As the Paula Jones case headed for the Supreme Court two years ago, Meet the Press host Tim Russert asked fellow journalists: "What's the most important thing the media can learn from this case?" Stuart Taylor, a former Supreme Court reporter for The New York Times, proposed this credo: "Look past your first impression and ideological orientation. Look hard at the evidence, and take it where it leads. No double standards."
This makes Taylor a rare bird among Washington journalists. In the January 16 National Journal, he reported on the obvious double standard being completely overlooked by the rest of the press. How will Democrats planning to vote to acquit Bill Clinton explain voting to convict federal judges for similar offenses in the 1980s?
In 1986, U.S. District Court Judge Harry Claiborne was removed by a vote of 90-7 for lying on two tax returns - or, as, Taylor put it, "for lying to the government about a private matter involving no abuse of his official powers." Al Gore voted to remove, and spoke passionately about why. [See box].
In 1989, the Senate removed Judge Walter Nixon by an 89-8 vote for committing perjury before a federal grand jury by pretending to have no "recollection" of his effort to persuade a prosecutor friend to drop a drug case against a business partner's son. Al Gore, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, even liberals Tom Harkin and Chris Dodd voted to convict and remove Judge Nixon. With the exception of two Tim Russert Meet the Press questions to Democrats, and one ABC World News Tonight story by Tim O'Brien (both on the 17th), these uncomfortable Democratic precedents have been ignored by the Big Three networks. O'Brien played a clip of Sen. Phil Gramm insisting on one impeachment standard for all federal officials, but loaded the story with his own rebuttals as well as those from George Mitchell and Lanny Davis.
While newspapers revisited the cases as the Senate prepared for the trial (more for trial procedure than for Democratic hypocrisy), the news magazines have not. Regarding Judge Nixon, Time mentioned him last September, Newsweek hasn't raised him since 1993. As for Judge Claiborne, neither Time nor Newsweek has mentioned him since 1988. U.S. News only touched on both in a John Dean editorial last December.
For reporters who think the trial story begins and ends with the Democrats' determination to acquit, it ought to be news that the Democrats may soon face a potentially unanimous double standard. All 26 currently serving Democratic Senators who voted on Judge Nixon voted to convict.
While TV hosts like MSNBC's John Hockenberry and ABC's and NBC's morning shows jumped to quote a demoralized Pat Robertson saying "it's over," a man who has no vote in the Senate, the networks are ignoring the voting records and integrity of those who do. - Tim Graham