CyberAlert -- 06/16/1998 -- Starr's "Secret Briefings" Alarm Reporters Who Already Knew About Them
Starr's "Secret Briefings" Alarm Reporters Who Already Knew About Them
1) "Hasn't Starr handed the White House an enormous political opportunity?" asked ABC's Charles Gibson. Yes, as the media make a big issue of what Dan Rather ominously dubbed "secret briefings." But Lawrence Walsh did the same thing, as only one reporter noted.
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Clarification: The last item in the June 15 CyberAlert featured Rush Limbaugh's endorsement of Content magazine and declared: "I hope he's learned his lesson: Don't endorse a product until you've seen it." I think this came out more strident and personal than I intended. Many, including myself, seem to have misjudged the expected content of Content and it is Steve Brill who should be criticized for not delivering what he promised, not Limbaugh for believing in Brill.
Network news took on a surreal quality Monday night as all the networks reported as hot news that Ken Starr admitted he and a colleague talked to reporters. Dan Rather ominously referred to his "secret briefings." But the reporters involved and their colleagues knew the contacts occurred, so if they were so troubling and newsworthy why didn't anyone report them months ago? In a way Steve Brill did upset the Washington media norms by putting into play something everybody knew but had decided journalistic rules on protecting sources prevented them from reporting. But if everyone knew the independent counsel's office was feeding information to reporters why are Starr's comments even news?
Monday night CBS, CNN and FNC led with the controversy over Starr's comments to Brill. ABC began with U.S./NATO operations to quell violence in Kosovo and the Dow plummeting 200 points topped NBC. CNN and FNC, but not the broadcast networks, highlighted Steven Brill's record of contributions to Democrats, including the Clinton-Gore campaign. Here are some highlights from the Monday, June 15 evening shows:
-- ABC's World News Tonight devoted the A Closer Look segment to Starr. Anchor Charles Gibson noted that Judge Norma Holloway Johnson had summoned all the lawyers to her court, then set up the segment: "There are really two major questions at play here. Was it legal for Kenneth Starr or his employees to talk to reporters the way they did? And by admitting he did talk to reporters hasn't Kenneth Starr handed the White House an enormous political opportunity?"
The answer to the second is yes, but only if the media play along as they are and treat his talking to reporters as something improper.
Starr's past assurances that his office did not leak or could not
comment on a particular matter and how Clinton lawyer David Kendall had
filed a complaint about leaks from Starr's office. Gibson asserted:
In other words, we won't bother exploring whether he did anything illegal. If he didn't then shouldn't the story die? Instead, ABC stuck to politics. Gibson discussed the impact with Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts. Donaldson relayed that White House officials "believe Starr has turned the dagger on himself." Their strategy is to delay and change the subject and Starr, Donaldson charged, is playing into their game plan. Capitol Hill is baffled about why Starr talked to Brill, Roberts reported.
Evening News. Dan Rather opened dramatically:
Scott Pelley summarized the Content story, ran a soundbite from Mike McCurry and relayed Starr's denial of any wrongdoing. But Pelley showed how unnewsworthy the whole matter is, pointing out a historical note the other networks skipped: "There is precedent for this. Former independent counsel Lawrence Walsh says he often briefed reporters so the taxpayers would know what he was up to."
-- CNN's The World Today. Co-anchor Jim Moret announced at the top of the 8pm ET show: "The independent counsel. Questions about whether his interview with this magazine reveals he broke the law."
began with the same theme which put the burden on Starr: "Did
independent counsel Ken Starr break the law when he talked to reporters
about the Monica Lewinsky investigation? Well, that depends."
Immediately after Thomas finished co-anchor Joie Chen took a few seconds to tell viewers about Brill's Democrats-only donation policy: "CNN's check of Federal Election Commission records shows that Content Editor Steven Brill gave $1,000 to the Clinton-Gore campaign in 1995. He also gave more than $9,000 to various Democratic candidates for Congress since 1992. There were no donations to Republican candidates."
-- FNC's Fox
Report at 7pm ET started with David Shuster on the Starr controversy.
After presenting the White House complaint, Shuster uniquely pointed out
that Starr talked with reporters in the first days of the scandal to
correct false allegations made by Clintonites of prosecutorial misconduct
over how Lewinsky was supposedly detained against her will. Like CNN,
Shuster also raised Brill's record of putting his money into the hands
(Today's CyberAlert is 2,100 words, so Brill's treatise is equal to about 12 CyberAlerts.)
Later, Eric Burns provided an outline of Brill's allegations which Burns said "are damning if not new." Burns concluded: "Steven Brill's story is one-sided, which means one of two things. Either the facts are one-sided or this interpretation of them is." Next, the anchors discussed the story fallout with Matthew Rees of The Weekly Standard.
-- NBC Nightly
News. Unlike ABC, CBS and CNN Tom Brokaw refrained from putting the burden
on Starr to prove he did not do something illegal, not giving an advantage
to either side:
This from the reporter Brill disparaged for performing "lapdog-like work" for Starr. In this case I bet that "one source" is closer to the Oval Office than Starr's office.
Monday morning Today went to the Starr matter right at the top of the show, devoting both interview segments in the first half hour to the controversy. ABC's Good Morning America, MRC analyst Clay Waters observed, encapsulated the imbalance of the White House versus Starr public relations battle. No one from Starr's side appeared, but GMA dedicated an interview segment to former White House scandal flack Lanny Davis.
Matt Lauer opened
Today by asking about Starr:
concluded his 7am news update piece by marveling at how the controversy
had diverted attention from Clinton:
For the rest of the first half hour of the June 15 Today viewers saw Matt Lauer interview Steve Brill and Katie Couric talk with Newsweek's Jonathan Alter.
Lauer did challenge some of Brill's contentions and asked Brill to respond to Starr's retort, at one point noting: "The irony here is that you're writing an article about the recklessness of the press in covering the Lewinsky story and now you're being accused of being reckless with the facts in the article."
Alter argued to
Couric, as transcribed by MRC news analyst Geoffrey Dickens, that Starr
did do something very wrong:
If Starr leaking to reporters is such an awful transgression why didn't anyone in the media report that long ago? So reporters put their journalistic norms of never divulging a source and never naming a colleague's source ahead of the interest of blocking an independent counsel from abusing his power and unethically maligning the reputation of the President of the United States? If you follow the media logic that Starr abused his power by divulging secrets to reporters which thereby corrupted the judicial process, then reporters were partners in that corruption and are hardly in a moral position now to pass judgment on Starr. -- Brent Baker
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