MediaWatch: February 1998

In This Issue

Enlisting in White House War on Starr; NewsBites: Who Set the Sex Precedent?; The Monica Story's First Casualty; Editors Realize Liberal Slant

Enlisting in White House War on Starr

After years of calling him a "Republican prosecutor," Dan Rather announced the newest network poll: "By more than two to one, the public says special prosecutor Ken Starr is politically motivated to damage the Clintons." NBC News touted a poll showing 64 percent said the Starr probe is "partisan and political" while only 22 percent found it "fair and impartial."

The unasked question in the pack of stories and polls suggesting the partisanship of independent counsel Kenneth Starr is this: has Starr done anything as politically damaging as Iran-Contra counsel Lawrence Walsh’s reindictment of ex-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger four days before the 1992 election? Walsh’s team leaked a note suggesting George Bush lied when he said he was "out of the loop" on Iran-Contra. The networks have aired stories underlining Starr’s partisanship without any reference to Walsh, displaying a double standard.

ABC’s Michel McQueen noted on February 7 that Lewinsky lawyer William Ginsburg "is not the only one to complain that Starr’s tactics border on abuse. Whitewater figure Susan McDougal has long maintained that she’s in jail on contempt charges only because she won’t invent facts to fill Starr’s story. The question now is whether Starr’s tactics will prove more offensive to the courts and the public than any alleged wrongdoing that the President is investigating."

CBS anchor Dan Rather aided the war on Starr by emphasizing his party in this February 6 intro: "New and heavy return fire late today from the White House under fire. Clearly and dramatically, the President’s side confirmed a key part of their strategy is to counterattack the man they see as a politically biased special prosecutor, Republican Kenneth Starr."

Three days later, Rather carried this salvo: "In Washington late today, lawyers for President Clinton asked a federal court to find special prosecutor Kenneth Starr in contempt of court. Mr. Clinton’s lawyers cite what they say are illegal, false, and self-serving leaks from Starr’s grand jury investigation, especially aspects involving Monica Lewinsky."

On February 8, NBC Nightly News began with the tease by anchor Len Cannon: "The President’s popularity continues to climb while new leaks raise more questions about this crisis and the special counsel who is running the investigation." NBC then highlighted a clip of Clinton defender Paul Begala from Meet the Press: "Ken Starr has become corrupt in the sense Lord Acton meant when he said absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Leading into the first ad break on the February 16 NBC Nightly News viewers were treated to this plug from Tom Brokaw: "Still ahead tonight. Investigating the President. A growing backlash against independent counsel Kenneth Starr. Is he out of bounds or just tone deaf?" Reporter Lisa Myers elaborated: "Even some former prosecutors now say Starr’s tactics are overkill, tactics usually used against Mobsters and drug lords." Myers referred to Stanley Brand, without identifying him as a former lawyer for the House Democratic majority under Jim Wright.

Though Myers aired Starr’s side, "But other former prosecutors insist Starr’s tactics are both reasonable and justified," she countered: "Even those who approve of Starr’s tactics say he has hurt himself by not realizing how the public would react. Polls show that almost two-thirds of Americans now believe Starr is on a partisan crusade."

On February 5, CNN aired a 60-minute special on "Investigating the Investigator." Reporter Kathy Slobogin announced Starr’s "conservative connections, his links with the President’s political opponents, have made him suspect." Host Roger Cossack added: "Even if Starr’s critics overlooked his connections to the right, they’d probably still find ammunition by focusing in on his tactics."

Walsh Was No Media Starr. On October 30, 1992, with George Bush arriving at a statistical dead heat with Bill Clinton in some network polls, Lawrence Walsh dropped an Iran-Contra bomb on the Bush campaign. Did the networks react harshly, scorning prosecutorial abuse on the eve of a national election? There were no heavy-breathing attacks on grand jury leaks, no 60-minute investigations of the investigator. In fact, even as they presented the story as another damaging blow to the Bush campaign, the Big Three networks didn’t even mention Lawrence Walsh by name.

