MediaWatch: May 18, 1998

Vol. Twelve No. 7

Failing to Assemble the Hubbell Puzzle

Associate Attorney General Webster Hubbell, the number-three law-enforcement official in America, resigned in March 1994 and pleaded guilty in December to stealing almost $500,000 from his partners at the Rose Law Firm. In the months after Hubbell resigned, he received more than $700,000 for little or no work from Clinton friends and donors, which Whitewater counsel Kenneth Starr believes could be hush money to prevent him from cooperating. Despite receiving nearly $1 million between 1994 and 1997, he paid only $30,000 in taxes and now owes more than $900,000 in taxes, interest, and penalties. Starr's indictment charged that in those years, the Hubbells spent $750,000 on personal expenses, like private school tuition and domestic help.

This might sound like an explosive story with a late '80s Decade of Greed motif -- embezzling Clinton buddy gets a huge payoff before heading to prison, then fails to pay taxes on it. But the networks have never been interested in investigating it, let alone painting it in harsh Decade of Greed hues. The networks focused on the release of Hubbell's tapes and his emotional denials instead of the evidence behind Starr's belief in Hubbell's obstruction of justice.

Last June, MediaWatch chronicled the cracking of the Hubbell money-for-nothing scandal in newspapers from The New York Times to the Los Angeles Times to The Washington Times, and how these stories were ignored by the networks. From January to May 1997, the Big Three aired only ten full morning or evening stories and eight anchor briefs on Hubbell's problems, and CNN aired six full reports and ten anchor briefs.

From June 1, 1997 through Hubbell's new indictment for tax evasion on April 30, the networks remained aloof. The Big Three morning and evening shows added only two full stories and one interview segment, seven anchor briefs, and seven passing mentions of Hubbell. CNN's The World Today has aired nothing. (CNN aired one interview and one brief on its afternoon show Inside Politics.)

ABC's World News Tonight aired one brief mention of Vernon Jordan aiding Hubbell in January, while ABC's Good Morning America reported just two anchor briefs. CBS Evening News aired two anchor briefs, CBS This Morning one brief, and all three -- airing in July 1997, January and April 1998 -- only predicted Starr would indict Hubbell again.

Almost all of the Big Three coverage appeared on NBC. They promoted Hubbell's book Friends in High Places in a segment of Dateline NBC on November 21, 1997 and a Today show interview on November 24. Katie Couric began: "Yours is a story of a fall from grace of Theodore Dreiser proportions. Is this an American tragedy?" She then emphasized: "You did not go to jail because of your involvement with any of the so-called Clinton scandals."

To demonstrate the incomplete nature of TV coverage, here are a list of scoops that have been ignored by the networks right through the night of Hubbell's indictment. Rare exceptions are noted:

  • Hubbell's refusal to cooperate with House and Senate fundraising inquiries, especially surrounding his relationship with the Lippo Group. (2/24/97 Washington Times).

  • Lippo executive James Riady gave Hubbell the largest "fee" -- $100,000 -- after five days of meetings in Washington with administration officials (3/20/97 New York Times). CNN's John King was the only network reporter to mention this finding on the night of the indictment. On Dateline NBC, Stone Phillips asked Hubbell about it.

  • White House aide Marsha Scott's role as liaison to Hubbell. "In private, the Clintons have quietly stayed in touch with Hubbell -- through a trusted White House aide who acted as a confidential go-between." White House lawyer Jane Sherburne wrote "monitor cooperation" by Hubbell's name in a 1994 Whitewater damage-control memo (2/25/97 and 4/6/97 Los Angeles Times).

  • Despite Scott's hovering presence in the Hubbell tapes, the networks have never investigated her. NBC's interviews with Hubbell portrayed Hubbell sympathetically as cut off from his buddies, instead of connected to them through Scott. Couric asked: "When will they become your friends again? All these people who have basically abandoned you?" Phillips also pushed the sympathy button: "Hubbell says he understands why old acquaintances are now afraid to talk to him, especially those friend from Arkansas he once thought of as family." "Despite claims they knew little about Hubbell's importance as a Whitewater witness, White House officials knew when Hubbell quit, he'd already emerged as a "crucial witness." (4/12/97 New York Times).

  • Hubbell had more than 70 meetings with White House officials in between resignation and plea bargain, including four with Bill and Hillary (4/16/97 and 5/3/97 Washington Post). Phillips suggested the Clintons knew nothing of Hubbell's troubles until the end of 1994. Hubbell told Phillips that Hillary Clinton still encouraged him to fight the charges at Thanksgiving: "Webb Hubbell insists they were encouragement from a loyal friend who believed his repeated lies."

  • Clinton lawyer David Kendall and friend James Blair warned the Clintons early in 1994 that Hubbell "needed to resign as quickly as possible" (5/5/97 New York Times). This drew 33 seconds on CBS Evening News, and a mention the next morning on NBC's Today.

  • Los Angeles City Controller Rick Tuttle charged Hubbell lied in itemizing his supposed work for the city of Los Angeles, and should be prosecuted. (5/24/97 Los Angeles Times). Nine months later, NBC's Lisa Myers became the only TV reporter to mention this story.

  • Clinton friend (and now architect of Lewinsky scandal strategy) Mickey Kantor acknowledged in congressional testimony that he lied when he denied helping Hubbell get nearly $25,000 in payment from the city of Los Angeles (12/14/97 Los Angeles Times).

The networks had little trouble selecting a soundbite when Hubbell was indicted. "They can indict my dog. They can indict my cat, but I'm not going to lie about the President. I'm not going to lie about the First Lady or anyone else."

CNN and NBC led with the quote. Why lead with this bold declaration against lying from a man who admitted to multiple counts of fraud and years of lying to his friends? The public would be better served if the networks offered long-missing context to the Hubbell story instead of leading with overwrought references to the indictment of household pets.