MediaWatch: December 1997

Vol. Eleven No. 12

TV Downplays Clinton Donor Who Lied His Way Into Arlington Cemetary

Addicted to Scandal? Hardly

The charge in Insight magazine that Bill Clinton may have granted "dozens" of waivers for burials at Arlington Cemetery to big donors soon imploded, but media disinterest in the whole matter left it to a conservative columnist to dig up evidence that one Clinton crony lied in order to be buried there.

Three days after the story broke on talk radio, Time’s Margaret Carlson complained on the Nov. 22 CNN Capital Gang: "Republicans succeeded in spreading this despicable lie because the press is as addicted to scandal as they are."

Not quite. The Big Three networks passed up the story in those first days, with the exception of an 18-second brief on ABC’s Good Morning America and a 17-second item on the CBS Evening News in which Dan Rather relayed the White House denial of "a deliberate political smear."

But within days, the Los Angeles Times reported that House investigators were focusing on M. Larry Lawrence, a $10 million Democratic donor who served as Clinton’s Ambassador to Switzerland. He had been granted a waiver for burial in Arlington after he died in 1996. Conservative columnist Arianna Huffington tracked down a former Lawrence aide who recalled that he asked her to research Merchant Marine ships that served during World War II, suggesting a quest for details he could recite as a life experience.

On December 4, House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Terry Everett announced a search of records found no evidence Lawrence ever served on the Merchant Marine ship on which he claimed he’d been wounded.

So that made it a big story? No. ABC’s World News Tonight was the only broadcast network evening show to report the revelation that night. NBC Nightly News followed the next night. CBS, busy with El Nino features, took three more days to mention Lawrence, taking 22 seconds to report that his body would be disinterred but not explaining why. Rather called it "all part of the fallout from unsubstantiated accusations that the Clinton camp was selling burial rights."

Nightline devoted two shows to the matter, but treated it as an embarrassing new low in political attacks. ABC’s Michel McQueen ended her December 5 piece by asserting that Lawrence may have been eligible for burial "because he died while serving as an ambassador, but in the rancorous atmosphere of 1990s Washington, the facts may be almost beside the point." But as the Los Angeles Times discovered, "of six ambassadors granted burial at Arlington ...three died violently in the line of duty while two had records far more distinguished than that of the sixth — M. Larry Lawrence."

Still, Koppel’s first query: "Is this a scandal or is this just Washington at its worst?"