In This Issue
Starr's Day Couldn't Match Media's Year; NewsBites; Who Will Contribute to Paula's Pay Day; Double Standard on Death; Perjurers Are Punished
Starr's Day Couldn't Match Media's Year
As independent counsel Kenneth Starr prepared to address the House Judiciary Committee on November 19, the media were showing no fear. For months, they had broadcast their Carvillesque incantations and push polls insisting that Starr was a partisan zealot. These ten months of hammering home a theme couldn’t be erased in a day.
For large parts of the day, Starr’s legal interpretation of Monicagate and other scandals provided a brief respite of equal time for the case against Clinton. But even if Starr’s testimony carried the potential to rivet America as Ollie North’s Iran-Contra testimony did in 1987, the networks insisted that nothing he said would ultimately change the scandal as they had so relentlessly framed it.
Nine minutes into CBS’s live coverage, Dan Rather had already laid down his marker, insisting that Starr has become known as a "Republican partisan." That night on Nightline, Ted Koppel began: "Inadvertently, at least, some of the President’s allies did Kenneth Starr an enormous favor. As long as he did not show up before the House Judiciary Committee this morning in a stained trench coat with a copy of Hustler magazine under his arm, he was bound to exceed expectations." The next morning on Today, Katie Couric joked: "Do you think Ken Starr’s standing in the opinion polls is going to go up a bit? I mean, he has nowhere to go but up, right?" Tim Russert smiled and replied: "Well, exactly right. Lower than Saddam Hussein in many of the polls."
The news networks (CNN, MSNBC, FNC) stayed with Starr all day long, beginning at 10 A.M. Eastern time. While the Big Three all went live at the beginning, CBS aired the most coverage, while ABC left early and NBC jumped out early and often. ABC signed off at about 3:17 because Republicans weren’t providing an alternative viewpoint to Starr. Peter Jennings claimed: "We were trying to make the point a little earlier today that we heard Mr. Starr at length this morning and we saw a lot of Democratic agitation, so we wanted an opportunity for the Democrats this afternoon to have a go at Mr. Starr, in purely generic terms, and the Republicans do not seem disposed to have at him, so we are going to try to keep the sense of balance by coming back a little later on today and listening to Mr. Clinton’s lawyer David Kendall question Mr. Starr as well." Jennings offered this reasoning after Democratic counsel Abbe Lowell grilled Starr for an hour. (Kendall’s quibbles with Starr were later excerpted on Nightline.)
Evening News. That evening, the networks led with multiple stories about his appearance featuring many soundbites of his comments, as well as Democratic attacks on him. Reporters noticed Starr’s calm demeanor, and Democrats’ failure to challenge Starr on the evidence against Clinton. An even balance of comments for and against Starr was quite a feat. But the networks still attempted to convince the public that this impeachment process was doomed.
ABC’s Jackie Judd noted: "Clearly, the Independent Counsel had a huge challenge going into this hearing, to reshape his public image and to restore credibility to his much-maligned investigation." ABC also insured the coverage wouldn’t get too tough by not calling conservative analysts George Will or William Kristol into the studio at any time during the day or night, although Jennings called on George Stephanopoulos and Cokie Roberts.
CBS’s Dan Rather produced the strangest image of the night, calling the hearing "an extraordinary mix of lofty constitutional law and muddy mosh-pit politics." (As if Republicans and Democrats and Ken Starr were jumping up and down and into each other at a Nine Inch Nails concert.) As usual, Rather marshaled Clinton-friendly poll results, although he gave no word of when the poll was taken. One result indicated Clinton’s high approval rating (67 percent). Another, listed on the screen as "Reason for Republican inquiry?", found 56 percent answering "to damage Clinton" and just 34 percent saying "to investigate charges." Bob McNamara reported from Fort Worth about how conservative talk show host Mark Davis conceded listeners are "tired and bored and want the story to go away."
