Spurred on by their most macho political gut-puncher - Hillary Clinton - the White House sprung into attack mode in Phase Two of Monicagate, declaring "war" on independent counsel Kenneth Starr. Put aside the oddity of a draft evader's administration declaring metaphorical "wars" and assembling "war rooms" to fight scandals. Why doesn't this strategy beg the question from the media: Isn't this an inappropriate attack on the judicial process, a spin-control Saturday Night Massacre?
Perhaps because intimidating this special prosecutor doesn't outrage the major media - it inspires them. What a difference from just a decade ago, when their attitude toward Lawrence Walsh, who was prosecuting the Reagan administration, enjoyed every benefit of the doubt from this very same press corps. Consider:
1. The media never described the Iran-Contra prosecution as a "war." They did refer to, and constantly condemned, the "dirty little war," but that was the Contra resistance in Nicaragua, see. "War" between Walsh and the Reaganites? I challenge you to find a single major media reference to that.
The Clintonites' rhetorical excesses are also politically calculated. In wars, the public often gets demoralized into opposing the war instead of the aggressor. The war metaphor takes away the moral high ground of an independent counsel, as the disinterested prosecutor investigating criminal targets degenerates into a partisan political aggressor. Even the Clintonites wouldn't dare strive for moral superiority these days, so they settle for moral equivalence and confusion.
And media outlets have fallen for the White House attack line. Time's cover read "Starr at War." Newsweek's cover promised the latest on "The Secret Sex Wars." Newsweek's Howard Fineman cooed "the president strikes back - shrewdly and smartly." On February 6, Tom Brokaw began NBC's newscast: "Tonight, the war between the White House and Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr went to a new level." The examples are endless.
2. Polls and partisanship. The Clintonites announce a "war," accuse Starr of partisan political persecution. Obediently, and quite predictably, the national press filed report after report. Now come the media polls confirming that a majority of Americans believe there is a war being waged by a politically partisan prosecutor. Imagine that. NBC reported that 64 percent said the Starr probe is "partisan and political" while only 22 percent characterized it as "fair and impartial." After years of James Carville and Co. attacks and Dan Rather's constant references to Starr as a "Republican prosecutor," how could the results be otherwise?
Let's be honest. Do the American people really know enough about Starr's investigation to be able to judge whether it's fair? Does the press? In fact, none of us knows where Starr is heading. It's just speculation based on rumors created by leaks emanating from who knows where. Memo to the media: How about a media "rush to judgment" mea culpa on that one?
When Lawrence Walsh re-indicted Caspar Weinberger and leak documents sullying George Bush a quaint four days before the 1992 election, where were the stories about partisanship, and where were the subsequent polls confirming the public's annoyance? (In contrast to Walsh, Starr sat back and let it be known he would indict no one on the eve of the 1996 elections, rendering all sorts of issues from the FBI files to Travelgate officially non-news for the press.) The only mention of Walsh and partisanship in the magazines was an April 27, 1992 Time dispatch - decrying the end of Walsh's investigation: "The special prosecutor favors closing out the inquiry before it becomes a partisan issue in the presidential campaign." The Time headline: "A Mystery Without an Ending." That same headline could have been used a dozen times in 1996 to focus on a dozen separate unsolved Clinton scandals. No headline of that sort ever materialized.
3. Investigating the special prosecutor. CNN President/Clinton buddy Rick Kaplan followed his January 28 roundtable seminar on "media madness" against Clinton with another beaut the next week: "Investigating the Investigator," where reporters announced Starr's "conservative connections - his links with the President's political opponents - have made him suspect." Another reporter suggested: "Even if Starr's critics overlooked his connections to the right, they'd probably still find ammunition by focusing in on his tactics."
But CNN and other outlets did nothing to investigate the Walsh team's election-eve reindictment of Weinberger. CNN never investigated the post-election question raised by the Washington Times: Why was the Clinton campaign's detailed press release on the reindictment dated the day before? Obviously, the Walsh team had leaked this political explosive to the Clinton campaign, yet nobody cared.
Now, Walsh is back in the news. He's been invited on one talk show after another to run down Starr's probe. There's a reason we don't have trial by media. These journalistic judges make a one-sided kangaroo court look like a pleasant alternative.