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Spotlight's Glare Falls on Media Pundits

April 23, 1998|PAUL D. COLFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the ancient days before CNN, CNBC, MSNBC, the Fox News Channel and the many network news shows offered political spin and speculation around the clock, columnist Stuart Taylor Jr. might have attracted little media attention for turning down a job in the public sector.

But like so many print commentators these days, Taylor, a National Journal columnist who also writes for Legal Times and Newsweek, has elevated his profile by appearing often on TV--and often to criticize President Clinton. So the revelation in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal three weeks ago that he had considered a position last month on the staff of independent counsel Kenneth Starr set off the kind of soul searching and finger pointing that increasingly turns the media into a spectator sport.

In this week's National Journal, the influential Washington-based weekly of politics and government, Taylor apologizes to his colleagues and to readers for failing to disclose that he had seriously considered the job offer and inviting suspicions that he "had (and was hiding) a conflict of interest." In fact, Taylor says, he's innocent of any conflict of interest because his discussions with Starr did not and will not influence what he writes.

However, Taylor goes on to say that he's guilty of judgment errors, having done two columns about Starr's investigation without disclosing that he had contemplated the job, which would have involved work on the report that the counsel's office will likely submit to Congress.

In a column that appeared in the issue of April 4, a few days after Taylor decided not to join Starr's staff, he dismissed the so-called conventional wisdom of late, which holds that an impeachment of Clinton is politically inconceivable. Starr "is everything that Clinton is not: honest, principled, and utterly inept at spin," Taylor wrote.

Taylor, who wrote a seminal piece in the American Lawyer two years ago that gave newfound credence to Paula Corbin Jones' sexual-harassment charge against the president, initially claimed that he had done nothing improper with regard to the job with Starr. But the columnist was vilified by top-level Clinton advisers such as Paul Begala, who decried the Taylor-Starr courtship as "a massive conflict."

"Stuart Taylor is one of the two or three most gifted writers on legal issues," said Tom Goldstein, dean of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. "I think he made a mistake, I think he understands that, and he may be overcompensating for that."

Nevertheless, Taylor, a Harvard Law School graduate, has lost his position as a legal analyst on "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" because, the PBS anchor said on the air last week, "Stuart's recent commentaries in print and other TV programs about the Starr investigation have caused some blurring of the lines and some confusion about his role with us."

Although Taylor conceded that Lehrer felt he had to do something, the columnist said he finds it curious that his multiple roles in the media--as legal analyst, news commentator and opinionated columnist--made Lehrer uncomfortable only now. "I left the New York Times in 1988," Taylor said this week, "and it's been no secret that virtually everything I've written since then has contained commentary--that is, opinions growing out of reporting and analysis."

The Taylor dust-up may draw attention to one of the more awkward trends in the media today--the shuttling by journalists between their own reporting assignments and the opinion-floating talk shows.

On the one hand, TV exposure can give a reporter a helpful edge with sources in the competitive news arena, and many publications seek broadcast appearances for their staffers because of the publicity value. On the other hand, a gatherer of facts can blur his or her journalistic role by presenting opinions on a TV roundtable.

Editor and publisher Steven Brill said one of the first pieces that will run in Content, the media-watchdog magazine that he plans to launch in June, will review the weeks after Monica Lewinsky became a household name--"when print reporters were being reporters of fact by day and voices of opinions (on TV) by night." (In the spirit of full disclosure, this reporter has discussed media stories many times on CNN and other broadcast outlets.)

"It's a big issue," added Brill, who is a friend of Taylor and used to be his editor at the American Lawyer. "If Stuart had only been National Journal's legal analyst, and he had disclosed his conflict there, it would have been different for him."

At the same time, Brill raised the thornier question of what might have happened at National Journal if Taylor had disclosed his job talks with Starr immediately. "With disclosure would have come another problem," Brill said. "I would have encouraged him strongly, or prevented him, from writing the column for a while."

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