On NBC, Lisa Myers noted that under "ferocious attack" from Democrats, Starr was "unflappable, although he hasn’t changed many minds." Then Gwen Ifill reported on "moderate" Republicans: "Just upstairs from the impeachment hearings today: political reality. Illinois Congressman John Porter, one of at least a dozen Republicans who say that even if the committee recommends impeachment, he probably won’t. "Ifill concluded: "Now even the President’s enemies want middle ground, not impeachment."
Sam Dash Quits. Whatever ground Starr gained, the networks sought to erode the next evening after Sam Dash, the former Democratic Watergate counsel and ethics adviser to Starr, resigned in protest of Starr’s testimony. ABC’s Peter Jennings suggested: "A single lawyer may have done the kind of damage to the independent counsel Kenneth Starr today that 16 Democratic Congressmen and the President’s lawyer didn’t quite manage to do yesterday." Although she reported that Dash had been under pressure from the White House and other Democrats to resign, Jackie Judd touted Dash’s "impeccable credentials as an adviser on ethics."
On CBS, the same Dan Rather who regularly calls Starr a "Republican partisan" referred to "the widely respected, independent Sam Dash." Rather and reporter Scott Pelley never referred to Dash as a Democrat.
NBC’s Lisa Myers joined Judd in noting a possible White House connection to Dash’s day-after departure, but Tom Brokaw began the show with a funeral dirge: "Good evening. In poll after poll and in other ways, the public says it does not want President Clinton impeached. That issue hurt the Republicans in the elections. Special prosecutor Ken Starr offered no new smoking guns in his long appearance before the Judiciary Committee. And then tonight a stunning new blow to Starr’s reputation: his own ethics adviser has quit in protest. That has only accelerated the unraveling of the impeachment process."
Four days later, Scripps-Howard Editor Dan Thomasson noted what viewers missed: Dash’s "reputation for partisanship was relatively well-demonstrated" during Watergate. Dash edited out unfavorable mentions of Democratic presidents in Nixon White House memos, and allowed his probers to leak material damaging to Nixon, including the existence of a White House taping system.
Livingston, We Impugn
The media seemed to approve of incoming House Speaker Bob Livingston. Unlike the monstrous Newt Gingrich, Livingston is a more conventional glad-handing politician than conservative ideologue. But CBS still found a way to attack him, Eric Engberg portrayed his legal fundraising work on behalf of House candidates as sleazy, if not unique.
Engberg explained how the unopposed Livingston had $600,000 in funds to give to other GOP House candidates. BOB’s PAC was created to distribute another $800,000. Engberg intoned: "CBS News also found that Livingston exploited gaping legal loopholes in the election laws to get more bang for his buck by channeling donations from business lobbyists through his PAC to other GOP campaigns...United Parcel Service sent Livingston’s PAC a check for $5,000, but it’s made out to a House candidate named Ernie Fletcher. Records show the check is earmarked for Fletcher and that BOB’s PAC simply passes it on to him. Livingston thus collects the political chit. All told, business PACs delivered checks totaling about $50,000." After two soundbites from the liberal Center for Responsive Politics, Engberg ended: "Livingston became the unopposed king of the Hill by first becoming the king of cash."
A Scary Growth
The media will often praise a conservative who starts leaning leftward by saying he has "grown in office." The Washington Post delivered a classic example of this cliche Monday, November 16. In a front-page profile, reporters Eric Pianin and George Hager wrote without irony that despite his conservative record, Livingston has shown "enormous capacity to grow," and that while arriving in Congress with "knee-jerk conservative views," he has since "matured into an adroit legislator."
Tripp’s Time Out
With the release of the Tripp tapes, the networks had enhanced capabilities to underline evidence of presidential perjury and witness tampering. But instead of focusing on the incriminating content of the tapes, the media took the more familiar tack of trashing the ones who exposed Clinton.
