The Strange Eruption Over Brill's Content

Watching and reading the virtual non-stop barrage of "news" stories concerning Steve Brill's "bombshell" about Ken Starr's "leaks," I've concluded one thing's missing. "Twilight Zone" music. We have now moved beyond the ridiculous and into the realm of the truly bizarre. Consider:

1. Can Ken Starr be attacked from absolutely any angle? Journalism professor Ted Smith wrote many years ago about the media's talent for "omnidirectional" criticism. They began this year by positing as fact that Starr was hopelessly inept at public relations, which no doubt spurred him to be more receptive to reporters, including Brill. Now the media are attacking him for being so inept as to give Brill an interview. And they wonder why he wanted to leave for Pepperdine!

2. Where's the story?? ABC's Charles Gibson suggested: "In a statement today, Mr. Starr said nothing his office has done violates the law or Department of Justice policy. That 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." That statement encapsulates the media's read on things. But wait a minute. The legal issue - did Starr & Co. break the law? - is the issue! And it's precisely because the media are setting law-breaking aside - Starr & Co didn't - that the White House is so gleefully upset right now. Put another way: if the media focused on the real story and not politics, there'd be no story at all. Instead, they're fueling the fires of yet another hatchet job on Ken Starr, to the Clinton machine's delight.

3. Doesn't the media's coverage of Brill's story completely refute Brill's argument? Brill thinks "the press seems to have become an enabler of Starr's abuse of power...almost everyone in the press eagerly let the man in power [Starr] write the story - once Linda Tripp and Lucianne Goldberg put it together for him."

If the media were such Starr lackeys, how does Brill explain...reality? A study recently released by Dr. Robert Lichter's Center for Media and Public Affairs found 89 percent of network comments evaluating Starr (that didn't come from Starr or his staff) have been negative in the first four months of this year. And this doesn't begin to measure the degree of media hostility that includes giving credence to all manner of wacko conspiracy theories, including putting Starr in cahoots with "Clinton haters" like philanthropist Dick Scaife. Not every reporter's agreeing with Brill, especially the alleged Starr stooges, a half dozen of whom have denounced Brill for everything from mischaracterizations to outright defamation. But the amount of attention this non-story is getting reeks of continued pro-Clinton bias.

4. Doesn't Brill's partisan background matter? Take it from me: a conservative media critic discussing press coverage of this administration can't complete his first sentence without the establishment press questioning his agenda and the like. Conservatives, they believe, are disqualified because of ideological bias. And Brill? He's a major donor to the Clinton-Gore campaign, not to mention numerous other liberal Democrats. A 1997 Brill essay in a Yale alumni publication sadly remembering the burning of the Yale law library says it all: "I knew I was a good, progressive liberal who sympathized with everyone who wanted to drive back the Nixonian forces of evil. I'd been a Timothy Dwight organizer of the campus-wide toilet flush timed for the moment of President Nixon's inauguration." Five years ago, Newsweek's Jonathan Alter denounced right-wing and left-wing media watchdog groups: "What you realize is these people aren't really interested in media criticism. What they're doing, often, is just ax-grinding for a political view in the guise of media criticism." Now Alter is on the "Today" show praising Brill's new magazine as a good idea. Jonathan, Jonathan.

5. So why does this Steven Brill scoop matter? When Brill's magazine The American Lawyer published a Stuart Taylor cover story in mid-October 1996 suggesting that Paula Jones had a serious case against the President, ABC gave it a sentence - a week later. CBS and NBC waited ten weeks. When two years before that, Taylor attacked the media's coverage of the "Iraqgate" story as a bunch of unsubstantiated hooey, the media ignored that. Two years before that, The American Lawyer ran an article criticizing the media's coverage of the Rodney King trial - to media silence. You could argue that these isolated pieces show Brill's not a knee-jerk liberal, and I'll buy that (I think). But none of them attracted a fraction of the brouhaha the Starr piece did. Why so much attention to this attack on Ken Starr? Because it's an attack on Ken Starr.