The New York Times runs a lot of headlines about scandals, but rarely does it run a headline that is a scandal. On Saturday, Dec. 28, it came pretty close. The headline over its lead Page One story read: "DEMOCRATS HOPED TO RAISE $7 MILLION FROM ASIANS IN U.S." On the inside page where the story continued, the headline was: "DEMOCRATS' GOAL: MILLIONS FROM ASIANS." Both headlines were wrong. The story was actually about a 1996 Democratic National Committee document outlining a plan to raise (as the lead paragraph put it) "$7 million from Asian-Americans."
Memo to the New York Times: "Asian-Americans" are American citizens of Asian ancestry. "Asians," in contrast, are Asians--citizens of some Asian nation. And "Asians in U.S." are citizens of some Asian nation who are visiting or residing in the United States. This is not. It gets at the heart of the subtle, probably subconscious racial prejudice that has turned a legitimately medium-sized scandal into a journalistic blockbuster.
Would a Times headline call Polish-Americans "East Europeans in U.S."? (Or, in the jump headline, just "East Europeans"?) And the headline was only half the problem with Saturday's story. The story itself was wrongheaded, implying that there's something inherently scandalous about Asian-Americans giving money to a political campaign. In fact, the inaccurate headline was necessary to prevent the story from seeming absurd. Can you imagine the Times running--over its lead story--the headline "DEMOCRATS HOPED TO RAISE MILLIONS FROM U.S. JEWS"?
Political parties target ethnic groups for fund-raising all the time (as Jacob Weisberg recently showed in these pages). They target Hispanics, they target Jews, they pass the hat at Polish-American dinners. To be sure, the Asian-American fund-raising plan was, in retrospect, no ordinary plan. It went quite awry. Some of the projected $7 million--at least $1.2 million, according to the Times--wound up coming in the form of improper or illegal donations (which, of course, we already knew about). Foreign citizens or companies funneled money through domestic front men or front companies. And sometimes foreigners thus got to rub elbows with President Clinton. For all we know, they influenced policy.
But the truly scandalous stuff was old news by Dec. 27. What that day's story added was news of the existence of this document outlining a plan to raise money from Americans of Asian descent. And that alone was considered worthy of the high-scandal treatment.
L eave aside this particular story, and consider the "campaign-gate" scandal as a whole. What if the same thing had happened with Europeans and Americans of European descent? It would be just as improper and/or illegal. But would we really be so worked up about it? Would William Safire write a column about it every 15 minutes and use the loaded word "aliens" to describe European noncitizens? If Indonesian magnate James Riady looked like John Major, would Newsweek have put a huge, ominous, grainy black-and-white photo of him on its cover? ("Clinton's European connection" wouldn't pack quite the same punch as "Clinton's Asian connection"--the phrase that Newsweek put on its cover and Safire has used 16 times in 13 weeks.) Would the Times be billing minor investigative twists as lead stories?
Indeed, would its reporters even write stories like that Saturday's? The lead paragraph, which is supposed to crystallize the story's news value, is this: "A White House official and a leading fund-raiser for the Democratic National Committee helped devise a strategy to raise an unprecedented $7 million from Asian-Americans partly by offering rewards to the largest donors, including special access to the White House, the committee's records show." You mean Democrats actually offered White House visits to Americans who cough up big campaign dough? I'm shocked. Wait until the Republicans discover this tactic! The Friday after Christmas is a slow news day, but it's not that slow. And as for the "unprecedented" scale of the fund-raising goal: Virtually every dimension of Clinton's 1996 fund-raising was on an unprecedented scale, as we've long known.
There are some interesting nuggets in the Times story. But among them isn't the fact, repeated in the third paragraph, that fund-raisers told Asian-American donors that "political contributions were the path to power." And among them isn't the fact, repeated (again) in the fourth paragraph, that "the quid pro quo promised" to Asian-American donors was "in many cases a face-to-face meeting with the President." And, anyway, none of these nuggets is interesting enough to make this the day's main story. The only way to do that is to first file Asian-Americans in the "alien" section of your brain. That's why the story's headline is so telling.
The funny thing about this scandal is that its root cause and its mitigating circumstance are one and the same. Its root cause is economic globalization--the fact that more and more foreign companies have an interest in U.S. policy. But globalization is also the reason that the scandal's premise--the illegality of contributions from "foreign" interests--is increasingly meaningless. Both the Times and the Washington Post (in its blockbuster-lite front-page story, the next day) cited already-reported evidence that a $185,000 donation (since returned) may have originated ultimately with the C.P. Group. The C.P. Group is "a huge Thai conglomerate with interests in China and elsewhere in Asia" (the Times) and is "among the largest foreign investors in China" (the Post). But of course, Nike, Boeing, General Motors, Microsoft, IBM, and so on are also huge companies with interests in China and elsewhere in Asia. They, no less than Asian companies, at times have an interest in low U.S. tariffs, treating oppressive Asian dictators with kid gloves, and so on. Yet it is perfectly legal for them to lubricate such lobbying with big campaign donations.
Why no journalistic outrage about that? Well, for starters, try looking at a grainy newsweekly-sized photo of Lou Gerstner and see if it makes you remember Pearl Harbor. (By the way, neither the Times nor the Post noted that the ominous C.P. Group is involved in joint ventures with Ford and Nynex.)