Major media figures reprimanded themselves for going "too far" with too little information on the Monica Lewinsky story. But a Media Research Center analysis of past TV coverage by Tim Graham presents five Clinton practices that deserve investigation in the Lewinsky case that the network news has downplayed or ignored in non-sexual scandals:
Hush Money for Friendly Witnesses. Before disgraced former Associate Attorney General Webster Hubbell testified before Whitewater counsel Kenneth Starr, he gained a half-million dollars in "jobs" secured by Clinton friends. The story drew only six full nightly news stories.
Destruction or Hiding of Documents. Last November, a mechanic discovered a stash of Whitewater documents, including a check made out to Bill Clinton from Whitewater partner Jim McDougal, in the trunk of a tornado-damaged Mercury Marquis. Clinton claimed he never borrowed money from his felonious business partner, but the check matched the amount of a Whitewater loan repayment. Only NBC broadcast a full story.
Violating the Privacy Rights of Adversaries. When Senators investigated the Clinton staff's collection of 900 FBI files of Republican White House employees in the fall of 1996, they found the log listing who gained access to the files was missing. Only CNN reported it briefly.
Failing to Comply with Subpoenas. Well after DNC Finance Director Richard Sullivan testified before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, the DNC belatedly released 4,000 pages of subpoenaed documents from Sullivan's office. In House testimony, Deputy White House Counsel Cheryl Mills admitted withholding a damaging memo on the White House Office Data Base for 15 months. Neither of these stories got any TV news coverage.
Keeping Meetings Secret by Filing False Statements. Judge Royce Lamberth fined the White House nearly $286,000 for its misleading testimony in a lawsuit demanding open meetings by the Clinton health plan task force. The networks totally ignored this story.
The Monica Lewinsky story presented the media with a potent cocktail of boss-intern sexual allegations and perjury charges that have captured the usually apolitical public even as it decries the story's overcoverage. News organizations and "committees of concerned journalists" have reprimanded themselves for their own coverage of the Monicagate story and criticized the TV networks for going "too far" with too little information. But a hard look at past TV coverage suggests that the problem with television news isn't the lack of substantive new information. It's the networks' long-standing failure to report the Clinton administration's tendency to mislead the public or obstruct justice, even when the nation's leading newspapers do the legwork for them.
Polls suggest the public believes that the Monicagate story is simply a sordid tale of office hanky-panky that a sex-starved media could not resist. The most serious aspects of the story -- coverups, perjury, suborning perjury, and obstruction of justice -- have antecedents in previous White House attempts to stonewall damaging Clinton scandals, scandals that the networks have covered with much less fervor than the Monicagate story. If the networks wished to improve their public reputations instead of presenting themselves as ruthless exploiters of Clinton's personal excesses, they could re-examine past Clinton scandals to explain to viewers how the White House damage-control strategy on the Monicagate story is quite similar to their strategy to kill other damaging stories.
In theory, there are three stages to news coverage of scandal stories: allegation, investigation, and resolution. On too many stories, the networks won't even begin to touch the allegation, even after some legal body has resolved the story for them. This analysis lists only five well-reported stories in the last two years out of many reports from the nation's leading newspapers, many of which cannot plausibly be linked to a "vast right-wing conspiracy." To explain these stories, we've separated them into four parts: the initial charge, a subsequent revelation reported in print, why it was important, and how the TV networks (ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, and CNN's evening show The World Today) covered (or didn't cover) it, especially when the story was truly "news" -- in the 48 hours after it broke.
1. Hush Money for Friendly Witnesses.
THE CHARGE: Hillary's former law partner and friend Webster Hubbell was forced to resign in early 1994 as Associate Attorney General, the Justice Department's number-three position, for embezzling nearly a half-million dollars from the Rose Law Firm, with some of his false expense accounts signed by his Rose Law partner Hillary Clinton. Last year, print reporters discovered Hubbell had been paid more than $500,000 from dozens of Clinton-affiliated people for "jobs" (on which little or no work was performed) before he testified to Whitewater counsel Kenneth Starr, leaving the suspicion Hubbell was paid to keep quiet.
WHAT PRINT MEDIA REPORTED: The New York Times first put Hubbell's pre-prison bonanza at $400,000 in a March 6, 1997 front-page story. Two weeks later, the same paper found James Riady of the Lippo Group put up $100,000 of that after five days of meetings with White House officials. On April 6, the Los Angeles Times noted White House lawyer Jane Sherburne wrote "monitor cooperation" by Hubbell's name on a 1994 memo. In May, USA Today revealed Clinton pal Vernon Jordan got Hubbell a job with Revlon, the same company he later approached for Monica Lewinsky. In December, the Los Angeles Times reported Mickey Kantor, the President's 1992 campaign manager and Commerce Secretary, admitted he lied when he said he didn't attempt to get Hubbell jobs.
