Impeachable defenses

How the media helped
Clinton get away with it

By Sam Smith
From the April 1998 Progressive Review
Copyright 1998 The Progressive Review


In the beginning there was just a governor from Arkansas. Elsewhere, hardly anyone knew much about him. The few who did included those attending some of the nearly 100 meetings at Pam Harriman's house moderated by Clark Clifford and Robert Strauss. The cover charge for contributors was $1,000 a head and Harriman and her friends would eventually raise about $12 million for a conservative Democratic agenda and pick Bill Clinton to carry it out.

The leap from secret salon to public media was not all that difficult. After all, there is nothing the Washington press corps does better than mimic the nostrums of the mighty, and you couldn't get much mightier than Strauss, Clifford and Harriman. At least when Kissinger wasn't in town.

When journalists met the candidate, he fully confirmed the elders' wisdom for he was charming, articulate, at ease with Beltway paradigms, and married to a woman every bit as much of the right time and place.

Of course, Clinton couldn't rely entirely on the media. He had to turn moments of debate and interview and speech and walking through crowded rooms into magic for the audience and the viewer. And he had to deal with those few reporters who didn't go along with the program, those who asked for the wrong facts at the wrong time.

Still, near the time of the 1992 New Hampshire primary, Hendrick Hertzberg surveyed several dozen campaign reporters and found that every one of them, if they had been a New Hampshire voter, would have cast their ballot for Clinton. The reason, said Hertzberg, was "simple, and surprisingly uncynical: they think he would make a very good, perhaps a great, president. Several told me they were convinced that Clinton is the most talented presidential candidate they have ever encountered, JFK included."

This conclusion had been reached with only the vaguest notion of who Clinton was and what he had done in, to, or for Arkansas. Accepting as adequate proof Clinton's popularity among his fellow governors, most of the media overlooked other matters such as:

Clinton's had really grown up not in halcyon Hope but in Hot Springs, a town catering to gamblers and hoods, and a long-time resort for the Chicago and New York mobs.

While infant mortality had declined during his terms as governor, the Center for the Study of Social Policy rated the state only 41st on children's issue.

According to the Southern Regional Council, Arkansas was in the bottom ten percent of all states in average weekly wages, health insurance coverage, state and local school revenue, unemployment, blacks and women in traditional white male jobs, environmental policies and overall conditions for workers.

Clinton had experienced a rocky relationship with labor and environmentalists. At the beginning of the campaign Clinton came under attack by his state's AFL-CIO president who (before the national union ordered him to shut up) sent around a highly critical report on Clinton's record. Labor, it said, should expect Clinton's help only 25-30% of the time. And the League of Conservation Voters ranked Clinton last among the Democratic candidates on conservation issues.

Arkansas was a major drug trafficking center. Well before the convention there were strong indications that Clinton had followed a three-monkey policy on illegal drugs. One of his close friends had served time on drug charges as had his step-brother. While the story was not as fleshed out as it would later be, there was more than enough shadows of the underworld to raise alarms.

There were serious questions as to just what role Clinton had played in the central role of Arkansas as a jumping off point for illegal Contra support operations.

And then there were the women. Plenty of them with plenty of stories.

Beyond the void of mere facts was also a stunning lack of credible description of the culture and values in which Clinton had thrived. The media failed to examine Arkansas political, economic and social feudalism; its corruption; its drug culture; its sexual mores and the cruelties of back country justice. One did not rise in such a place by rejecting its rules.

There were scores of stories that should have been covered during the primaries but weren't. What really went on at Mena? Why was Clinton so disinterested? Did the northern mobs still have influence in Arkansas? Where did the unmistakable footprints of BCCI lead? Why was an immensely rich Indonesian, Mochtar Riady, and other foreign financiers so interested in this tiny state? Who paid for Bill Clinton's fancy hotel room in Moscow while he was a poor student abroad? And so forth.

The bulk of the media not only ignored such questions, they dismissed those who went after any information that threatened the image of a brilliant, articulate, Oxford and Yale-educated charismatic from Hope. Only a few times -- such as when Gennifer Flowers and the draft board stories surfaced -- did reality rear its ugly head for any significant period. Instead, the media mostly just stood alongside the yellow brick road and handed out green glasses.

The result was one of America's great American political frauds. Neither in character nor in ideology did Clinton turn out to be the man described by the media. Instead he would:

  • help wreck major components of a social welfare system painfully constructed over nearly seven decades.
  • assault constitutional protections, particularly those limiting search and seizure.
  • accelerate the incarceration large numbers of minorities for such sins as preferring marijuana to daiquiris.
  • greatly solidify corporatist hegemony over the political system, spurred on by record-breaking illegal campaign contributions and corrupt lobbying.
  • do more damage to the electoral prospects of other Democrats than any president of his party since Grover Cleveland.
  • engage with his associates in an unprecedented series of corrupt acts that discredited his office, his party and the nation.

