Indicting the Clinton Cabinet? Yawn

On December 11, a grand jury indicted ex-HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros on 18 felony counts of lying to the FBI about the size of hush-money payments to mistress Linda Medlar. On the next day, a judge sentenced Autumn Jackson for attempting to blackmail TV star Bill Cosby by threatening to claim he was her father. Any student of the media in 1997 can quickly guess which story drew more attention.

Just like the 39-count indictment of ex-Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy in August, the networks quickly skimmed over the Cisneros charges. NBC Nightly News filed one story; ABC's World News Tonight gave it 18 seconds. CBS Evening News didn't arrive on the story until the next night, and gave it nine seconds, a fraction of the two minutes Dan Rather gave the nightly El Nino update (see box). The morning shows were worse: NBC's Today passed on two anchor briefs, and ABC's Good Morning America and CBS This Morning ignored it.

Cisneros no doubt enjoyed the fact that he was only a Cabinet official and not the star of a CBS sitcom. Since it began in July, the Bill Cosby-Autumn Jackson paternity-blackmail trial drew nine evening news stories on ABC, CBS, and NBC. The morning shows were much more devoted to the story, with 12 full news stories, 45 anchor briefs, and 11 interviews (nine of them on NBC's Today).

Like Donald Smaltz's Espy probe, independent counsel David Barrett's investigation drew coverage only when the Attorney General announced she would ask for a special prosecutor, on March 14, 1995, and on the day Barrett was named by a three-judge panel, two months later. After five cursory evening stories on ABC, CBS, and NBC, no one has filed a single story on the probe's status for the last two and a half years.

But it's worse than that: Cisneros, who resigned his cabinet duties after the 1996 election, appeared repeatedly on network shows in his official capacity or as a spokesman for Clinton's re-election without being asked a single question about the probe into his lying to the FBI. To be specific, in 1996 he appeared without any ethical questions on NBC's Today (three times), on ABC's Good Morning America, on PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, the CBS Evening News, and Fox News Sunday.

The news magazines weren't any better in their December 22 editions: the Cisneros indictment drew 29 words in Time, two paragraphs in U.S. News & World Report, and a hero-brought-low story on page 70 in Newsweek headlined "A Star's Fall from Grace."

While the pundits dismissed the Cisneros probe before the indictment (the Wall Street Journal's Al Hunt did so twice on CNN's Capital Gang), his colleague James Warren, Washington Bureau Chief of the Chicago Tribune, had a different take on the December 14 Capital Gang: "This was allegedly a far more detailed and premeditated scheme than anybody knew. It involved not one, but two mistresses. It involved payments of $250,000, not $40,000 as we assumed he had claimed. It also involved two of his aides at HUD who allegedly were part of the scheme. And ultimately, at least it raises the possibility that a top Cabinet officer could have been easily extorted."

But lying is no longer an offense worth mentioning, even when it could mean 90 years in prison. Displaying any outrage on behalf of the public interest would be inconvenient: after all, if a Cabinet official's lying is unacceptable, what about a President's? - Tim Graham