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MediaWatch: May 18, 1998

Vol. Twelve No. 7

Forget Corruption, Pick on Dan Burton

Media Change the Subject from Democratic Stonewalling

Rep. Dan Burton's Government Reform and Oversight Committee is charged with investigating possible lawbreaking in the campaign fundraising scandal. Burton has been frustrated by 53 Democratic fundraisers taking the Fifth, 39 witnesses who either fled the country or are foreign nationals unwilling to testify, and 19 Democrats on his own committee who unanimously refused to immunize four witnesses cleared by Clinton's own Justice Department. But the media's spotlight focused instead on Burton's public-relations problems.

On April 30, after independent counsel Kenneth Starr indicted Webster Hubbell for evading taxes on the $700,000 paid to him by Clinton friends and donors for little or no work, Burton's committee released audio tapes of Hubbell's prison conversations in which he suggests he'd have to "roll over one more time" for the Clintons. After a day of recounting excerpts of the tapes, the networks claimed the Burton committee's highlights were edited to remove references more favorable to Hubbell or Hillary Clinton.

Suddenly, Burton was under attack as a bumbler. "The criticism of Burton is piling up," ABC's Mike Von Fremd contended in a May 3 story devoted to Democratic complaints. "Democrat Henry Waxman accused Burton of selectively releasing portions of the tape just to make the First Lady look bad." On the May 5 Nightline, Ted Koppel began: "Tonight, the bumbling of the Hubbell tapes. How evidence of a cover-up may be lost amid political squabbling." Reporter Chris Bury seconded Koppel: "Now the tapes will be remembered less for what they reveal than for the controversy they generated and the President once again has been blessed by the bumbling of his enemies."

Not to be outdone by the other networks, CNN President/Clinton golfing buddy Rick Kaplan scheduled an hour-long prime-time special on Burton's offenses on May 5. CNN political analyst Bill Schneider complained: "I think the press was far too quick to use these tapes without proper warnings that they were not complete and they came from a partisan source."

Schneider was wrong. As National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru and John J. Miller reported online, journalists had access to the full tapes as well as committee highlights: "In other words, the committee's condensation was really a sort of guide to the highlights of the tape. And even that condensation included passages put there at [ Henry] Waxman's request."