Poor Ken Starr. It's going from bad to worse. The steady drip of anti-Starr bias in the news media was joined last week by a bucketful from the world of entertainment, as the NBC drama series "Law & Order" and "Homicide: Life on the Street" teamed up to depict the independent counsel as an unprincipled, sex-obsessed demagogue.
By way of background, "Law & Order," which airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. Eastern and is set in New York, and "Homicide," which airs Fridays at 10 and is set in Baltimore, have done several two-part "crossover" episodes in which characters from the two shows interact. In the latest example, which began on the February 17 "Law & Order," the storyline has Janine McBride, a lesbian who worked in Baltimore but was previously on the White House staff, found dead in Manhattan.
Detectives learn that a possible witness to the apparent murder is McBride's lover, who's married and the mother of young children. Under those circumstances, prosecutors McCoy of New York and Danvers of Baltimore promise to protect her identity. So far, so good.
Enter the Starr character, independent counsel William Dell, who is investigating other White House matters. When Dell demands to know this witness's name, Danvers asks him what that has to do with "investigating [White House] financial misdealings." Dell responds, "The street only runs one way. You tell me what you know. If you're not familiar with the independent counsel statute..." McCoy breaks in, "I know the statute. I also know about the leaks of grand jury testimony from your office. The Justice Department is investigating your investigation."
McCoy is forced to appear before Dell's grand jury. When he again refuses to reveal the name of the witness, an angry Dell sleazily delves into irrelevant topics, some of them personal, concerning McCoy and his colleagues. Shaking his head in disgust, McCoy cliches, "Mr. Dell, have you no shame? Have you no shame?"
More barbs were thrown Dell's way two nights later on "Homicide." McBride's boss charges that Dell is "in our closets. He's in our bedrooms. [What] started as an investigation in[to] the president's business affairs...has become its own sick argument." Later, Danvers snipes that Dell "set it up so this case will never get to court...Outside the courtroom, at a press conference or in an impeachment report to Congress, he can allege just about anything he wants." To which McCoy adds, "And never have to prove a thing."
It turns out that a private investigator working for the President's lawyers murdered McBride. There's no proof that the lawyers, or anyone at the White House, authorized the killing. Nonetheless, Starr - I mean, Dell - goes on TV to declare the murder "an attempt by high-ranking members of this administration to silence a witness who was prepared to testify about sexual improprieties at the office of the White House chief of staff." McCoy turns off the set and again cliches, "Forty million dollars' worth of misinformation."
God forbid these shows would use a storyline actually resembling the facts of Monicagate.
Political advocacy on prime time television is of two essential types. One attempts to influence ongoing debates. In the winter of '97, Fox's "New York Undercover" - produced, as is "Law & Order," by the screechingly liberal Dick Wolf - aired two grossly irresponsible episodes, one alleging CIA drug dealing, the other charging that the FBI murdered Martin Luther King. Both claims are absurd, of course - and perfect fodder for the Oliver Stone-ized entertainment industry.
The other attempts to rewrite history by inventing a new reality. You could say that the "Law & Order" and "Homicide" episodes aired after the impeachment issue had been decided and therefore really don't matter. But historical integrity - truth - does matter. The pursuit of art gives a license to fictionalize, not a license to lie.
Justice Clarence Thomas understands this. In October 1991, just after Thomas fought off ugly allegations from Anita Hill and was confirmed for the Supreme Court, polls showed that the public, by a three-to-one margin, believed him and not her. A year later, another poll indicated the public was evenly split on which had told the truth.
What happened? The media. For an entire year the news media continued to pummel Thomas with untruths. So did the entertainment community, notably "Murphy Brown" producer Diane English and "Designing Women" producer (and Clinton pal) Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, who aired pro-Hill episodes, influencing millions.
It seems odd that Bloodworth-Thomason and Dick Wolf would express outrage over sexual harassment, then defend a sexual predator. But then, the bridge to the 21st century is in large part built of irony. And myth.