helped Ken Star because his poll ratings, when you go out around the country, if he was using the media in this way it does not seem to have helped him."

In the next segment, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley declared: "It hardly makes a basis for suggesting actual wrongdoing in any legal sense. I'd be surprised if this article made it past the copy editor of a small town newspaper. It's very, very one sided."

-- CNN's Wolf Blitzer pressed Brill on Late Edition: "In your article, which basically makes two very serious allegations one against Ken Starr, a second one against several reporters, who are accused of basically being spoon fed by Ken Starr and his staff in printing, and reporting, whatever they are told, there still is -- you don't get into the whole question of anything that the White House may be doing, similarly trying to leak information, sensitive secret information. Is it fair to say that this is a one-sided, simply anti-Ken Starr article that you have written?"

-- After interviewing Brill Fox News Sunday brought on Lucianne Goldberg to criticize his reporting. Brill's polemic was too much even the liberal Juan Williams, who declared during the end of the show roundtable: "I thought it was horrifically one-sided. I can't quite grasp, other than he idea he's trying to get publicity for his magazine, why he would do such a one-sided piece..."

But Ruth Conniff of the far-left Progressive loved it: "I think it's an excellent piece. I think it does exactly what Brill has set out to do, which is to be a watchdog on the media..."

Despite the morning scrutiny, though the June 14 evening show stories included Starr's denial of any wrongdoing, the network newscasts led with the White House spin:

-- ABC's World News Tonight/Sunday. Anchor Carole Simpson intoned: "Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr has admitted in an interview released today that he and his office were the source of some of the leaks about his investigation into President Clinton. The news may come as no surprise in Washington, but the fact that he said it -- that's another matter."

-- CBS Evening News. Anchor John Roberts announced: "The White House is jumping all over the news that independent counsel Kenneth Starr has been talking to the media about witnesses who are appearing before his grand jury. The White House is calling for an investigation of the investigator, claiming that Starr may have broken the law. But as Bob Schieffer reports, Starr is proclaiming his innocence."
Schieffer trumpeted how "Steven Brill drops a bombshell..."

-- NBC Nightly News. Anchor Len Cannon told viewers: "The man heading the investigation of the President, Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, has his own problems tonight concerning briefings he gave he media an an unidentified source." Reporter Suzanne Malveaux included Rahm Emmanuel's comments o Meet the Press calling the Brill charges a "bombshell, very serious" and "grave," adding: "Some legal experts say this is serious." Georgetown University law professor Paul Rothstein insisted: "If there's a lot more under the surface it could lead to possible dismissal of Kenneth Starr."

Final Thought. When I first heard about Content I was excited that someone with Brill's heft would be able to force the media to confront and answer the same questions reporters force everyone they cover to deal with. I hope that's what he will offer and may even have done so in the current issue outside of the cover story, but judging by his Sunday appearances and theme of his cover story, he may just have created another Columbia Journalism Review: a publication where journalists are applauded for pursuing liberal agenda items and castigated when they stray off the media reservation to the right.

cyberno2.gif (1451 bytes)"U.S. Knew China Military Used Civilian Satellites, Reports Show," announced a June 13 headline on the front page of the New York Times. But that night CBS, CNN and NBC ignored the disclosure. So did CNN on its 8pm ET The World Today.

Times reporter Jeff Gerth began:
"For the past two years, China's military has relied on American-made satellites sold for civilian purposes to transmit messages to its far-flung army garrisons, according to highly classified intelligence reports.
"The reports are the most powerful evidence to date that the American government knew that China's army was taking advantage of the Bush and Clinton administrations' decisions to encourage sales of technology to Asian companies. The United States has barred American companies from selling military equipment to the Chinese military since the 1989 killings in Tiananmen Square.
"The intelligence reports, which were described by administration officials, were recounted last year in a document compiled by Pentagon intelligence officials and sent to hundreds of senior policy-makers at the White House, State Department and other agencies...."

Saturday night, June 13 all three broadcast networks led with the funeral in Jasper, Texas for James Byrd.

-- Only ABC's World News Tonight touched China. In a piece on a gathering of GOP presidential candidates in Cedar rapids, Iowa, Ann Compton said the "potential candidates ripped into the White House on its China policy." Attributing the attacks to Republicans instead of information from a newspaper, Compton explained:

"The Republicans also accused the White House of allowing the Chinese military too much access to American technology. There's new information this weekend that Beijing communicates with Chinese troops in the field using American made satellites. American companies are forbidden from selling military equipment to the Chinese, but the White House is quick to point out these are commercial satellites."

-- The CBS Evening News ran two stories (Clinton's trip to Oregon and the Iowa GOP conclave) in which they could have raised the China revelations, but they did not though anchor Paula Zahn found time for another story in the Saturday New York Times: the breaking news that Ken Starr told Brill he had briefed reporters.

Bill Plante oozed: "In Oregon the President assumed the role of healer. To graduates at Portland State University Mr. Clinton emphasized the need to build an inclusive society..."
In Cedar Rapids Phil Jones broached China in a clause about how "all made the morality of President Clinton and his foreign policy their targets," but offered nothing from the Times story.

-- NBC Nightly News. In an edition shortened in the east by a WNBA game, from Jasper, Texas Bob Dotson found: "James Byrd's neighbors want his death to be a wake up call for all of America to face racism and defeat it. Another out of towner, the Reverend Al Sharpton, agrees."

