MediaWatch: December 14, 1998

Vol. Twelve No. 22

Ken Starr, Demented Puritan Porn Pusher?

After months of saying nothing but a few pleasantries getting into his car outside his house, independent counsel Kenneth Starr consented to an interview with ABC’s 20/20 airing November 25. But Starr must not have made a long list of demands for ABC to land the interview, since ABC promoted it as an opportunity to use Starr as a punching bag. The TV promos hyped Diane Sawyer’s harsh questions: "Do I have a right to ask you about your sex life?...Is this a witch hunt?...When are you going to wrap this up?"

ABC also touted its hostility in newspaper ads placed around the country: "Prosecutor? Or persecutor? Wednesday night, you’re the judge. Tomorrow night, in an exclusive interview, Diane Sawyer asks Ken Starr the tough questions: Is this a witch hunt? Was all the salacious detail necessary? What do you really think of the Clintons? When will it all end? No matter which side you’re on, the answers will surprise you." Sawyer’s queries could be placed in four categories:

PRUDE. Sawyer suggested Starr’s moral beliefs somehow disqualified him from investigating. "Tonight, an exclusive interview with independent counsel Kenneth Starr, a man accused of trying to impose his personal beliefs on everyone else." Sawyer then proclaimed we knew little about Starr: "We only knew that his investigation has polarized a nation and that most everybody says it’s time for him to stop. And something else — a question about him. Has he really been pursuing the President to enforce the law, or because of his private view of personal morality?"

She pressed strongly on Starr’s prudishness: "Someone said, who had worked for you, ‘He would just die if you told a dirty joke in front of him.’ True?...Do you hate R-rated movies?... You almost went in the ministry?" She asked of his upbringing in the Church of Christ, "No dancing, no movies?....So did you think it [dancing] was wicked?" Sawyer implied Starr is too religious to be trusted: "I think one of the things that makes people uneasy is the concern that your religious principles are an engine fueling your legal work. And they read that you jog and sing hymns and pray. And I think they wonder. Do you think God is on your side?...Because, again, people wonder if you understand human frailty.... in this area, this strange continent of marriages ....Can you separate the way you feel from the extent to which you think it’s important?" To underline how odd he was, Sawyer asked: "I cannot tell you how many people have said to me, ‘Ask him.’ Do I have a right to ask about your sex life?" Starr declared he could answer he has been faithful to his wife.

Sawyer implied all this proved he was too uptight for America: "So what happens when this man becomes independent counsel and begins investigating a President charged with covering up, lying under oath about a sexual relationship?" She asked Starr: "Do you think in that sense, you were out of touch with the political judgment of the American people, who say everyone was covering up sex. There was gambling in the casino in Casablanca and you are the only one who is shocked. We are not shocked." Sawyer didn’t ask if Starr’s job is to uphold the law, regardless of public opinion, or to be "in touch with political judgment."

PORNOGRAPHER. Then Sawyer’s logic completely collapsed upon itself. She suggested the American people are not shocked about the President’s Oval Office behavior, but were shocked that Starr included explicit details in his referral to Congress. Sawyer called the Starr report "a document denounced for its advocacy and, even more, its voyeuristic detail." Sawyer argued: "I’m trying to imagine you deciding to include in those footnotes, footnotes you will not hear on TV, that cannot be denied that they are there to outrage and they are there to shock." Starr disagreed, but she pressed on: "I think there were 62 mentions of the word ‘breast,’ 23 of ‘cigar,’ 19 of ‘semen.’ This has been called demented pornography, pornography for Puritans. Were there mistakes made in including some of this?"

Sawyer added: "I still don’t understand what a cigar has to do with whether the President should be impeached." Sawyer noted that the Starr team felt that to prove the perjury, they had to provide the intimate details. But she did not explain the President specifically and repeatedly denied a definition of sex which included contact with breasts or genitals. Part of Starr’s argument, made here more indelicately, is this: would the average adulterer have trouble recalling Monica’s creative tribute to the tobacco industry?

OPPRESSOR. Sawyer promoted the interview by calling Starr "The man who has held a country captive finally speaks." She did not bring up how Clinton’s aggressive court fights litigating "protective function privilege" and government attorney-client privilege held up Starr’s probe. Despite her later gibe that Starr lacked "fairness," she casually noted: "You’ve been compared to Saddam Hussein, Nero, to Torquemada, who was the head of The Inquisition."

Sawyer saw a persecutor when Lewinsky was confronted with her attempts to get Linda Tripp to lie under oath at the Pentagon City mall: "People see a young girl who was in tears, who was threatened with 27 years in prison possibly, who was told that her mother might be prosecuted based on things she had said about her mother, who was to wire herself or tape the President or Vernon Jordan. And they say this isn’t John Gotti. This isn’t Timothy McVeigh."

She even suggested that prosecutors are unfair if they act to insure that existing sexual harassment law is enforced: "But people believe that if Bill Clinton misled in that deposition, it was because he was being asked about something he shouldn’t have been asked about in the first place.... It doesn’t matter that it was legally correct....But fairness. Fairness to be asked about all of the people that you slept with?"

Ambiguity and humanity were synonyms to Sawyer, in contrast to Starr’s scandalous certitude: "You know, you have been cast in the role of a moral crusader in an ambiguous world, that you are self-righteous, sanctimonious, that you have moral certainty into areas where other people have doubt and humanity. What do you think about extramarital sex?" Later, when Starr defended the explicit nature of his referral, Sawyer suggested: "It seems to me, listening to you, that you have no doubt that what you did in the referral was the right thing. You have no doubt that proceeding against the President in the way you have proceeded is the right thing. There is something about certainty that scares a lot of people."

RIGHT-WING CONSPIRATOR. ABC had to ask: "Are you part of a right-wing conspiracy?" Sawyer explained that Linda Tripp "is now a recognized soldier in the army of Clinton haters" and also mentioned "millionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, who hired people to dig up dirt on Bill Clinton and funded a chair at Pepperdine University for Ken Starr." It didn’t matter that Starr’s never talked to Scaife. Sawyer asked: "This one degree of separation, lawyers in your firm to the Paula Jones attorneys, Richard Mellon Scaife and Pepperdine University, and these are the President’s enemies. And they’re just outside your door, some people think inside. Do you at least see what that looks like?"

Sawyer didn’t feel the need to provide any evidence behind these suspicions — for example, to prove Scaife is lying when he said for the record that neither he nor his staff has met with Starr or had anything to do with his Pepperdine appointment. Just like the President’s team, merely raising the charge is the point. But for Sawyer or other TV stars to rail against Starr’s lack of objectivity is bizarre. Starr could have answered with a question: "And since you, Ms. Sawyer, have been listed as a ‘major individual contributor’ to the National Organization for Women — do you at least see what that looks like?" Sawyer looked as partisan as one of the Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee in her attacks on Starr. Humane ambiguity was not on her agenda.