The November 18 CBS Evening News was typical. After citing a poll showing 62 percent agreed that Starr was not "impartial but, rather politically motivated and out to get the Clintons," Dan Rather hinted: "So is there any basis for this perception?" In a "Reality Check" segment, Eric Engberg found that, surprise, there was: "Before the tapes came out Linda Tripp told us she only did what anyone in her shoes would have done."
Engberg cut to the famous Tripp sound bite from outside the courthouse where she declares "I’m just like you. I am an average American who found herself in a situation not of her own making." Engberg interjected, "Time out. The tapes show her carefully coordinating her betrayal of Lewinsky with an accomplice, Lucianne Goldberg, book agent and self-proclaimed Clinton-hater." Engberg concluded: "Just another average American helping out a friend."
Tim the Tool
ABC’s Good Morning America provided Ken Starr a chance to warm up for his grilling by House Democrats when reporter Tim O’Brien peppered him with questions right out of the Democrats playbook the night before his testimony.
O’Brien asked, "Did you in any way assist Paula Jones’ lawyers in deposing the President?" and, "One of the things that people don’t get...how this case, starting as a land deal in Arkansas became an investigation of lying about sex in the White House." Even when he posed a question that dealt with the substance of Starr’s case against Clinton, he downplayed its seriousness: "It amazes your defenders as you make this great case against the President, the public doesn’t seem to buy it. They say, yes, adultery is wrong, lying is wrong, especially under oath, but is it worth all this time and all this money and possibly removing the President? Why is this offense so great?"
On June 11, 1990, as Reagan aide John Poindexter’s fate laid before a judge, O’Brien didn’t check a poll to measure morality. He reported the judge must determine "what punishment it will take to teach a lesson about abuse of power to John Poindexter, to those who follow him in the corridors of the White House."
Who Will Contribute to Paula's Pay Day
Media Stay Silent on Clinton’s Sexual Harassment Insurance
By brushing off the Paula Jones settlement as an overdue end to one of the President’s many distractions, the networks overlooked Bill Clinton’s dubious deal with an insurance company to avoid paying Jones out of his own pocket.
The November 14 Washington Post reported: "Sources said the President’s lawyers have reached a tentative agreement with Chubb Group Insurance to buy out the personal liability policy that has covered some of his legal expenses for close to half the settlement. When all is said and done, ‘not a penny will come out of his pocket,’ said one person close to the situation."
The insurance coverage should have raised all the issues uncovered by Byron York in a 1996 American Spectator piece on how Chubb and State Farm ignored their own rules and industry norms to cover costs of the Jones suit. But the networks have never investigated that fishy tale. Only FNC’s David Shuster and NBC’s Lisa Myers noted the insurance companies’ role. Myers did not highlight the specifics of the Chubb Group deal in her brief mention: "Sources close to the President are optimistic the money will come from his insurance policies, not from the Clintons themselves."
ABC’s Jackie Judd, CBS’s Phil Jones, and CNN’s Eileen O’Connor all failed to note Clinton’s insurance policies and the simple fact that Clinton gave Jones $150,000 more than her original request to smother the case.
This is not the way these networks handled Newt Gingrich in April of 1997, when Bob Dole announced he would loan Gingrich money to help him pay a $300,000 assessment to the House Ethics Committee for the probe of his college course. On ABC, Cokie Roberts said: "It contributes to the whole view that everybody inside of Washington is in cahoots." On CNN, Steve Roberts asked: "Do we really want a Speaker of the House who owes $300,000 to a guy who’s a principal of a major lobbying firm?"
CBS anchor Paula Zahn connected the loan to current legislation: "The suggestion of some kind of tobacco connection to the Gingrich-Dole loan deal comes as the tobacco industry is reportedly working on a $300 billion deal to settle government and private health lawsuits."
Larry Klayman’s Judicial Watch has filed suit to prevent payouts from either of Clinton’s funders — the insurers and his legal defense fund. But the networks began and ended the Jones case with willful indifference to the ethical questions for Clinton.