Sharpton: "We must not fall in a trap while we are the hated to become the haters."
Al Sharpton's hardly a symbol of racial harmony.

John Palmer checked in from Oregon with Clinton, but did not utter one word about China. Anchor Brian Williams did, however, squeeze in this item which, up to the last sentence, could have been written by James Carville:
"Also tonight what might explain some of the leaks the White House has been complaining about over the course of Ken Starr's investigation. In an interview for the premiere edition of Content magazine, Starr admits that along with an aide he has talked to reporters about the case but as an unnamed source. He says he has done it to correct misinformation and in a statement tonight Ken Starr says he is guilty of no misconduct."

cyberno3.gif (1438 bytes)A Los Angeles Times story Friday morning raised the possibility of witness tampering and story coordination on the Monica front by White House Deputy Counsel Bruce Lindsey. But the networks which were so interested in Brill's claims about how Starr manipulated the process in the early days had no interest in how a White House operative may have tried to manipulate what witnesses said, or at the very least made sure Clinton said nothing which might contradict them. In the morning the networks were silent and in the evening FNC mentioned the disclosure but only CNN ran a full story. None of the networks picked up on the potential wrongdoing over the weekend.

"Records Show Clinton Aide Contacted Probe Witnesses," read the June 12 Los Angeles Times story by David Willman and Ronald Ostrow. They explained: "It was not a telephone call that a lawyer practicing in New Hampshire would expect. But on the line that day in January was Bruce R. Lindsey, a White House official. What, Lindsey wanted to know, did the lawyer's client, a retired chief White House steward named Michael J. McGrath, know about the President and a former intern, Monica S. Lewinsky? Lindsey, said a source familiar with the conversation, 'was trying to take a barometer of the facts.'
"After reviewing Lindsey's actions, a federal judge has sharply questioned why a lawyer on the government payroll was doing this kind of sleuthing, according to confidential court records obtained by The Times.
"'The court questions the propriety of the President utilizing a government attorney as his personal agent in a personal attorney-client relationship,' Chief U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson wrote in a 51-page opinion that she signed May 1...
"The records show that Lindsey directly sought information from two other witnesses in the Lewinsky matter at the time the controversy was erupting: Vernon E. Jordan Jr., the Washington lobbyist who helped Lewinsky find a job, and D. Stephen Goodin, the President's personal scheduler whose job had entailed shadowing Clinton through much of his workday...
"Lindsey's contacts with the witnesses came near the time when federal investigators confronted Lewinsky on Jan. 16 in an Arlington, Va., hotel with evidence that she had had an intimate relationship with the president and lied about it under oath. The agents sought her cooperation in determining whether Clinton or others were involved in an illegal cover-up. They also sought other witnesses with knowledge of the matter.
"The dates of Lindsey's calls to the witnesses were not noted in the records, but they came before Starr had brought the three before a federal grand jury in Washington to tell what they knew. At the time Lindsey contacted McGrath's lawyer, only a handful of attorneys including those cooperating with Clinton through so-called joint-defense arrangements knew that McGrath was a likely grand jury witness.
"The lawyers knew that McGrath was positioned to shed light on a subordinate's account to him, describing an alleged encounter between Clinton and Lewinsky in late 1995 near the Oval Office. McGrath was prepared to testify that a White House valet, Bayani B. Nelvis, just after the alleged encounter had given him details of what he observed. Among other things, Nelvis told McGrath that Lewinsky's hair was askew and that, on the floor of the study, the valet found towels smeared with lipstick...."

Friday night, not a word on the broadcast networks. ABC led with the impact of the Year 2000 problem on utilities. CBS and NBC went first with the GM strike. All three had time for full reports on people who survived an avalanche. ABC featured A Closer Look at how technology is changing sports. CBS managed time for a story on celebrity files now available on the FBI Web site as well as more on the dangers of Olestra. NBC Nightly News included a story about online shopping and excerpts of commencement speeches.

On CNN's The World Today John King delivered Friday's only full story on Lindsey. Referring to the judge's ruling denying attorney-client privilege to Lindsey, King relayed:
"Details of her sealed ruling were first reported by the Los Angeles Times and confirmed to CNN by a lawyer familiar with the White House legal strategy. The judge wrote, quote: 'The court questions the propriety of the President utilizing a government attorney as his personal agent in a personal attorney-client relationship.'
"Lindsey was missing from the President's side Friday in California, staying back in Washington helping prepare the White House appeal. In a statement to CNN, the White House said, quote: 'It is entirely appropriate for attorneys in the public or private sector to speak with witnesses or their counsel, both before or after they testify before any investigative body.' Sources tell CNN that McGrath testified that another White House steward, Bayoni Nelvis, told him he found towels smeared with lipstick after seeing Lewinsky leave the Oval Office. Nelvis is also cooperating with the President's attorneys."

cyberno4.gif (1375 bytes)Back to Content. Here's Rush Limbaugh's endorsement quote in the direct mail package: "The First Amendment assures that there are no controls over the press. The press, therefore, must be accountable and responsible to itself. This effort by Steve Brill's Content to implement and advance that accountability and hold everyone's feet to the fire is exactly what we need."

Given Limbaugh's criticism of Brill that I just heard during his first half hour today, in which he pointed out that the MRC actually does what Brill claimed Content would do, I hope he's learned his lesson: Don't endorse a product until you've seen it. -- Brent Baker

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