That night, ABC’s Peter Jennings began: "The question of truth and character came up again today for President Bush." After reading the leaked Weinberger note, Jennings was the only anchor to mention the note was "released by the special prosecutor, who is seeking a new indictment of Mr. Weinberger for lying to Congress about the Iran-Contra affair. Governor Clinton’s campaign said today this was the smoking gun that shows the President has been lying." Walsh’s name went unspoken.

CBS anchor Dan Rather cited new "grand jury evidence" without any mention of Walsh. Reporter Rita Braver ran two soundbites of unlabeled liberal columnist Anthony Lewis, who told viewers: "It’s the President of the United States deliberately, knowingly, forcefully telling you an untruth year after year, month after month. That’s going to destroy our faith in our political system."

After nearly two minutes of Bush-busting, Braver concluded without a drop of skepticism: "The independent counsel insists the release of the note was timed to meet the schedule for Caspar Weinberger’s trial, not to embarrass the President in the final days of the campaign."

NBC anchor Tom Brokaw cited "new material that directly contradicts President Bush’s claim he was out of the loop in the Iran-Contra affair." John Cochran noted: "the last thing George Bush needs is a reminder of the arms-for-hostages deal with Iran." Andrea Mitchell added: "The Iran-Contra developments were a gift to Bill Clinton, who’s been struggling to counteract Bush’s attack on his credibility." No one mentioned Walsh.

Over on CNN’s World News, reporter Anthony Collings noted that "pre-trial court papers in the indictment of...Caspar Weinberger quote from Weinberger’s notes seeming to contradict Mr. Bush." But unlike the others, Collings found someone who accused Walsh of "playing politics," then-Weinberger lawyer Bob Bennett: "They’ve had this information for years. There can be no doubt any more that this is not about justice. This is an outrageous political prosecution."

None of the networks followed up on the Washington Times story of November 6, 1992 which raised the question of why did the Clinton campaign issue a detailed press release dated the day before Walsh’s re-indictment? Did the Walsh team leak to the Clintonites? It may seem late to seek answers now, but it should chasten media attacks on Starr, who worked quietly through the 1996 campaign as each new inquiry added to his plate (Travelgate, the FBI files) disappeared from the news media.

NewsBites: Who Set the Sex Precedent?

Who Set the Sex Precedent? One line of complaint against Ken Starr focuses on his supposedly improper interest in Clinton’s sex life. Last year when The Washington Post revealed his questions about women who may have had relationships with Clinton in an effort to learn with whom he may have confided information, much of the media condemned Starr. NBC Today co-host Matt Lauer opened a June 26 interview of Paula Jones adviser Susan Carpenter-McMillan with this out of the White House playbook: "The fact that this line of questioning from Whitewater investigators has turned personal to the President’s, or then- Governor’s sex life, does it show you that this investigation is desperate?"

But while George Bush drew media fire for going around prosecutor Lawrence Walsh and pardoning six Iran-Contra figures, the media ignored one now-relevant angle: Evans and Novak reported in 1992 that former Pentagon spokesman Henry Catto said James Brosnahan, the attorney prosecuting ex-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger for Walsh, asked him whether Weinberger had an extramarital affair. Catto believed Walsh wished to "denigrate Weinberger’s character" before a jury, but the networks ignored this story of improper conduct.

Believe a Felon First. Last October, Dateline NBC ran a two-part profile of convicted Whitewater felon Susan McDougal that casually laid out how she and her mother equated Ken Starr with the Gestapo. Dateline provided McDougal with another opportunity on February 3 to air her gripes about Starr. This time, she claimed Starr’s effort to get Lewinsky to tell about sex with Clinton mimics alleged attempts to get her to lie about sex with Clinton.

Stone Phillips let McDougal claim Clinton is just a misunderstood flirt, someone who "loves people." Then Phillips gave McDougal time to claim that Lewinsky is simply Starr’s latest attempt to smear Clinton with a false sex tale: "A new turn? Maybe not. Susan McDougal claims two years ago before she went to jail, another Whitewater figure who had been meeting with Starr’s staff to cut a deal for leniency paid her a visit." Susan claimed ex-husband and co-conspirator Jim McDougal told her to get leniency by telling Starr she had an affair with Clinton. Phillips let Starr’s office deny the story, but added: "McDougal says the current investigation is about prying into people’s sex lives. Reaching into the gutter." Phillips never noted McDougal’s a convicted felon because a jury believed Starr, instead of her, about who lied about Whitewater.