Double Standard on Death
60 Minutes Aids Kevorkian’s Crusade
CBS’s landmark magazine show 60 Minutes made its name in hunting down killer corporations — Audi’s supposedly dangerous accelerators, Uniroyal’s allegedly harmful Alar pesticide. But when Jack Kevorkian came to 60 Minutes with a videotape of a death he inflicted in his crusade to make euthanasia legal, Mike Wallace gave him most of a 14-minute segment to air his tape and make his case.
Wallace promoted the death to come: "In a few minutes, you will see Dr. Kevorkian end this man’s life. First, though, we’ll tell you why Mr. Youk [the man requesting death] wanted Dr. Kevorkian to do it, and why Dr. Kevorkian wanted you to see it even though it could get him charged with murder." After the CBS audience saw Kevorkian’s willing victim suffocate on camera, Wallace asked him: "You were engaged in a political , medical, macabre publicity venture, right?" And so was CBS.
A medical ethicist from the University of Chicago was allowed 90 seconds of rebuttal. But the rest of the time was dedicated to Kevorkian’s crusade to move from docter-assisted suicide to active doctor-inflicted euthanasia. Youk’s family was included to testify to his suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease. Wallace asked: "And I take it you would not be sitting here unless you thought it was useful, socially useful to have this broadcast?"
So would CBS apply this "socially useful" standard to other forms of death, like abortion? When a congressional candidate presented a campaign ad in 1992 showing grotesque images of aborted babies, CBS condemned him on the April 20, 1992 Evening News. Reporter Wyatt Andrews attacked: "Michael Bailey, an anti-abortion candidate for Congress in Indiana today began airing what could be the most tasteless ad ever shown on television. What’s more, he’s a candidate, protected against censorship. No one can stop him." But CBS did stop him: they blurred the images into a blank gray screen. "While we have altered these pictures, Bailey’s ad explicitly shows full-term human fetuses and the bodily remains he says are the products of abortion. Video shock therapy comes to abortion-era politics."
Andrews finished: "TV stations in Indianapolis and Louisville are questioning whether Bailey is abusing the law, whether under FCC rules, any zealot with a candidate’s filing fee can put anything on TV...Tastelessness in television may not be new, but this case is unique."
Perjurers Are Punished
For months, TV news viewers have been hearing that no one is ever punished, let alone charged, for committing perjury when lying about sex in a federal civil case. Over the past few weeks, though, Dateline, Today, 20/20 and NBC Nightly News all have discovered the case of Barbara Battalino and others imprisoned for doing just that.
As detailed by Dan Abrams on the November 11 Today, Battalino, a female psychiatrist in a Veterans Administration hospital, had oral sex with Ed Arthur, a male patient. When he sued her for medical malpractice, she denied it in the civil proceeding. Arthur then recorded his conversations with her, a la Linda Tripp, and Battalino found herself indicted by the Justice Department. "In that case," Abrams reported, "Barbara Battalino was charged with perjury and in a plea bargain received six months of home detention."
Stone Phillips also pointed out, during the first report about Battalino on the November 6 Dateline, that similar to the Paula Jones case, the federal court also threw out Arthur's case.
Sam Donaldson took it a step further, tracking down two more women, in addition to Battalino, who are now serving prison time for lying about sex in civil suits on the November 11 20/20. In addition to relating the specifics of each case, Donaldson also allowed federal judge Lacey Collier to tell why perjury matters in all cases: "If a person comes to court and cannot be counted on when he takes the oath, then that’s very destructive of the entire system because truth, justice, that is what we’re all about in the judicial system. And it fails when the truth is not told under oath."
But evening news viewers had to wait until the November 19 NBC Nightly News to find out from Pete Williams about Battalino and the others like her. While finally seeing these reports is gratifying, four are hardly enough to balance out more than 9 months worth of reporter comments that lying about sex is not a serious matter. In fact, Battalino’s story first came to light in a June 22 editorial by David Tell in The Weekly Standard. It would be another four months before network viewers would be told about her and the other cases, conveniently just days after the elections.