MediaWatch: June 1, 1998

Vol. Twelve No. Eight

If you Impugn, You Are Immune

Two months ago, Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz reported that National Journal writer Stuart Taylor was considering a job offer from Whitewater counsel Ken Starr as he wrote about the Lewinsky affair. All the interviews Taylor gave in the weeks that followed (including ABC's April 5 This Week and April 13 Good Morning America) raised the issue of his professional conduct. PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer dropped Taylor as a regular over the flap, but kept liberal historian Doris Kearns Goodwin despite her appearance in an ad for Al Checchi, a Democrat running for Governor in California. Taylor was a reporter, Lehrer claimed, while Goodwin was a commentator.

But when media ethics controversies arise over supporters of Clinton instead of media critics, the rest of the national media fail to ask questions. The New York Times reported journalists bought champagne for Clinton aides upon the dismissal of the Paula Jones case. (One journalist buying was New York Times reporter R.W. Apple.) But no one made an issue of that. Similarly, ABC reporter Linda Douglass's close friendship with Clinton crony Webster Hubbell and his wife Suzanna (noted in the last MediaWatch) was never raised as an ethical controversy. Here are some of the other neglected scoops about the ethics of Clinton allies:


The news media jumped on the story that Linda Tripp, who taped Monica Lewinsky, failed to disclose to the Defense Department an arrest on her public record, according to New Yorker writer Jane Mayer. The Weekly Standard's Tucker Carlson first questioned the propriety of the Pentagon's release of Tripp's federal security-clearance form in the March 30 issue ("Linda Tripp's Pentagon Papers"), followed up in the May 18 issue by Jay Nordlinger ("Bacon Tripps Up"). The New York Post's new columnist, former Clinton adviser Dick Morris, also pushed the story.

The scandal centers on Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon, who joined the Clinton administration after spending decades as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal (where Jane Mayer was a colleague). Pentagon aide Clifford Bernath told investigators for Judicial Watch, the conservative legal foundation, that Bacon ordered the leaking of the Tripp file to Mayer.

On May 21, Washington Times reporter Bill Sammon noted not only had Bacon admitted to Judicial Watch that he orchestrated the Tripp release - a violation of the Privacy Act - but that Bill Clinton promised in 1992, when the Bush State Department investigated Clinton's passport file, that "If I catch anyone using the State Department like that when I'm President, I'll fire them the next day." TV coverage? Zero.


The Web site Salon drew notoriety for repeated attacks on Whitewater counsel Ken Starr, The American Spectator, and conservative philanthropist Richard Scaife. Howard Kurtz filed a long Style section profile on the Web-zine in the April 24 Washington Post. But Philip Terzian reminded readers in the May 11 Weekly Standard: "In March 1988, Jonathan Broder was fired from his job as Middle East correspondent for the Chicago Tribune because he had plagiarized a story by Joel Greenberg in the Jerusalem Post."

Terzian also recalled that seven years earlier, he found Broder had plagiarized a Newsweek profile of Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi. "I asked Howard Kurtz if he was aware of Jonathan Broder's history as a plagiarist, and he said that he knew about it, but had, after some reflection, decided it was not relevant to the present story." Tim Russert did not ask Broder about it when he appeared on the April 26 Meet the Press, and neither did PBS host Ken Bode when Broder came on Washington Week in Review May 8 to discuss the Middle East.

The national media, which picked up on Salon's focus on conservative philanthropist Richard Scaife, ignored an April 30 Washington Times op-ed by Mark Levin of the Landmark Legal Foundation on Salon's ideologically motivated donors. Levin discovered one of the site's principal funders, the Silicon Valley investment firm of Hambrecht & Quist:

"Multi-millionaire William Hambrecht, who until January 1, 1998, was the firm's chairman, is a major financial supporter of the President and Democratic Party fundraising efforts. As recently as last February, during the time Salon's reporters were piecing together their Richard Mellon Scaife-American Spectator-Parker Dozhier-David Hale-Kenneth Starr witness-tampering conspiracy, Mr. Hambrecht hosted a fundraiser for Democratic House candidates at his home in San Francisco, which was attended by President Clinton." Levin added that the firm's press releases note that Hambrecht oversaw major investments by Apple Computers and Adobe Systems - two other Salon funders.


Liberal media outlets usually despise politically motivated "outings" of alleged homosexuals. In 1989, the media raised a furor when a Republican National Committee memo about then-Speaker Tom Foley contained just a suggestive title: "Out of the Liberal Closet." (The aide who wrote it was fired.) In Time, Margaret Carlson demanded the RNC chairman's head: "[Lee] Atwater's fouling of the civic atmosphere with vicious misinformation is bad enough: compounding that with White House hypocrisy is too much. If Bush really wants to prove himself a political environmentalist in search of a kinder,gentler America, he'd sack Atwater."

But in the March 30 edition of The Nation, gay left-wing media critic Doug Ireland was alarmed in late February when MSNBC reported Clintonites were leaking derogatory rumors about Ken Starr's staff. Ireland found: "Three members of the media confirmed to me that Sidney Blumenthal, the White House media counselor, had indeed been spreading such stories: They'd heard him do it. These reputable members of the Beltway media agreed to tell me what they knew only if guaranteed complete anonymity; they were afraid of losing access to White House sources, and of possible reprisals. Two said that Blumenthal had told them directly of the same-sex orientation of a member of Starr's staff, and a third said he had been present for a conversation in which Blumenthal made such a comment to a third person." Blumenthal denied it. But none of the national media picked up on this line of inquiry, or passionately called for Blumenthal's ouster.


Mortimer Zuckerman, the owner and Editor-in-Chief of U.S. News & World Report, has been one of Clinton's harshest attack dogs on the scandal front. In the April 6 issue, Zuckerman charged: "It is not the President who is involved in the politically motivated abuse of power; it is the politically motivated counsel. It's not the President who is insufficiently accountable; it is the prosecutor."

Last summer, Village Voice media critic James Ledbetter argued the MRC's Brent Bozell was wrong to suggest Zuckerman's liberal bias was driving coverage: "Since the Daily News - which has historically shown minimal enthusiasm for Democratic presidential candidates - endorsed Bill Clinton in 1992, News [owner and] co-publisher Zuckerman has received leases from the Clinton administration worth more than $8 million a year. All told, Zuckerman's main company receives nearly $30 million a year from federal agencies."

(Ledbetter also detailed $1 million in annual contracts from the U.S. Navy for a company owned by Arthur Carter, who publishes the New York Observer. Observer columnist Joe Conason has been one of the primary attackers of Richard Scaife and his alleged conflicts of interest with Ken Starr.)

Ledbetter suggested: "A newspaper or magazine owner who is even partially dependent on federal contracts presents a challenge to editorial underlings: under what circumstances, if any, should such publisher-government ties be disclosed to readers?" A Nexis search for the term "Boston Properties" in U.S. News & World Report found no disclosure of Zuckerman's contracts in the magazine.