Jodi Cuts Flowers. Despite being an alleged poster girl for media overcoverage in 1992, Gennifer Flowers was never granted a network interview — until the January 25, 1998 Today show, after news reports suggested Bill Clinton told Paula Jones’ lawyers he did have an affair with Flowers. Weekend anchor Jodi Applegate picked a catfight with Flowers by insisting that her audio tapes of phone calls with Clinton were doctored: "There were experts who listened to your tapes of yourself and President Clinton who said they had been edited at least somewhat. Given that all of these are still only allegations against the President, why should people believe you now, even still?"

Flowers replied: "Well in the first place he admits that the relationship took place, so I mean the truth is out." Applegate snapped: "According to The Washington Post." Flowers added: "But let’s get something very straight once and for all. The tapes were never altered or edited in any way. I have documents to verify that. And I’m getting real tired of the James Carvilles and the Dee Dee Myers out there continue to spin and lie and accuse me of that." Applegate kept insisting an audio lab found gaps. Last year, she wasn’t so tough, asking Tim Russert about the admission of a drug dealer to White House fundraisers and the collection of a half-million dollars in phony jobs for Clinton crony Webster Hubbell: "It may not look good, but is there any proof that anything was done wrong?"

Lucianne’s Limited Life Story. Literary agent Lucianne Goldberg, the much-maligned figure who urged Linda Tripp to tape the potentially Clinton-crumbling phone calls with Monica Lewinsky, was quickly pegged as a Republican operative. But was that the whole story? On January 26, Dan Rather announced: "With facts, accuracy and fairness always as our guideposts, we’re trying to dig deep as part of our coverage of the White House under fire. As part of that, we’ve taken a closer look for you at the link between the two people who ignited this story: Linda Tripp, the former Bush and then Clinton White House aide, who betrayed, by secretly taping, her friend Monica Lewinsky. And Lucianne Goldberg, the one-time Nixon campaign dirty trickster who got Tripp to do the taping. As CBS’s Wyatt Andrews reports, the motive, at least some of it, may have been financial."

But two days earlier, The Washington Post reported: "This is not the first time Goldberg has been involved in presidential politics. She worked for Lyndon Johnson during the 1960 presidential campaign. ‘When you’re tall, thin, blond and have big boobs, you can have any job you want,’ she told People magazine in 1992. She later worked for President Kennedy’s speechwriting staff."

So much for Dan Rather’s "guideposts" of accuracy. CNN also decided to selectively cite her resume. On the February 1 Impact, Kathy Slobogin stressed only her "conservative track record," such as working in "Nixon’s dirty tricks campaign."

Couldn’t Buy a Crystal Ball. Bill Clinton’s media defenders were optimistic as President Clinton was deposed January 17 in the Paula Jones case, but their predictions have come back to haunt them. On CNBC’s Equal Time on January 15, six days before Monicagate broke on January 21, Chicago Sun-Times Washington Bureau Chief Lynn Sweet claimed: "He has had so many bad days and then the President bounces back. He’s at sixty-something percent in approval ratings. And unless there’s some bombshell that leaks out of this thing, it won’t. You know and I don’t see how this is going to have any bigger effect on the bigger picture here.... It’s a bad day. And no President has had to sit for a sworn deposition like this before but, you know, look at what this guy has weathered so far."

Wall Street Journal Executive Washington Editor Al Hunt sneered at the Jones case’s presidential impact on CNN’s Capital Gang January 17, four days before the deposition led to the Lewinsky eruption: "I don’t think it portends much for Bill Clinton. I sort of disagree with Kate [O’Beirne] on that. You know, I think they’re — instead of battling Clinton on the substantive issues, there are some right-wing activists who keep thinking this sleaze issue will be the magic wand for them. It hasn’t worked before and it’s not going to work now. And the reason that the American people don’t much believe Paula Jones and don’t much like Paula Jones. She has become, I think, a pitiful pawn of some right-wing activists."

