Is the Press Soft on Clinton?

Is the Press Soft on Clinton?

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Dec. 21 1996 12:30 AM

Is the Press Soft on Clinton?


Dear Jon,


       I'm smiling as I write this. I do believe that you're slowly coming over to my side, though you don't want to admit it. In each of your messages so far you have mentioned one ethics story on which you think the press blew it this fall. First you said I was right about Stuart Taylor's persuasive correction of the mainstream media on the Paula Jones story. Then, in your latest posting, you observed that there had been no good journalistic analysis of the Will-Hillary-Be-Indicted question. You wrote that you're "still waiting for someone" to tell you 1) what exactly she would be indicted for, and 2) what is the evidence that she committed a crime.
       You're sounding more and more like me, Jon. A few postings from now, you'll have caught up to me and will have accumulated your own lengthy list of scandal stories that were inadequately covered. This matter of whether and why the first lady might be indicted is a perfect example of what I'm talking about. I, too, waited throughout the fall for one of the leading newspapers or networks to intelligently, clearly, and prominently analyze the indictment issue. In fact, there was such a silence on this arguably urgent question that for a long time I just assumed indictment of Hillary in the second term wasn't a live possibility. If the media--notoriously hungry as they are for the blood of White House figures--isn't on this story during the campaign, then it must not be a story, right? Wrong. In late October, The New Yorker published a piece on George Stephanopoulos in which the presidential adviser himself ticked off several possible nightmare situations that the Clinton campaign might have to face. Among his scenarios: "Bosnia could blow up, or there could be a Whitewater indictment of Hillary ..."
       My reaction was: Excuse me? Based on a rather heavy immersion in the mainstream election coverage, I had no notion that this was a real-enough possibility for George Stephanopoulos to mention it. Still, it remained unclear to me (and still does today) what the basis of an indictment might be. As you note, there was no further enlightenment on this matter from the mainstream media, no thoughtful, dispassionate look at what people with various biases (from the Limbaughites to Stephanopoulos) were talking about when they mentioned indictment. Were they discussing something conceivable, based on the facts, or were they spreading alarmist nonsense? Again, as with the Paula Jones story, no appreciable effort was made by the establishment press to deepen the public's understanding. How many voters knew in early November that there might soon be an indictment of Mrs. Clinton, and why? At that time, there were at least a half dozen other ethics stories hanging out there in this same cloudy state. Hmmm. The true meaning of those scandals would have made a nice story for someone. Newsweek, for instance, might have put the story on its cover dated Oct. 21, instead of the piece that did run on the cover that issue, a report on the "style" of Carolyn Bessette.
       On to your other points. You accuse me of backing away from my own evocation of Watergate and Walter Cronkite. I stand by every word I wrote on those subjects. Yes, the basic thrust of my argument is, as you write, "that the country deserves no less this year from the press than it received in 1972 from Cronkite and a few others." I have no quarrel with that characterization. My quarrel is with your insistence, in both of your messages, that I was somehow equating the Watergate and Whitewater scandals. I am comparing the coverage, not the scandals themselves. The scandal of 1972 and the scandals of 1996 seem to me to have very little in common, except that they are scandals. To address a query from your first message, I cannot imagine Bill Clinton ordering a break-in at the Brookings Institution (or at the Heritage Foundation), and likewise I do not think his scandals bear much resemblance to Nixon's. Watergate was one big crime story with many subplots. The Clinton White House faces a big assortment of smaller, unrelated allegation stories, of which Whitewater is just one. We are talking about two entirely different scandal situations, though each is serious in its own way, and each deserved more intense media focus than it received during the respective campaign seasons. And I think it's noteworthy that the staffs of the Nixon and Clinton White Houses attempted to suppress scandal coverage in similar ways, and that both met with great success.
       Because there are so many Clinton ethics issues, I continue to feel that the number of ethics stories that ran in 1996, particularly in the last few months of the campaign (and especially on television) was quite small. If you look at the stories that did run, you'll see that in the main they were glancing, perfunctory efforts, driven not by a desire for understanding but by political events. This is why, when you and George Stephanopoulos play what you call "the numbers game," it doesn't say a lot to me.
