The Blog


12:00 AM, Oct 7, 1996 • By MICHAEL BARONE
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This is pretty much standard operating procedure in the mainline press: little or no truth-squadding of Clinton statements, little or no scrutiny of inconsistencies and policy switches. It just doesn't seem to occur to a monopartisan press that there could be stories here.

As for media scandal-mongering, start with the original Whitewater story. It was broken in March 1992 by Jeff Gerth in the New York Times but abandoned by just about everyone when the Clinton campaign presented an exonerating report written by a Clinton pal. Or recall the Washington Post's hesitancy to run the story of Clinton's abusing his office by using Arkansas state troopers to procure women -- a hesitancy that reached the point of fisticuffs between an editor who didn't want to run the story and a reporter who did. The Post finally ran it only after the American Spectator did. Similarly, new revelations are treated as "nothing new," scandal stories are dropped after one day, and the motives of Clinton's congressional supporters on scandals are not scrutinized. This is not exactly the way the press covered Watergate.

Or consider the mainline press's coverage of the Clinton White House's FBI files. These had been concealed for years and were only revealed when they were produced in response to a House-committee subpoena. The first story, that the White House had requested the FBI file of former White House travel office head Billy Dale almost a year after he had been fired, made page A-4 of the Washington Post and A-24 of the New York Times. The even more explosive story that the Clinton White House had obtained hundreds of FBI files of former Bush administration officials, made page A-8 of the June 8 New York Times, which even led with a White House official's statement that the request was "an innocent mistake"! Only as the count of FBI files reached past 300 to 900, and the administration's explanations of how they had been innocently obtained became totally implausible, did the FBI files make the front page of the Times.

So it has gone these past few weeks, in the heart of the campaign season. The FDIC inspector general issues a report saying Hillary Rodham Clinton prepared a document used to "deceive" federal regulators: It makes the front page of the Washington Post and Washington Times but is played up little elsewhere, and except for conservative outlets dropped after a day. This is not how a similar revelation about a Republican would have been played during the "decade of greed."

Bill Clinton in an interview with Jim Lehrer dangles a pardon in front of Whitewater defendants even as he makes the preposterous charge that Kenneth Starr is trying to force Susan McDougal to lie (preposterous because if she merely repeats her trial testimony she gets out of jail): The attack on Starr is given some uncritical play but the pardon ploy is mostly ignored, except by conservatives like William Satire. (It will be interesting to see whether reporters press Clinton to commit to making no pardons.)

The Senate Judiciary Committee reveals there is a six-month gap in the log of the White House's FBI files: A-10 in the Washington Post, no mention at all in a B-13 story on the subject in the New York Times. Not exactly the way the 18-and-a-half-minute gap in the White House tapes was treated. On scandal, as on policy issues, there is what Robert Samuelson in the Washington Post described as "an imbalance in election press coverage. Bob Dole's dubious claims have been examined closely and properly so," Samuelson continued. "But Clinton's deceptions have been largely ignored."

All of which is quite astonishing. It is inconceivable that a story that a Republican White House had improperly obtained hundreds of FBI files on its political enemies would not have immediately made the front pages of leading papers, quite possibly with screaming headlines. And it is a matter of record that mainline media now treat current congressional investigations as partisan Republican enterprises, even though they treated 1980s investigations run by Democrats as official and congressional.

People in the mainline media, remembering Watergate and Iran-contra, are exquisitely alert to the possibility of scandal in, and violations of civil liberties by, a Republican administration, but they evidently consider such developments so unlikely in a Democratic administration that they reflexively ignore or downplay any evidence of them. So, without necessarily any conscious partisan intention, they have a far less hearty appetite for stories of scandal in this administration, for which 89 percent of them voted, than they did in administrations that a similar percentage of them voted against.