Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Picture This

It's hard to even imagine a journalist engaging in this kind of behavior:

The heart of Brill's complaint is that the press has failed in its First Amendment responsibility to provide "a check on the abuse of power," specifically the power of the independent counsel. He is dead right about where the press went wrong, but the reasons for this dereliction are more complex than he seems to imagine. He believes certain reporters were simply captured by their best source in the tumult of a competitive breaking story. Yet other motivations are equally important. At the Washington Post, for instance, there is a palpable desire to relive the glorious Watergate experience of deposing a president. At the New York Times, there is an equally powerful impulse to even the old score with the Post, which beat the paper of record badly during Nixon's final days. And at both papers, there exists a feeling of indebtedness to Starr, who helped the Times and the Post escape libel judgments in the not-so-distant past. Insofar as those two newspapers shape coverage of every important story, especially in Washington, their biases are reproduced on television and in other media across the country.

To those few journalists who regard Whitewater and the other "Clinton scandals" with doubt, it was evident long before anyone heard of Monica Lewinsky that Starr enjoyed undue influence at the commanding heights of the news industry. I learned that firsthand in April 1996, after Murray Waas and I published an article in the Nation about Starr's conflicts of interest. Among the most hostile responses was a telephone call from ABC producer Chris Vlasto, who has worked the Clinton scandal beat at the network for several years. After swiftly dismissing our story, Vlasto proceeded to berate me for criticizing Starr, and condescended to inform me that the corrupt liars were in the White House, not the independent counsel's office.

The possibility that Clinton and Starr both might need skeptical interrogation evidently didn't occur to Vlasto, who works closely with ABC White House correspondent Jackie Judd. Two years later, as Brill notes witheringly in "Pressgate," it was Judd who became one of the most eager purveyors of Starr-inspired leaks and anti-Clinton rumors, including the now-legendary "semen-stained dress" fiasco. But to the extent that Judd and her producer were vulnerable to manipulation by Starr, these people were hardly alone. As Howard Kurtz makes clear in his account of the White House press corps in "Spin Cycle," frustration about Clinton's seeming invulnerability to scandal was growing for months and years before it finally exploded in the Lewinsky blowup. So the press's outraged reaction to Brill's challenge is hardly surprising; they were hoping to bring down the president, a goal so evidently noble that any and all means were justified -- including taking dictation from the independent counsel.

Nor is it surprising that many, if not most, journalists are unable to endure the kind of criticism they routinely dish out. Last year, the Washington Post's editors were predictably furious when they learned that Hillary Rodham Clinton had once commissioned an analysis of flaws in the scandal reporting of Susan Schmidt, a Post reporter she felt was biased against the White House. That project was swiftly killed by Press Secretary Mike McCurry because he understood, quite correctly, that to question the fairness of an elite news organization would be "crazy," tantamount to public relations suicide.

Of course, now the press regularly has their fairness questioned by the White House, and they respond as ordered.

And there's this:
Columnist Gene Lyons--who has written widely, for Harpers magazine, the Internet journal Salon, and in book form, exposing the right-wing elements behind Whitewater and the Starr investigation--reveals a link between Starr's office, the Wall Street Journal and ABC television.

Lyons recalls that on April 23, 1998, Susan McDougal appeared before a Little Rock grand jury to answer questions about the Clintons and Whitewater. Her refusal to testify that day forms the basis for the current trial on criminal contempt charges.

That same day an op-ed column appeared in the Wall Street Journal under the headline "When Susan McDougal Almost Talked," written by Chris Vlasto, a producer for ABC News. The column opened with the lead sentence, attributed to Susan McDougal: "I know where all the bodies are buried." In his account, Vlasto claimed that McDougal had insinuated to him in off the record remarks in 1994 that she had dirt on the Clintons.

McDougal has denied ever being alone with Vlasto during a meeting in New York or talking to him about "buried bodies." Her account is backed by two other witnesses. But at her grand jury interrogation last year, Starr's prosecutors presented the Wall Street Journal article--published that very day, through coordination between the independent counsel and the Journal's editorial office--as proof that McDougal was hiding important facts about Whitewater. With jurors watching they placed the article in front of McDougal, drawing attention to the headline. Prosecutors later introduced the op-ed piece as evidence.

Vlasto's personal role raises many questions. It is highly unusual, to say the least, for a network television producer to write an article in a competing medium about what a source allegedly told him in confidence. His column was not Vlasto's only effort, not merely to report on events, but to shape them. According to Jim McDougal, after his Whitewater conviction Vlasto approached him and urged him to cooperate with the special prosecutor. "You don't have to go out this way," Vlasto said. "If you walk in to see Ken Starr, he will greet you with open arms."

In his capacity as an ABC journalist Vlasto produced the reports by correspondent Jackie Judd about the semen-stained dress saved by Monica Lewinsky. Last week Judd and Vlasto were joint recipients of an award from the Radio and Television Correspondents Association in Washington for having the best "scoop" of 1998. The source of this report was undoubtedly Starr's office, which knew of the dress from the testimony and tape recordings supplied by Linda Tripp.