The media's role would be more excusable if after all this time it had at least admitted that something truly had gone amiss. Instead it has been busy creating yet another fantasy, namely that if it weren't for sex, haste, and the Internet everything in journalism would still be fine

This is certainly the theory put forth by the Columbia Journalism Review, formerly an interesting trade publication, but lately a sort of Modern Maturity for prematurely aging journalists. In the most recent issue it turned over six pages so Jules Witcover could ruminate on "Where We Went Wrong."

Which sounds hopeful until you discover that Witcover, like many of his colleagues, thinks the Clinton scandal story began this January. He wrote, "Unlike the Watergate scandal . . .this scandal broke like a thunderclap. . . "

For the rest of the article --whether out of ignorance or denial -- Witcover continues to act as though there had not been three dozen Clintonista indictments, convictions or guilty pleas; as if Kenneth Starr had done nothing prior to the arrival of Monica Lewinsky; as though Arkansas doesn't exist and as though nothing was at issue but sex and not telling the truth about it.

This is an extraordinary distortion of the matter. In fact, over the past six years, issues raised by special prosecutors, members of Congress and/or investigative reporters have include alleged bank and mail fraud, violations of campaign finance laws, illegal foreign campaign funding, improper exports of sensitive technology, physical violence and threats of violence, solicitation of perjury, intimidation of witnesses, bribery of witnesses, attempted intimidation of prosecutors, perjury before congressional committees, lying in statements to federal investigators and regulatory officials, flight of witnesses, obstruction of justice, bribery of cabinet members, real estate fraud, tax fraud, securities fraud, drug trafficking, failure to investigate drug trafficking, bribery of state officials, use of state police for personal purposes, exchange of promotions or benefits for sexual favors, using state police to provide false court testimony, laundering of drug money through a state agency, false reports by medical examiners and others investigating suspicious deaths, the firing of the RTC and FBI director when these agencies were investigating Clinton and his associates, failure to conduct autopsies in suspicious deaths, providing jobs in return for silence by witnesses, drug abuse, illegal acquisition and use of 900 FBI files, illegal futures trading, murder, sexual abuse of employees, false testimony before a federal judge, shredding of documents, withholding and concealment of subpoenaed documents, fabricated charges against (and improper firing of) White House employees, as well as providing access to the White House to drug traffickers, foreign agents and participants in organized crime.

Witcover, to be sure, does sense that something is wrong, but in searching for it he either engages in manic scab-picking of ephemeral details (similar to that of the cable faces he detests so much) or he launches into pompous tantrums:

Such mixing of journalistic pretenders side-by-side with established, proven professional practitioners [on cable] gives the audience a deplorably disturbing picture of a news business that already struggles under public skepticism, cynicism, and disaffection. . .

Like proven professional practitioners everywhere, Witcover believes God is in the process rather than in the results. For this reason, he fails to notice that he and his colleagues have, for six long and sorry years, simply missed the story.

I'm not sure it even matters that much to him. A few months earlier, CJR let Witcover take on Sy Hersh. He didn't seem to care whether Hersh had come up with the truth about Kennedy, only that he didn't do it in a "professional" manner. In fact, Hersh's efforts have brought us far closer to the truth than did spayed scribes in the Witcover mold or what he praises as the New York Times' "esteemed screening process for accuracy, fairness, and propriety."

The editor of CJR recently displayed her own esteemed screening process by attacking Matt Drudge without ever reading him. Joan Konner does, however, read the Times and wrote a piece that ended up with this summation that someone should have screened:

People are talking about their New York Times -- and not just in and around New York -- because it means so much to them. The New York Times is, for so many of us, our perpetual dinner party, our shared cultural blankee, our validated passport to the outside world.

Don't laugh or wretch; she's a professional. Which is one reason you won't find in CJR stories that ask, for example:

Why did the media buy with so little skepticism the neo-liberal economic paradigm? Why are critics of this paradigm so seldom quoted?

Why won't the media tell the public that there's just as much public money available for social security as there is for the Pentagon should our politicians choose to use it that way?

Should adulterous journalists be assigned to cover Clinton's sex problems?

In a country where only about a quarter of the voters think the two parties offer a decent political choice, why does the media so steadfastly refuse to report on alternatives to these two parties?

Along with his boss, Witcover doesn't worry about such things. Instead, he implies that everything would regain its balance if weren't for the likes of the egregious Matt Drudge, "a reckless trader in rumor and gossip who makes no pretense of checking on the accuracy of what he reports."

Witcover would have us believe that there was a time -- before Drudge and the Internet -- when journalism was a honorable activity in which no one went looking for a restroom without first asking directions from at least two sources (unless, of course, one of the sources was a government official), in which every word was checked for fairness, and in which nothing made the prints without being thoroughly verified.