       You contend that I'm asking too much of the media when I suggest they should have gone out on a limb, when I argue that they should have offered coverage that helped citizens understand whether the scandals were important or not. Your reasoning: we didn't have "enough information" about the scandals for the media to have produced such stories. So there were not more stories because there was not enough information. Something circular in that, isn't there? Where does information come from in the first place, Jon? I know, I know, you think it all flows from "fortuitous" events. This is one point on which we definitely diverge. I believe the media are active producers of information--when they want to be.
       I totally agree, however, with your assertion that the Clinton scandals are now "mostly a series of mushy allegations." And they are mushy partly because of the dearth of good coverage. The Paula Jones story was mushy until Stuart Taylor came along. Do I think, as you suggest I do, that the New York Times should have run a reminder about the commodities scandal under a banner on Page 1 the week before the election? No, I don't think that. But I do believe that that paper's ambitious campaign series on the Clinton record should have included at least a Page One piece or two on the president's ethics issues. If on some of these scandal stories there weren't many new angles for Times sleuths like Jeff Gerth and Stephen Labaton to investigate, then the Times might have enlisted another kind of writer, someone like Adam Nagourney, to make sense of the information that is already out there. Indeed, that's what the series did for issues like foreign affairs and the economy; it wasn't breaking new ground, but rather, comprehensively scrutinizing the facts available, to make them meaningful. That's basically what Taylor did with the Jones case, and he produced a revelation. A look back at Hillary's commodities trading would have fit nicely into a larger ethics piece of this kind. Did you know that commodities experts are still laughing about how credulously the press received the first lady's explanation of this affair?
       Finally, there is a recurring theme in your messages that disturbs me, and I want to address it. You seem to think that I hope this president will go down in flames. In your first message you asked me, "Why not come out directly in favor of a constitutional crisis?" In this latest posting, you suggest that the real source of my "resentment" is that Clinton has been "lucky," in that he hasn't been laid low by the scandals. In your closing sentence, you suggest that I will feel "disappointment" if he escapes such a fate.
       You don't know me very well. We have met briefly only twice, and spoken on the phone two or three times. If you knew me better, you would understand that I'm not in this to bring down the president. There was no unspoken wish behind my piece that the country will descend into another Watergate. To the contrary, I wrote the piece out of concern that, although Watergate was not so long ago, the press seems to have forgotten the essential role it plays in preventing constitutional crises and other political disasters. Most of the mainstream press blew it on the Nixon scandal, and I hope they never make the same mistake again. The health of our system depends to a great degree on the vigilance of the press. When there is any suggestion that our elected leaders have abused the power we have given them, I believe it's the duty of the establishment media organs to be unstinting in their coverage and scrutiny of the story. That's duty, not option. The few newspapers and TV networks of which I speak wield immense power. When they pay scant attention to potentially explosive ethics scandals, and thereby send a clear message that those scandals are not worth worrying about any more, they shirk the responsibility that comes with their power. And they confirm their own arrogance.
       I hope that your hypothetical, sanguine retrospective on the Clinton scandals proves correct. But I worry that it is based on a few wrongheaded assumptions. You suggest that this administration's ethics problems are largely the creation of a press that thrives on scandal for its own sake. While it's true that the press loves a scandal, I believe they can't sustain a scandal for long unless it has its basis in facts. Something other than just the press and the Republicans is driving all these Clinton scandals, and it may be something in Clinton.
       You contend that these scandals have overshadowed policy issues like Medicare, which are ultimately more important. I recognize that dichotomy: It is the creed of the "civic journalism" movement that is all the rage these days. Civic journalists say the press should focus on the policy questions that matter to average people, like Medicare, and stop worrying so much about those messy character issues. I don't buy this notion. I think policy and character have always been inextricable, and that they work together in a very specific way. Good policy comes from good character, not vice versa. And we need great journalism on both.


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.