CyberAlert -- 06/16/1998 -- Starr's "Secret Briefings" Alarm Reporters Who Already Knew About Them

Starr's "Secret Briefings" Alarm Reporters Who Already Knew About Them

1) "Hasn't Starr handed the White House an enormous political opportunity?" asked ABC's Charles Gibson. Yes, as the media make a big issue of what Dan Rather ominously dubbed "secret briefings." But Lawrence Walsh did the same thing, as only one reporter noted.

2) Monday morning GMA delivered only the White House spin. The Starr controversy consumed the whole first half hour of Today as Newsweek's Jonathan Alter insisted Starr did wrong.

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Clarification: The last item in the June 15 CyberAlert featured Rush Limbaugh's endorsement of Content magazine and declared: "I hope he's learned his lesson: Don't endorse a product until you've seen it." I think this came out more strident and personal than I intended. Many, including myself, seem to have misjudged the expected content of Content and it is Steve Brill who should be criticized for not delivering what he promised, not Limbaugh for believing in Brill.


cyberno1.gif (1096 bytes) Network news took on a surreal quality Monday night as all the networks reported as hot news that Ken Starr admitted he and a colleague talked to reporters. Dan Rather ominously referred to his "secret briefings." But the reporters involved and their colleagues knew the contacts occurred, so if they were so troubling and newsworthy why didn't anyone report them months ago? In a way Steve Brill did upset the Washington media norms by putting into play something everybody knew but had decided journalistic rules on protecting sources prevented them from reporting. But if everyone knew the independent counsel's office was feeding information to reporters why are Starr's comments even news?

Monday night CBS, CNN and FNC led with the controversy over Starr's comments to Brill. ABC began with U.S./NATO operations to quell violence in Kosovo and the Dow plummeting 200 points topped NBC. CNN and FNC, but not the broadcast networks, highlighted Steven Brill's record of contributions to Democrats, including the Clinton-Gore campaign. Here are some highlights from the Monday, June 15 evening shows:

-- ABC's World News Tonight devoted the A Closer Look segment to Starr. Anchor Charles Gibson noted that Judge Norma Holloway Johnson had summoned all the lawyers to her court, then set up the segment: "There are really two major questions at play here. Was it legal for Kenneth Starr or his employees to talk to reporters the way they did? And by admitting he did talk to reporters hasn't Kenneth Starr handed the White House an enormous political opportunity?"

The answer to the second is yes, but only if the media play along as they are and treat his talking to reporters as something improper.

Gibson reviewed Starr's past assurances that his office did not leak or could not comment on a particular matter and how Clinton lawyer David Kendall had filed a complaint about leaks from Starr's office. Gibson asserted:
"So despite all his earlier statements Kenneth Starr is now in the position of acknowledging he has given information to reporters in private, although he still maintains he has done nothing illegal. In a statement today Mr. Starr said nothing his office has done violates the law or Department Justice policy. That's is his legal argument. But legal issues aside, Kenneth Starr has really handed the White House an incredible political gift, one they've already started to use against him."

In other words, we won't bother exploring whether he did anything illegal. If he didn't then shouldn't the story die? Instead, ABC stuck to politics. Gibson discussed the impact with Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts. Donaldson relayed that White House officials "believe Starr has turned the dagger on himself." Their strategy is to delay and change the subject and Starr, Donaldson charged, is playing into their game plan. Capitol Hill is baffled about why Starr talked to Brill, Roberts reported.

-- CBS Evening News. Dan Rather opened dramatically:
"New and serious accusations about special prosecutor Kenneth Starr's conduct during his investigation of President Clinton are the subject of a special federal court hearing in Washington tonight. Subject: Starr now admits giving reporters secret briefings about details of the case. Starr says he did nothing illegal. Aides to President Clinton have another view."

Scott Pelley summarized the Content story, ran a soundbite from Mike McCurry and relayed Starr's denial of any wrongdoing. But Pelley showed how unnewsworthy the whole matter is, pointing out a historical note the other networks skipped: "There is precedent for this. Former independent counsel Lawrence Walsh says he often briefed reporters so the taxpayers would know what he was up to."

-- CNN's The World Today. Co-anchor Jim Moret announced at the top of the 8pm ET show: "The independent counsel. Questions about whether his interview with this magazine reveals he broke the law."

Pierre Thomas began with the same theme which put the burden on Starr: "Did independent counsel Ken Starr break the law when he talked to reporters about the Monica Lewinsky investigation? Well, that depends."
After soundbites from experts offering both views, Thomas noted how "former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh agrees, this is a murky area." After a clip of Thornburgh, Thomas allowed Starr to deny any secrecy violations. Thomas then summarized the rules Starr must follow, noting that "a number of courts have issued rulings broadly prohibiting any discussions related to grand jury proceedings." Picking up on complaints from Starr-bashers, Thomas concluded by highlighting their complaints about how Janet Reno hasn't moved fast enough on Clinton attorney David Kendall's charge:
"For weeks, Attorney General Janet Reno has refused to address allegations that Ken Starr is leaking to the press. Reno says she's waiting on Judge Norma Holloway Johnson to rule on a complaint filed by Clinton attorney, David Kendall. Democrats have screamed for action, but Reno has held fast..."

