The Partisan Media's Phony War on Partisanship

Your mother may have taught you that it takes two to start a fight, but that's not the way the media have presented the Senate's impeachment battles. Partisanship is apparently a one-way street on which the Republicans are forever letting the innocent Democrats down.

For example, take the nightly news shows on Saturday, January 23. ABC's "World News Tonight" began with anchor Elizabeth Vargas declaring: "It was a contentious day in the Senate as the split between Democrats and Republicans seemed to grow. The Democrats cried foul after Judge Norma Holloway Johnson today ordered Monica Lewinsky to answer more questions. Independent counsel Kenneth Starr requested the interview with Lewinsky on behalf of the House managers prosecuting the case. Democrat Tom Daschle called the move by the Republicans 'a clear demonstration of raw partisanship.'" ABC didn't ask: so is Judge Johnson also a reckless partisan?

Reporter Linda Douglass followed by noting how "Democratic Senators were furious" at the move to talk with Lewinsky but Republicans didn't stop there: "Democrats say the atmosphere is becoming poisonous. Then late today, adding fuel to the fire, Majority Leader Trent Lott announced that on Monday Republican Senators will send a list of written questions to the President and they want him to answer them himself."

Paula Zahn led off the "CBS Evening News" with the warning: "Whatever shreds of bipartisan spirit in President Clinton's impeachment trial may remain unraveled today with the sudden re-emergence of Monica Lewinsky." Bob Schieffer started his story: "This news about Monica Lewinsky threw the whole trial into a turmoil here today. Democrats warned it could destroy the bipartisan atmosphere."

As the opening music swelled on the "NBC Nightly News," anchor Brian Williams announced: "Monica Lewinsky is summoned back to Washington by investigators, the Senate dissolves into a fight...Ken Starr walks back into the picture. Hopes for a quick end are blown up and Democrats are furious."

Williams moped that "Any hopes that this President's impeachment trial would come to a swift end, perhaps even a peaceful end, were dashed late today" when Monica Lewinsky landed in Washington to talk to the House managers. "A federal judge has okayed this, saying the Congressmen prosecuting the President with the help of Ken Starr, who has returned, can question Lewinsky once again. The White House, Senate Democrats are furious. This trial, it turns out, will end with a bang and not a whimper."

Now put the shoe on the other foot. The night before, the networks all breathlessly led with the word that Sen. Robert Byrd would move to dismiss the trial. A journalist who genuinely hates partisanship could point out that Byrd had lost his entire pretense of being a nonpartisan trier of fact, and moved to produce exactly the partisan Democratic outcome the White House wanted. Why is it partisan to continue, but not partisan to give Clinton a free pass? But the networks are hypocrites: they stressed his role as a "statesman" and "conscience."

Peter Jennings opened ABC's "World News Tonight" by pooh-poohing partisan motives: "Now Senator Byrd is a Democrat and the Republicans represent the majority, but Senator Byrd is a constitutional scholar, sometimes called the conscience of the Senate on such matters and if he says it's okay to dismiss the case other politicians in both parties may decide it's okay to follow."

"CBS Evening News" reporter Bob Schieffer claimed "Byrd's announcement is not so significant just because he's so revered here, but also because many Democrats thought he was ready to convict the President." Schieffer went on to explain Byrd doesn't think Clinton's innocent of the charges against him. So how does blowing up the impeachment trial make him a "conscience" of the Senate?

Tom Brokaw began "NBC Nightly News" by putting the screws to the GOP: "There's a major break tonight for President Clinton and his impeachment trial. Robert Byrd, one of the senior statesmen of the Senate caught everyone by surprise when he announced late this afternoon he would move to have the trial dismissed. Byrd is a Democrat but he's been openly critical of the President and he's a guardian of the Senate's place in history. This will put a lot of pressure on the Republicans." If Byrd's proposal had passed, the unfortunate result would have been grave damage to this Senate's place in history.

The media's phony arguments are wrong. The House managers' principled advocacy of the rule of law in the face of a trial-trashing media mudbath shows that partisanship can be a glorious thing.