WHY IT WAS IMPORTANT: These stories underline a conscious plan to enrich Hubbell before he testified to Starr on Whitewater; the President's use of Jordan and Kantor to get him out of trouble using legally questionable methods; and the way Clinton associates lied about their knowledge of and cooperation with the plan. Politically, the charges could have been a nightmare: a man embezzles a half-million dollars, and the White House shows that crime pays by rewarding him with another half-million?
HOW TV NETWORKS COVERED IT: The networks aired only six evening news reports, four of them on February 9, 1997, when all the networks noted Time magazine reported Starr was looking into it (and admitted Time Warner hired Hubbell). The reports of a $400,000 killing, James Riady's $100,000 after White House meetings, plans to "monitor" Hubbell's cooperation with Starr -- never received more than one of the three networks' attention in the 48 hours after the newspaper story ran. Stories on Jordan's and Kantor's roles were ignored. (Jordan's Revlon deal for Hubbell first made TV on the March 3, 1998 NBC Nightly News.)
2. Destruction or Hiding of Documents.
THE CHARGE: Obstruction of justice occurred in the destruction of or hiding of relevant documents in the Whitewater investigation. Rose Law Firm shreddings, late-appearing billing records in the White House residence, and White House lawyers' meeting notes like "Vacuum Rose Law Files" show important elements of the Whitewater story may never be known.
WHAT PRINT MEDIA REPORTED: On November 6, Associated Press reported the latest discovery of hidden documents came thanks to an Arkansas tornado. Hidden and possibly forgotten in the trunk of a tornado-damaged Mercury Marquis was a stash of Whitewater documents, including a check made out to Bill Clinton from Whitewater partner Jim McDougal. Former McDougal courier Henry Floyd just left the car with a trunk full of bank documents after a dispute with a repair shop, where it sat for nine years.
WHY IT WAS IMPORTANT: On November 10, 1997, NBC Nightly News reporter Fred Francis explained: "Before junking [the car], mechanic Johnny Lawhorn pried open the trunk and found a cashier's check for $27,600 payable to Bill Clinton. Adding to the mystery, Bill Clinton has testified that he never borrowed money from his Whitewater partner. But the amount of the check corresponds exactly to the amount of a Whitewater loan repayment. So why was it made out to Bill Clinton? That's what the Whitewater grand jury wants to know." Was Clinton an active partner in shady Whitewater deals? Francis added: "And although Clinton's attorneys discredit the new documents, there are a trunk full of bank records. Some of them relating to a time when Hillary Clinton worked as a lawyer on another McDougal land deal, Castle Grande. Castle Grande is a thousand acre tract that McDougal wanted to sell as trailer home sites. The grand jury is now examining these documents to help answer the question whether Mrs. Clinton has honestly portrayed her role in the financing of that project."
HOW TV NETWORKS COVERED IT: ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and CNN's The World Today never covered it. Only NBC reported a full story. (CNN covered the revelation on the afternoon show Inside Politics. CBS included a brief mention on their low-rated show Saturday Morning.)
3. Violating the Privacy Rights of Adversaries.
THE CHARGE: In June 1996, the White House admitted aide Craig Livingstone and others had collected FBI files on 338 Republican officials from past administrations. Later, the real number of files surpassed 900. In that month, the networks presented a short burst of coverage which soon dropped to nothing. Reporters echoed U.S. News & World Report writer Gloria Borger's strange defense: "This White House inspires a presumption of incompetence."
WHAT PRINT MEDIA REPORTED: On September 25, 1996, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) revealed a six-month gap in the log which listed who at the White House was accessing FBI background files on Republican White House employees. The Washington Times bannered the news across page one the next day. On October 4, Sen. Hatch released the deposition of White House aide Mari Anderson before the Judiciary Committee. Anderson verified that pages of the log used to record the taking of FBI files were missing. Anderson also asserted, contradicting White House aide Craig Livingstone's assurances, that Livingstone knew the Clinton White House was procuring the FBI files of Republicans. Even The Washington Post put this story on its front page the next day.
