Pundits continue to puzzle over the public's strikingly non-judgmental reception of Bill Clinton (one new poll found 61 percent believe he's guilty of a pattern of sexual misconduct, but 66 percent give him a favorable job approval rating), and are developing a sanguine view of the public's moral confusion. As media analyst Robert Lichter told National Journal: "I'd give the don't-worry-be-happy response more respect...It's not a bad thing for the people to have a different view. A little ignorance can be a saving grace. They know that they don't know the whole story and are willing to wait for the evidence to come in." Here's why I think that view doesn't hold water:
1. Not everyone is benefitting from reserved judgment. For years, liberal media figures have drubbed independent counsel Kenneth Starr as a partisan, carrying every James Carville attack, pointing fingers at Starr's speech at Pat Robertson's Regent University, his thoughts of filing an amicus brief in the Paula Jones case, his legal representation of tobacco companies and school choice advocates. Ted Koppel has prepared entire editions of "Nightline" around Starr's alleged lack of integrity
But along with these attacks comes a media first: follow-up polls that confirm the assault on Starr is working. For the first time, media pollsters are gauging an approval rating for an independent counsel, and asking the public if his investigation is tainted by partisanship. But if the public doesn't know all the facts about Bill Clinton, how can they know all the facts about Ken Starr? How can a polling sample of 1,000 average Americans judge the fine legal points of the Starr team's (unknown) case? How can any of us judge when the entire process is shrouded in grand jury secrecy?
But the network pollsters have gone beyond asking about Starr's partisanship. They started going for the whole Clintonite enchilada, asking the public if Starr should end his probe. At the beginning of March, Dan Rather struck first: "Our poll suggests only 27 percent believe Starr is conducting an impartial probe, and 55 percent think it's time for Starr to drop his investigation." The networks rejoined that polling attack after the dismissal of the Paula Jones case. By contrast, Iran-Contra prosecutor Lawrence Walsh pursued Ronald Reagan for seven years, undisturbed by a single media poll questioning his integrity, or prodding him to quit.
2. Bill Clinton benefits not just from current ignorance, but from historical ignorance. Who do the people in these polling samples have to compare Kenneth Starr to? The media never asked about partisanship by Lawrence Walsh, who indicted Caspar Weinberger four days before the 1992 election. (Believe it or not, on the night of Walsh's dirty trick, with the barrage of media commentary pointing out how it would hurt the Bush campaign, the networks didn't even mention Walsh's name!)
Nor was this a tactic the media used for Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox, who invited Ted and Ethel Kennedy to witness his swearing-in ceremony in 1973, and loaded his staff of prosecutors with former aides of Robert Kennedy's Justice Department and people who ran for office as Democrats and served as chairmen of Robert Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign. In all their stories questioning Starr, the networks have never once explored the partisanship of Starr's predecessors, whose partisanship was demonstrably more pronounced. Back then, the media lectured the public about the absolutely unassailable integrity of the forces of justice trying to prevail against administrations who would "shred the Constitution."
3. Ignorance begets ignorance. What did the post-Lewinsky polls accomplish? They did show the public was not ready for the "Clinton will resign by Friday" predictions of the first weekend. They demonstrated Clinton could still employ what Mark Steyn has called the "giant metaphorical condom" - stretching the issue of sex and a "private life" over every scandalous thing Clinton's ever done. But they also served to bolster Clinton's decision to refuse media inquiries and to employ delaying tactics like declarations of executive privilege, which leads to fatigue with the story, which leads to the media's shift to other stories, which leads to - more public ignorance. A little ignorance might be a virtue in our current crisis if it led to careful deliberation, the reservation of judgment for all sides, and a hunger for more information. But in the current media climate, a little ignorance is a weapon enlisted to insure the opposite: a rush to judgment against the President's investigators, and a carefully constructed public disgust with pursuing all accusations against the President to their potentially ruinous resolution.