No News Here at Martha's Vineyard
Bill Clinton may be resting, but the reporters in his entourage seem restless. On Tuesday's This Morning, CBS reporter Bill Plante suggested: "It's August and there's not much news anywhere, let alone here on Martha's Vineyard. Things are so slow that the press corps covered the President's golf scores as though they were part of a congressional investigation into, well, campaign fundraising." Back in Washington, however, new developments in the Clinton scandals are still seeping out slowly with little sense of media urgency:
Hazel's Chung Change. Often the slowest network off the mark on the fundraising scandal, NBC actually broke news last Tuesday with Johnny Chung's declaration that he was asked to donate $25,000 to Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary's favorite charity (Africare) as the price of admission to a meeting.
In a half-page item this week, Newsweek suggests Chung's accusation could trigger an independent counsel, since cabinet officials are "covered" under the law. But none of the other networks (of for that matter NBC's Today show) featured a story on the O'Leary charge. Tuesday's CNN newscast The World Today did air a full report from Brooks Jackson on the Federal Election Commission's investigation of the Christian Coalition. The FEC is seeking to prove the Coalition coordinated efforts with the 1992 Bush campaign, such as discussing the distribution of voter guides.
On ABC's This Week, former Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos claimed the Chung allegations were "very serious" and qualified as a trigger for an independent counsel. But ABC did nothing, even as Good Morning America found time for a story on how McDonald's may drop the Arch Deluxe burger and another interview about the JonBenet Ramsey murder.
Why no O'Leary coverage? It helps to remember that the number of stories each network has done in the last three years on the independent-counsel examinations of former Clinton cabinet secretaries Mike Espy and Henry Cisneros can be counted on one hand.
Teamster Funny Money. On Friday, federally appointed election monitor Barbara Zack Quindel overturned the December 1996 election of Teamster President Ron Carey for "extraordinary" misconduct through "a complex network of schemes to funnel employer and [union] funds into the Carey campaign." The networks each aired a story, but didn't question the watchdog's timing: In a prepared statement, Quindel said she reached her decision before the UPS strike began August 4, but delayed an announcement to avoid making it a factor in the strike.
The DNC Connection. On Saturday morning, The Washington Post added that the Justice Department is investi-gating whether officials at the Democratic National Committee improperly directed contributions to Carey's campaign. When the story was covered, it came wrapped in Democratic denials. On Saturday's CBS Evening News, Plante told substitute anchor Sharyl Attkisson: "The Democratic National Committee did say it doesn't believe that any commitments were made or any plan implemented. And the White House special counsel says that to the Administration's best knowledge, no one there was involved in any such deal."
On CNN's The World Today, Jeanne Meserve led the show's lone anchor brief on the story with the White House denial: "A White House official tells CNN he has no knowledge of a [DNC] plan to help Teamsters President Ron Carey in his election last year. White House lawyer Lanny Davis says he has no idea why a senior Clinton aide's name is mentioned in notes describing such a plan."
Reporters put Ronald Reagan in what could be called an Iran-Contra vise: the President was either plotting malfeasance or was an out-of-the-loop dolt who was unfit to control a malfeasant White House. In the Clinton era, reporters simply forward denials without assessing how realistic they are in light of Clinton's micro-management of the campaign's finances, including the creation of the White House Office Data Base.
Carey Plays Dumb. TV reporters haven't made much of Carey's declarations of ignorance, either. The Washington Times reported Carey personally authorized four checks totaling $735,000, some of whose proceeds made their way back into the Carey campaign. Quindel's report singled out Carey's campaign manager Jere Nash, but Carey even claimed he didn't know his own campaign manager was working half-time for the Clinton-Gore campaign. Nash's indictment in July drew no network coverage until last weekend.
Citizen Inaction. Carey also claimed he didn't remember signing a check for $475,000 to the liberal group Citizen Action, which indirectly funneled $75,000 into the Carey campaign. Quindel called Carey's claims "surprising" considering it was "by far the largest single contribution made by the [union] during the 1996 public elections." The national media have still largely ignored Citizen Action - even though election monitor Quindel is married to a member of the board of the Wisconsin branch of Citizen Action. Last Friday, Washington Post reporter Ceci Connolly wrote an entire story on Citizen Action's latest critique of big corporations' campaign donations - without any mention of the group's Teamster dealings.
Troopers for Sale? Also on Friday, The Washington Times reported that former Arkansas state trooper L.D. Brown sent a letter to independent counsel Kenneth Starr saying he's prepared to testify that a man approached him in London on June 16 and offered him $100,000 and a job to influence his testimony in the Whitewater investigation. Brown has told prosecutors he overheard Clinton asking Whitewater figure David Hale for financial help. The Brown story was ignored by the rest of the national media, broadcast and print.
On Friday, former trooper Roger Perry appeared on CNN's Burden of Proof program to discuss former trooper Danny Ferguson's stories to him about Paula Jones. Perry said Ferguson told him he'd been offered a federal job at the time Perry cooperated on Troopergate investigations by The American Spectator and the Los Angeles Times. Perry added that Ferguson even traveled to Seattle to meet with Clinton. But illegal jobs-for-silence offers still have not interested the news media.
When do the troopers get in the news? When they retract their stories. On July 15, NBC's Dateline aired a long feature on trooper Ronald Anderson, one of the troopers who spoke to the Spectator in 1993. Reporter Chris Hansen asked Anderson: "These allegations painted Bill Clinton as being reckless, being involved in multiple affairs, as being sexually out of control. Did any of this really happen?" Anderson answered: "Not in my presence it didn't." Hansen underlined: "And Anderson spent a lot of time in Clinton's presence. He helped protect the governor for nearly eight years, often around the clock."
Job offers were newsworthy - when made by Clinton's adversaries. Hansen (who wrongly called the Spectator "an ultraconservative newspaper" in a promotional segment on Today) claimed lawyer Cliff Jackson, who promoted the troopers' stories to the media, "promised to find the troopers high-paying jobs if they got fired for telling their stories." Hansen asked Anderson: "What did it say to you that Cliff Jackson was willing to promise you jobs in exchange for going public with these stories about Bill Clinton?" Hansen did note Jackson, who wouldn't talk to NBC, had said he only promised to try to get the troopers new jobs if they were fired for talking.
Hansen concluded his interview: "When you boil all this down, is this just about Little Rock politics? Cliff Jackson taking on Bill Clinton and some guys who thought they could make some big-time money by telling their story?" Anderson replied: "That's it rolled up in a nutshell." A story that could yield multiple abuses of power was reduced to nothing more than a personal grudge match. - Tim Graham