Immediately after Thomas finished co-anchor Joie Chen took a few seconds to tell viewers about Brill's Democrats-only donation policy: "CNN's check of Federal Election Commission records shows that Content Editor Steven Brill gave $1,000 to the Clinton-Gore campaign in 1995. He also gave more than $9,000 to various Democratic candidates for Congress since 1992. There were no donations to Republican candidates."

-- FNC's Fox Report at 7pm ET started with David Shuster on the Starr controversy. After presenting the White House complaint, Shuster uniquely pointed out that Starr talked with reporters in the first days of the scandal to correct false allegations made by Clintonites of prosecutorial misconduct over how Lewinsky was supposedly detained against her will. Like CNN, Shuster also raised Brill's record of putting his money into the hands of Democrats:
"In his story Steve Brill accused the media of being corrupted to its core. Brill himself however never mentioned his own possible conflict of interest. Since 1992 records show he has given almost $10,000 to Democrats running for Congress. And in 1996 he gave $1,000 to the Clinton-Gore re-election campaign. When asked why he couldn't find room in a 24,000 word story to discuss his own political history, Brill said he didn't think it was relevant."

(Today's CyberAlert is 2,100 words, so Brill's treatise is equal to about 12 CyberAlerts.)

Later, Eric Burns provided an outline of Brill's allegations which Burns said "are damning if not new." Burns concluded: "Steven Brill's story is one-sided, which means one of two things. Either the facts are one-sided or this interpretation of them is." Next, the anchors discussed the story fallout with Matthew Rees of The Weekly Standard.

-- NBC Nightly News. Unlike ABC, CBS and CNN Tom Brokaw refrained from putting the burden on Starr to prove he did not do something illegal, not giving an advantage to either side:
"There's a new battle tonight between the White House and independent counsel Ken Starr. It's erupted with the publication of a magazine article in which Starr acknowledges that he and his staff gave reporters information about the Monica Lewinsky investigation."
David Bloom, however, concluded with this hit on the independent counsel: "Starr insists that in part he was just responding to White House leaks, but the President's advisers have renewed their call for an independent investigation of the independent counsel. One source put it this way, federal judge Norma Holloway Johnson tonight is intent on taking Starr to the woodshed."

This from the reporter Brill disparaged for performing "lapdog-like work" for Starr. In this case I bet that "one source" is closer to the Oval Office than Starr's office.


cyberno2.gif (1451 bytes) Monday morning Today went to the Starr matter right at the top of the show, devoting both interview segments in the first half hour to the controversy. ABC's Good Morning America, MRC analyst Clay Waters observed, encapsulated the imbalance of the White House versus Starr public relations battle. No one from Starr's side appeared, but GMA dedicated an interview segment to former White House scandal flack Lanny Davis.

Matt Lauer opened Today by asking about Starr:
"Did he break the law by leaking information about his investigation of President Clinton to the press? The editor of a new magazine says he did. He interviewed Ken Starr for an article on press coverage of the Monica Lewinsky story. Starr says he did nothing wrong. But the White House says this is a bombshell. We will get into it in just a few minutes."

David Bloom concluded his 7am news update piece by marveling at how the controversy had diverted attention from Clinton:
"Even Starr's supporters are frustrated. That it would give more ammunition to his critics and divert attention from his investigation."
Trent Lott: "But once again the story is about who leaked to whom, not about what laws were potentially violated. That should be the emphasis."
Bloom: "But the President's advisers insist their focus is on what laws were potentially violated. Namely did the independent counsel break the law by leaking confidential information to the press?"

For the rest of the first half hour of the June 15 Today viewers saw Matt Lauer interview Steve Brill and Katie Couric talk with Newsweek's Jonathan Alter.

Lauer did challenge some of Brill's contentions and asked Brill to respond to Starr's retort, at one point noting: "The irony here is that you're writing an article about the recklessness of the press in covering the Lewinsky story and now you're being accused of being reckless with the facts in the article."

Alter argued to Couric, as transcribed by MRC news analyst Geoffrey Dickens, that Starr did do something very wrong:
"Well I think Ken Starr's candor might actually cost him this time. You can look at this and say, 'What's the big deal? So he's leaking, everybody leaks, the White House leaks.' But the law is very clear. It's okay for the White House to leak as sleazy is it might be in P.R. terms. It's not okay under the law for Ken Starr or his people to leak. The law is very clear. It says they cannot talk about quote, 'matters before the grand jury,' unquote. And that covers a lot of territory."

If Starr leaking to reporters is such an awful transgression why didn't anyone in the media report that long ago? So reporters put their journalistic norms of never divulging a source and never naming a colleague's source ahead of the interest of blocking an independent counsel from abusing his power and unethically maligning the reputation of the President of the United States? If you follow the media logic that Starr abused his power by divulging secrets to reporters which thereby corrupted the judicial process, then reporters were partners in that corruption and are hardly in a moral position now to pass judgment on Starr. -- Brent Baker

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