The Monica Story's First Casualty

As the nightly network news shows focus on the Monica Lewinsky story — or rather, the debate over whether Ken Starr is "out of bounds or just tone deaf?" (as Tom Brokaw asked on February 16) — the fundraising scandal has almost vanished.

The Justice Department’s task force achieved its first two indictments and Attorney General Janet Reno named another independent counsel for a cabinet official, but the networks aired almost nothing.

On January 28, a grand jury indicted Charlie Trie and his associate, Antonio Pan, for funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal foreign contributions into the Democratic National Committee. That night, it drew 28 seconds from Peter Jennings on ABC, and nothing on CBS or NBC. The next night, CBS gave it less than a minute, and NBC aired 24 seconds. Of the three morning shows, only ABC’s Good Morning America aired a brief item read by the anchor.

Bob Schieffer observed on the CBS Evening News: "At the least, this is embarrassing for the President in that Trie was one of his biggest fundraisers and their friendship goes back to when then Governor Clinton ate in Trie’s Little Rock restaurant." Of course, it’s not so embarrassing when it gets just seconds on the networks.

Trie surrendered on February 3 to federal authorities after arriving from Asia at Washington Dulles Airport. That night, CBS aired a full story by Phil Jones, but ABC pawned it off in 13 seconds, and NBC disposed of it in 29 seconds. The ABC and NBC morning shows each offered one brief read by the news anchor.

On February 11, Janet Reno recommended the appointment of an independent counsel to probe Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt’s inaccurate testimony to Congress about a rejected federal permit for a Wisconsin Indian casino proposal (Tribes opposing the casino later donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the DNC). Once again, the network output could be measured in seconds: ABC 20, CBS 28, NBC 38. The next morning, NBC had a brief, and ABC aired a full story by Linda Douglass.

On February 18, the grand jury indicted Al Gore fundraiser Maria Hsia over illegal fundraisers at the Hsi Lai Buddhist temple in California, where Buddhist nuns were reimbursed for contributions they made. CBS gave it 19 seconds, ABC and NBC nothing. None of the morning shows touched it.

NBC’s Claire Shipman tapped the zeitgeist in a laudatory February 2 Today show profile of Al Gore: "On the bright side, Gore’s poll numbers are up and his role in last year’s campaign finance scandal seems a bad dream. After all, who’s thinking about Buddhist nuns when the issue is illicit sex in the White House?"

Editors Realize Liberal Slant

Newspaper editors realize the overwhelming majority of their readers view their papers as liberal while over half of 167 editors surveyed across the country provided fuel for that assessment, reporting they voted for Clinton. The January 17 Editor & Publisher magazine relayed the results of a December poll of newspaper editors conducted by the Technometrica Institute of Policy and Politics.

Asked how they think the public perceives newspapers, 89 percent said "liberal" compared to a measly 1.2 percent who responded "conservative." Another 4.3 percent said moderate. Many editors were willing to concede the slant, with more than three times as many describing American dailies as liberal over conservative: 25.1 percent to 7.8 percent with 62.9 percent tagging papers as moderate.

But E&P didn’t reveal the most illustrative finding: how editors voted in the last two presidential elections. Investor’s Business Daily reporter Matthew Robinson obtained the full poll results which showed that a larger share of editors cast their ballot for Clinton than did the rest of the electorate. In 1992 when just 43 percent of the public picked Clinton, Robinson reported in a January 30 story, 58 percent of editors pulled the lever for the winner. Support for Clinton held steady through the President’s first term as 57 percent hung with him in 1996 while he captured only 49 percent of the American people.

"How often do journalists’ opinions influence coverage?" While only 14 percent said "often," a solid majority of 57 percent conceded it "sometimes" happens, meaning 71 percent acknowledge the connection between personal views and coverage. Barely one percent insisted it "never" occurs with 26 percent saying it "seldom" happens.

The E&P poll of editors completes a trilogy of recent surveys documenting liberal views throughout the newspaper reporting process: A Freedom Forum poll released in 1996 of Washington bureau chiefs and congressional correspondents determined that 89 percent voted for Clinton in 1992. Just 15 percent of staff reporters at papers across the country identified themselves as conservative in a poll issued last year. The survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors showed that 61 percent of their newsroom staffs considered themselves liberal.

Editors Realize Liberal Slant