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The Messenger Deserves a Share of the Blame

Media: The press has earned public contempt for sensational, salacious Starr probe coverage.

November 24, 1998|ROBERT SCHEER | Robert Scheer is a Times contributing editor. E-mail: rscheer@aol.com

So finally Kenneth Starr has admitted that the president is innocent. Yes, innocent on the Whitewater, Travelgate and Filegate charges that consumed the time of 28 attorneys and 78 FBI agents in a four-year investigation that to date has cost the taxpayers $45 million. Charges that have dogged the president from the first days of the 1992 primary have now turned out to be, after the most exhaustive inquiry of its kind, without foundation.

Yet that stunning admission was treated by the media, which have endlessly covered those pernicious charges against the president in a sensationalist manner, as a minor sidebar in the ongoing impeachment saga. It was as if six years of pre-Lewinsky scandals had never really mattered. Like Starr, the media, which once had attached such great importance to those scandals, now dismissed Clinton's exoneration as insignificant while seizing instead on Monicagate to justify years of pillorying the president.

A case in point is the New York Times, which launched the Whitewater investigation with a front page story in March 1992, during the early presidential primary battles. The story suggested that Clinton, as governor of Arkansas, and his wife were somehow involved in a savings and loan scandal. Whitewater became the basis of the appointment of the special prosecutor.

The Times aggressively pursued the Whitewater story over the next six years on its news and editorial pages. Reporter Jeff Gerth, who wrote the first Clinton Whitewater story, was proclaiming its plausibility as recently as April of this year in a front page article for the newspaper.

But the news that Starr's investigation of the Whitewater came to naught did not prompt any soul searching in the pages of the paper. A New York Times editorial last Friday merely stated: "Mr. Starr testified that he could not prove his suspicions about president and Mrs. Clinton on Whitewater and that he found no offenses by them on Travelgate and Filegate. This deck-clearing exercise was useful, but Mr. Starr failed to explain why he could not have settled those issues months or even years ago."

What odd phrasing, to dismiss as a "deck-clearing exercise" the full exoneration of Clinton on the main charges that had fueled a six-year attack on him. The editorial offered not one word of self-criticism. Instead, it seized on the Lewinsky matter to once again denigrate the president: "Mr. Clinton deserves to be punished in a way that writes his disgrace into the history books."

If the president deserves to be punished, what about the leading news organizations that used flimsy sources to besmirch the reputation of the president of the United States? The remaining charge against Clinton, that he shaded the truth to the point of perjury in concealing a private sexual liaison, pales in comparison with the media's betrayal of the public trust in a free press.

The New York Times is not alone in risking that trust. The Los Angeles Times was equally irresponsible in zealously exploiting the salacious claims of what came to be known as Troopergate. The Washington Post and its sister publication, Newsweek, led the way in printing leaks from Starr's office. All major news outlets competed in the race to the bottom, but clearly the Wall Street Journal editorial page won with its endorsement of the most fanciful conspiracy theories implicating the president.

All of the above errors and more were breathlessly posted on broadcasts as breaking news. And followers of the nonstop babble that passes for news gathering on the Internet and cable TV might accept the absurdity that Clinton had engaged in a misuse of government power comparable to Richard Nixon's planned deployment of the FBI, IRS and CIA in an attempt to destroy his political opponents.

Last week the New York Times editorialized against Clinton's "disrespect of the high office" he holds. What about the media's disrespect for its own high purpose as enshrined in the 1st Amendment?

After all, the founding fathers did not guarantee freedom of the press as a means of ensuring the sales and profitability of newspapers or advancing the careers or prejudices of editors and reporters. Clearly the overarching intent was to protect the media in the search for truth, a role hardly on display in the dangerous mischief that has passed for coverage of this presidency.

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