There may have been such a time but it wasn't, for example, on January 20, 1925, when the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial declaring that:

A newspaper is a private enterprise, owing nothing whatever to the public, which grants it no franchise. It is therefore affected with no public interest. It is emphatically the property of the owner who is selling a manufactured product at his own risk.

Nor was it a decade or so later when a Washington correspondent admitted:

Policy orders? I never get them; but I don't need them. The make-up of the paper is a policy order. . I can tell what they want by watching the play they give to my stories.

Nor when George Seldes testified before the National Labor Relations Board on behalf of the Newspaper Guild which was then trying to organize the New York Times. The managing editor of the Times came up to Seldes afterwards and said, "Well, George, I guess your name will never again be mentioned in the Times."

Nor when William Randolph Hearst, according to his biographer David Nasaw, "sent undercover reporters onto the nation's campuses to identify the 'pinko academics' who were aiding and abetting the 'communistic' New Deal. During the election campaign of 1936, he accused Roosevelt of being Stalin's chosen candidate."

There was, too be sure, a better side, including those who hewed to the standard described recently by William Safire in a talk at Harvard:

I hold that what used to be the crime of sedition -- the deliberate bringing of the government into disrepute, the divisive undermining of public confidence in our leaders, the outrageous assaulting of our most revered institutions -- is a glorious part of the American democratic heritage.

In either case, though, Adam Goodheart, of Civilization magazine wrote recently:

Journalism didn't truly become a respectable profession until after World War II, when political journalism came to be dominated by a few big newspapers, networks and news services. These outlets cultivated an impartiality that, in a market with few rivals, makes sense. They also cultivated the myth that the American press had always (with a few deplorable exceptions, of course) been a model of decorum. But it wasn't this sort of press that the framers of the Bill of Rights set out to protect. It was, rather, a press that called Washington an incompetent, Adams a tyrant and Jefferson a fornicator. And it was that rambunctious sort of press that, in contrast to the more genteel European periodicals of the day, came to be seen as proof of America's republican vitality.

In the late 1930s a survey asked Washington journalists for their reaction to the following statement:

It is almost impossible to be objective. You read your paper, notice its editorials, get praised for some stories and criticized for others. You 'sense policy' and are psychologically driven to slant the stories accordingly.

Sixty percent of the respondents agreed. Today's journalists are taught instead to perpetuate a lie: that through alleged professional mysteries you can achieve an objectivity that not even a Graham, Murdoch, or Turner can sway. Well, most of the time it doesn't work, if for no other reason than in the end someone else picks what gets covered and how the paper is laid out.

There were other differences 60 years ago. Nearly 40% of the Washington correspondents surveyed were born in towns of less than 2500 population, and only 16% came from towns of 100,000 or more. In 1936, the Socialist candidate for president was supported by 5% of the Washington journalists polled and one even cast a ballot for the Communists. One third of Washington correspondents, the cream of the trade, lacked a college degree in 1937. Even when I entered journalism in the 1950s, over half of all reporters in the country still had less than a college degree.

In truth the days for which Witcover yearns never existed. What did exist was much more competition in the news industry. If you didn't like the Washington Post, for example, you could read the Times Herald, the Daily News or the Star. While the number of radio stations in my town has remained fairly steady, it has been only recently that 21 local outlets have been owned by only five corporations.

By the 1980s, most of what Americans saw, read, or heard was controlled by fewer than two dozen corporations. By the 1990s just five corporations controlled all or part of 26 cable channels. Some 75% of all dailies are now in the hands of chains and just four of these chains own 21% of all the country's daily papers.

Today's diuretic discourse over journalistic values largely reflects an attempt to justify the unjustifiable, namely the rapid decline of independent sources of information and the monopolization of the vaunted "market place of ideas." In the end, the hated Internet is a far better heir of Peter Zenger, Thomas Paine, Frederick Douglass, and Mark Twain than is the the typical American daily or TV channel; and H.L. Mencken would infinitely prefer a drink with Matt Drudge than with Ted Koppel.

The basic rules of good journalism in any time are fairly simple: tell the story right, tell it well and, in the words of the late New Yorker editor, Harold Ross, "if you can't be funny, be interesting."

The idea that the journalist is engaged in a professional procedure like surgery or a lawsuit leads to little but tedium, distortion, and delusion. Far better to risk imperfection than to have quality so carefully controlled that only banality and official truths are permitted.

In the end journalism tends to be either an art or just one more technocratic mechanism for restraining, ritualizing, and ultimately destroying thought and reality.

If it is the latter, the media will take its polls and all it will hear is its own echo. If it is the former, the journalist listens for truth rather than to rules -- and reality, democracy, and decency are all better for it.

Which may be one reason that it was a novelist who scooped us all in explaining Clinton and his crowd:

It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people -- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

But then F. Scott Fitzsgerald would never have made it in contemporary journalism. For him, the real story was too important. -- Sam Smith