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The Media's Watchdog Days Are Over

There's nothing quite so strange as the press corps announcing the removal of their own watchdog's teeth. On July 31, Washington Post reporter Charles Babington triumphantly reported the birth of a new Clinton era: "With the news media and Congress taking their cue from a public weary of questions about presidential scandal, President Clinton is free to devote his final 18 months in office to issues he sees as crucial to his legacy." Babington noted the way reporters have abandoned scandal questions in press conferences, and "have turned their focus to federal budget surpluses, Medicare expansions, and other topics the White House views as winners."

Translation: we quit. To those accusing the media of giving a Clinton a free ride, it's official.

The free pass was underscored with the recent news that Clinton has established another shameful precedent: the first President to be fined by a judge for lying under oath, a $90,000 penalty. While CBS and NBC dutifully covered the story for a couple of minutes, ABC's "World News Tonight" gave it a whopping 22 seconds. The next morning, NBC's "Today" gave it 15 seconds, while ABC and CBS focused on more important matters, like the upcoming auction of Marilyn Monroe's collectibles.

The news magazines were even less interested. U.S. News gave it a paragraph or two. Newsweek joked in its "Conventional Wisdom Watch" that he was "Hit with $90K fine. But polls show he's still Our Bill." Time spiked the story completely.

Richard Nixon could have used press coverage like this.

The all-news channels also ignored the Clinton fine, so obsessed were they with helicopter shots of an Atlanta office building, and the latest true-crime tabloid details about a madman shooting up an online investment firm. All normal programming was postponed. They never returned to the story the next night. On CNN's "Inside Politics," host Judy Woodruff promised to cover "a major political story that was overshadowed by events in Atlanta yesterday." But it wasn't the fine they reported, but the overruled no-welfare-for-illegal-aliens Proposition 187 in California. In a very brief discussion about Wright's ruling on CNN's Late Edition a couple of days later, USA Today's Susan Page declared it was "remarkable to me how little publicity it got."

CNN left out the laugh track.

The increasing resistance to scandal news hit home when even the indictment of longtime media pinata Linda Tripp didn't draw much media interest. This time, ABC and CBS aired a story, while NBC gave it just a few seconds. Time and Newsweek ridiculed Tripp as a loser in their quippy up-front features, but only U.S. News ran a story.

In the new Clinton-liberating era, even piling on Linda Tripp risks reminding people of Clinton's failings. The newsroom debate probably concludes with the question: Isn't Linda Tripp already ruined? When ABC's Web site runs a poll comparing you to Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, and Osama bin Laden, how could it get any worse?

On "The McLaughlin Group," Newsweek's Eleanor Clift asserted Wright's fine was just, as was the indictment of Tripp: "It's appropriate and this is where this should have been dealt with from the beginning, in the court of law and not taken into the Congress. And I would also like to point out another appropriate sanction and that is the indictment this week of Linda Tripp for illegally recording a friend and it was those recordings, exposing a private affair that had been over that launched this whole ridiculous Monica Lewinsky affair that paralyzed the nation for a year."

Of course, you never heard Eleanor become outraged when Democratic Rep. Jim McDermott exploited private recordings of Rep. John Boehner in 1997, leaking them to The New York Times in an attempt to embarrass Newt Gingrich. McDermott was never punished, and is now exploring a Senate bid. You never heard Eleanor that she resented the Pentagon's politically-motivated leak of Linda Tripp's confidential personnel file to The New Yorker magazine last year, just so the magazine could claim she never included a bogus teenage arrest on her federal employment forms. The functionary who did the leaking, Cliff Bernath, got a promotion. Where's Eleanor's outrage?

It seems like every time the "victim" is Clinton, it's a different story and a different spin, isn't it?

The media's return to the sheepish acceptance of White House talking points reflects their partisan desire for Clinton to salvage a legacy in the short time he has left. As Babington noted, "Because Clinton is now unburdened by fresh scandal or another election, some observers say, he can undertake the type of missions he avoided when he had to maintain strong support among moderate voters." Translation: Clinton's moving left. And no conscientious liberal journalist should get in the way of that.