MediaWatch: June 29, 1998

Vol. Twelve No. 10

Networks Plug Brill's Attack on Ken Starr

Piously Pro-Clinton Content Analysis

Professional critics of the news media would seem to be the least likely subject for news reports. Why would the media elevate their critics to prominence and perhaps damage their reputation? Five years ago, Newsweek media writer Jonathan Alter dismissed critics on the right and left: "What you realize is these people aren't really interested in media criticism. What they're doing, often, is just ax-grinding for a political view in the guise of media criticism."

The media did not apply this logic to Steven Brill, who debuted his journalism review Brill's Content with press releases on June 13. When asked on Today June 15 if the magazine was a "positive step for consumers of journalism," Alter replied: "I do. I generally think if we're going to dish it out in the media, we have to be willing to take it when it comes to criticism, and a lot of people look awfully bad in this story." What made Brill different?

His direct-mail sales package declared war: "Name the industry that, when it comes to power, lack of accountability, arrogance, and making money in the name of sacred constitutional rights, actually makes lawyers look good...The media." That and the magazine's high-finance launch gained him one early booking on the Today show.

But Brill's first issue didn't create a TV news frenzy for criticizing the media, but because it contained a very partisan, one-sided, Clinton-echoing cover story attacking independent counsel Ken Starr. In a 24,000-word article titled "Pressgate," Brill sounded like Alter's description of "ax-grinding for a political view in the guise of media criticism." He charged Starr with Aunethical if not illegal" leaks of secret grand jury testimony, even claiming Starr was the law-breaker, not Clinton: "There is a lot more evidence of Starr and some of his deputies committing this [leaking] felony than there is of the President or Vernon Jordan committing a felony."

A Sunday Smash. Brill also asserted "the press seems to have become an enabler of Starr's abuse of power." That's a curious charge considering the attention Brill received. Within hours of a Saturday New York Times Web dispatch, the alleged Starr-enabling press invited Brill to a William Ginsburg-style Sunday morning parade for his allegations: NBC's Today, CBS's Face the Nation, CNN's Late Edition, and Fox News Sunday. Brill's interviews focused primarily on the Starr vs. Clinton angle, not media performance, and Brill did not divert the networks from the anti-Starr line.

What About Brill? While they didn't ask about their own reports, network stars didn't refrain from asking Brill about his lack of focus on White House tactics. On CBS's Face the Nation, Gloria Borger wondered: "Ken Starr's people might say that the media had been manipulated in fact by the White House on this story." Bob Schieffer added: "Do you think in fact this has helped Ken Starr because his poll ratings, when you go out around the country, if he was using the media in this way it does not seem to have helped him."

But the Sunday night newscasts matched the White House spin. On ABC, Carole Simpson announced: "Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr has admitted in an interview released today that he and his office were the source of some of the leaks about his investigation into President Clinton. The news may come as no surprise in Washington, but the fact that he said it -- that's another matter." On CBS, Bob Schieffer trumpeted how "Steven Brill drops a bombshell." On NBC, law professor Paul Rothstein insisted: "If there's a lot more under the surface, it could lead to possible dismissal of Kenneth Starr."

Skeptical coverage of Brill's partisan background was very slow to appear. By Monday morning, conservatives were sending around Federal Election Commission records showing Brill had donated $2,000 to the Clinton-Gore campaign, as well as more than $9,000 to other liberal Democrats, such as Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). CNN and the Fox News Channel reported it that night, but the Big Three networks never mentioned it on the evening shows. ABC's Good Morning America and CBS This Morning touched on it, but despite Brill's repeated appearances on NBC, they never reported Brill's Democratic donations until Meet the Press host Tim Russert brought it up six days later.

Inept Starr? On Monday night, the networks again loaded negatives on Starr. Dan Rather referred to Starr's "secret briefings." But the reporters knew the contacts occurred, so if they were so newsworthy why didn't anyone report them months ago? On ABC, substitute anchor Charles Gibson insisted this feeding frenzy was all Ken Starr's fault, as if the network news producers had nothing to do with it: "By admitting he did talk to reporters hasn't Kenneth Starr handed the White House an enormous political opportunity?" On Tuesday, Ken Starr answered Brill with a stinging 19-page rebuttal on the facts and the law. The networks covered the story -- all except ABC's World News Tonight, which never mentioned it.

As the week wore on Brill showed up on CNN's Larry King Live, and MSNBC's The News with Brian Williams. Brill appeared on the Today show on Sunday, Monday, and Wednesday, and then on the next Sunday's Meet the Press. Brill received more publicity from the networks in a single week than other media critics had gained in decades.

What About Walsh? None of the TV stories offered much historical perspective. Reporters suggested prosecutors like Lawrence Walsh talked to reporters regularly, but they did not mention controversies over Walsh's leaking of grand jury testimony. Mark Levin, a former attorney for Attorney General Ed Meese, remembered Walsh's treatment of grand jury testimony in the February 16 Washington Times: "Before Mr. Walsh's final report on his Iran-Contra investigation was released to the public, I filed several motions with the Special Division overseeing Mr. Walsh's investigation objecting to, among other things, over 600 hundred references to secret grand jury testimony. Remarkably, some of the same journalists and pundits who are now decry alleged leaks of grand jury information in the investigation of Bill Clinton -- leaks which they and Mr. Clinton place at Mr. Starr's door without any substantiation or hard evidence -- were not as worried about the sanctity of the grand jury process during the Iran-Contra investigation. In fact, the Society of Professional Journalists, among others, filed an emergency motion with the Special Division demanding 'full disclosure' of Mr. Walsh's final report -- including grand jury testimony and allegations of criminal misconduct."

Other Angles? The networks failed to devote a fraction of the Brill coverage to other scandal developments less favorable to the President. On June 12, Los Angeles Times reporters David Willman and Ronald Ostrow found that Deputy White House Counsel Bruce Lindsey was contacting potential witnesses in the Lewinsky probe: "After reviewing Lindsey's actions, a federal judge has sharply questioned why a lawyer on the government payroll was doing this kind of sleuthing....'The court questions the propriety of the President utilizing a government attorney as his personal agent in a personal attorney-client relationship,' Chief U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson wrote....Independent counsel Kenneth Starr wants to know what Lindsey said during his contacts and whether Lindsey crossed the line from innocuous fact-finding to implicitly coaching a witness' testimony." Network coverage? Zero.

Brill ended his article with a list of recommendations, including: "No one should read or listen to a media organization that consistently shows that it is the lapdog of big, official power, rather than a respectful skeptic." Then no one should have paid attention to Brill's magazine, which quickly decided the White House was "not the story" in Monicagate coverage. But if Brill had spent his first issue criticizing only the press instead of the prosecutor the press despises, Brill's Content might have joined other media critics sitting behind a stone wall of near-silence on the networks.