WHY IT WAS IMPORTANT: This missing log could have been compared to the 18-minute gap in the Watergate tapes and Nixon secretary Rose Mary Woods. Would the logs have implicated the President or First Lady in the act of illegally reviewing the files of political opponents to be used, say, in case the Republicans considered an impeachment hearing? Would the White House be able to blackmail opponents with embarrassing information? The case also underlined the Clintons' penchant for dirt-gathering on their opponents, something the press suggested was a surprise. (Borger, for one, insisted: "It is hard to believe that Craig Livingstone...was ordered by his White House superiors to get the goods on former Republican officials.") That penchant still was not emphasized when the Washington Post recently discovered the Clintons' lawyers have been using private investigators in the Paula Jones case and other controversies since 1994.
HOW TV NETWORKS COVERED IT: Not one full evening news story. (The only coverage of the FBI files log was a CNN brief on both days, and one ABC Good Morning America brief.)
4. Failing to Comply with Subpoenas.
THE CHARGE: Despite claims of full cooperation with the independent counsel and congressional investigators, the White House often withheld subpoenaed materials for months, even years at a time. Some of those delays concerned the White House Office Data Base, which was created to help keep tabs on friends and supporters -- and big donors. CBS and NBC touched on that story just once each in January 1997.
WHAT PRINT MEDIA REPORTED: Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward's August 8, 1997 story began: "The Senate committee examining campaign finance abuses has begun an investigation to determine whether the Democratic National Committee obstructed the panel's inquiry by not delivering until Monday 4,000 pages of documents from the files of former DNC finance director Richard Sullivan.... DNC officials said the documents, contained in two boxes, include 1,500 pages of Sullivan's handwritten notes, files on controversial Democratic contributors such as Roger Tamraz and Johnny Chung, and 12 fundraising call sheets prepared for Hillary Rodham Clinton asking her to call donors such as designer Ralph Lauren." Months after the subpoenas arrived, the files supposedly were just found by Sullivan's successor in the only filing cabinet in his office.
A similar example emerged on November 6, 1997, when Deputy White House Counsel Cheryl Mills admitted in testimony before the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee that she and former Counsel Jack Quinn decided to withhold (for a total of 15 months) a White House staffer's memo suggesting President Clinton wanted the newly created White House Office Data Base (WHODB) shared with the Democratic National Committee.
WHY IT WAS IMPORTANT: The White House's failure to produce subpoenaed documents prevented the time-limited Senate Government Affairs Committee investigation from developing. Instead of telling the public about White House non-compliance, TV reports underlined how the Senate was going nowhere fast. Part of the reason: their failure to cover it.
HOW TV NETWORKS COVERED IT: None of the networks covered either story. (Two days later, NBC Meet the Press Host Tim Russert raised the Sullivan papers twice in one show.)
5. Keeping Meetings Secret by Filing False Statements.
THE CHARGE: The American Association of Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS) filed suit in 1993 arguing that the Federal Advisory Committee Act required the task force assembling the Clinton health care plan to stop holding secret meetings, and instead hold meetings open to the public, since the task force included non-government employees, starting with the First Lady.
WHAT PRINT MEDIA REPORTED: Last December, Judge Royce Lamberth fined the White House $286,000 for health czar Ira Magaziner's lying (at White House lawyers' direction) about the composition of Hillary's health care task force in order to keep meetings closed to the public. Lamberth issued the fine to reimburse the AAPS for court costs in their lawsuit against the administration. The White House claimed throughout the litigation the task force had no non-governmental employees on it. In 1995, Judge Lamberth asked the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia to probe Magaziner for perjury, suggesting he must have known his declaration was false, since employees of his private consulting firm were working on the task force. (U.S. Attorney Eric Holder, who decided not to prosecute Magaziner, is now the number two official in the Justice Department.) After Lamberth levied the fine, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer called on Magaziner to resign.
WHY IT WAS IMPORTANT: The White House response to the AAPS lawsuit illustrated both the Clintons' penchant for secrecy and the White House counsels' willingness to file intentionally misleading briefs in a federal case.
HOW TV NETWORKS COVERED IT: Just as they'd ignored the AAPS suit from the beginning, the networks aired nothing on the Lamberth decision or Archer's call for Magaziner to step down. (Ten days after Lamberth's decision and a day after Archer's request for Magaziner's resignation, Tim Russert asked two questions late in an interview with Clinton aide Rahm Emanuel on NBC's Meet the Press. But Russert never used his powers as NBC Washington Bureau Chief to place the story anywhere else on his network's news.)