Is the Press Soft on Clinton?

Is the Press Soft on Clinton?

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Dec. 18 1996 12:30 AM

Is the Press Soft on Clinton?

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Dear Bill:

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       You start your reply to my Dec. 11 missive by suggesting that somehow, media critics are protecting big media institutions. "Apparently one must not attack the great and powerful New York Times," you write. I'm only occasionally in the media-criticism dodge nowadays, but I remember it well enough to know that media critics don't eat if they don't attack the New York Times. It's part of the job. So it could hardly be tender feelings toward the Times that explains the less generous reaction to your original NewRepublic piece.
       I find it curious that you are now backing away from the analogy between Whitewater and Watergate. You begin and end your article with comparisons to 1972. But you take me to task for suggesting that you want to make the comparison. I wrote of your reference to Walter Cronkite's tough work on Watergate that "your point is that that no one did the same this fall." You replied on Dec. 13 that this wasn't your point. So what was your point? I'm confused. I thought you wrote, at the beginning of your last paragraph in TNR, "Where is Walter Cronkite when we need him?" Isn't that the gist of your piece? You throw in a nice qualifier softening the Watergate-Whitewater comparison to cover the New Republic's fanny on this matter (you must have expected criticism of the facile nature of a Watergate-Whitewater comparison), but I still read the basic thrust of your argument to be that the country deserves no less this year from the press than it received in 1972 from Cronkite and a few others.
       Of course, the totals show that there was much more coverage of Clinton's ethical problems this fall than there was of Nixon's in 1972, but you don't want to get into the numbers game. You prefer to criticize the quality of the reporting and editing--that news organizations decided not to "clarify" the scandals for readers. You say the media should have "gone out on a limb" to tell their audiences whether the scandals were important or didn't amount to much.
       The problem with that argument is that we don't have enough information to do what you suggest. Clinton can't be given a clean bill of health, and he can't be indicted by the press as unfit for high office. It's mostly a series of mushy allegations about matters that rarely touched him directly, and which took place a long time ago.
       Speaking of time, you misinterpret my point there. I wasn't complaining about the Clinton scandals being old (though most are); I was talking about how the coverage of the scandals was now older than Watergate was at the time of the Nixon re-election bid--by a few years. In other words, contrary to Watergate experience, reporters have, by now, worked through the entrails of these stories many times and been unable to come up with many new angles. Do you think Jeff Gerth, Stephen Labaton, and Mike Isikoff--to mention just a few--have lost interest? No, they just haven't come up with new juicy material. Occasionally, one of their stories is buried or played wrong; but usually, it's just a matter of not hitting the jackpot as much as they did a couple of years ago. Is that because they are losing their touch? No. It's because there may not be as much to find as we imagine, or if there is, no one can get it right now.
       To live on, a scandal needs to be fed. You can't expect editors to just poke the logs around and start a huge new fire before the election. The stories require new fuel all the time--or at least new kindling. That's the way the business works. It's not really enough to say, "Hey, remember Red Bone? He was the commodities broker of Hillary Clinton's friend Jim Blair. Bill Clinton never knew him, no one has alleged that any laws were broken, Blair himself lost big money (so how fixed could it have been?), no new details have emerged on this story, though it smelled bad at the time when we learned she made a hundred grand. But we at the New York Times wanted to banner it anyway the week before the election, just to remind you of its importance."
       Yes, Bill, I would have liked a few scandal-primer stories to help us sort out all the allegations. These stories may have had the effect of convincing readers that there are a lot of questions and not many answers. Or, possibly, that there are a lot of answers that are awfully boring. But a hunger for those primers couldn't have been reason enough for you to unload as you did on the press corps, could it?
       Actually, there was one kind of Whitewater story I missed this fall. I wanted to see a few "Will Hillary Be Indicted?" analyses. I'm still waiting for someone (you, maybe?) to tell me what she would be indicted for. Perjury is indictable only if it relates to a crime. What's the evidence of a crime? I don't doubt for a second that an indictment could happen, I'd just like to know the legal specifics of how. The usual answer is obstruction of justice, but however suspicious her story on the Rose Law Firm files, I'm told by lawyers it doesn't qualify. Maybe some Whitewater buffs online out there can help me out.
       As for Filegate, do you honestly believe that Newsweek, or any other news organization, wouldn't have loved a good, juicy Craig Livingstone story to liven up October? Of course we would have. But what are we supposed to do--make one up? He's not talking, and no one has come forward to allege that the Clintons or high-ranking aides knew anything about his stupid filing practices. The only major outstanding question--for which the White House never gave a good answer--was, "Who hired this galoot?" This question received a thorough going-over this campaign season. You can look it up.
       You are probably right in saying that we haven't heard the last of these stories. But politics isn't a novel--we can't skip forward to the end to see how it comes out. We have to wait. In that sense, Clinton is lucky (the real source of your resentment, I believe). After months of bad news, nothing really broke in the fall, except the Indogate stuff, about which Isikoff and I wrote a rather tough Newsweek cover story in late October, to cite just one example.
       You claim that you just wanted the press to say something--anything--to clarify matters, even if it exonerated the president. But I wonder how you would have felt about an analysis of our political culture in the year 2010 that went roughly like this:

The Democrats and Republicans for years chewed up important time and resources trying to nail each other for simply being politicians. They essentially criminalized their squabbling. Watergate--a real crime--spawned a series of pseudo-gates. Many of those "scandals" contained bad judgment or improprieties, but the attention paid to them was not only disproportionate, it skewed any sense of what was important in Washington. (One hearing on Medicare's future compared to dozens and dozens on Whitewater.) The press, whose sense of self-worth is connected to seeming tough and challenging, could not very well admit this. Besides, "scandal" reporting--be it on "The October Surprise," "Iraqgate," or "Travelgate"--was inherently more colorful than some story about the Health Care Financing Authority (though the details of the Whitewater real-estate transactions sorely tested this theory). Only after Hillary Clinton was indicted by a grand jury, then cleared in under an hour by a jury, did the second thoughts begin to set in and the "Watergate Syndrome" recede.

        It's just a thought. Bill Clinton could very well end up getting nailed. His past could catch up with him. His "I'm Richard Jewell" self-pity could blind him to the openness he needs in order to reclaim credibility. Even Houdini finally drowned. But if Clinton doesn't go down--if he wriggles free again--don't blame the press for your disappointment.

Best,
Jon

William Powers is a senior editor at the New Republic and author of the magazine's Dec. 16 cover story, "Scandal-Shy." Jonathan Alter is a columnist at Newsweek and contributing correspondent at NBC.