Campaign Reform? What Media Chutzpah!

Campaign Reform? What Media Chutzpah!
by L. Brent Bozell III
September 25, 1997

ABC White House reporter John Donvan said something crucial on CNN's "Talk Back Live" last week. He explained that Paul Friedman, the Executive Producer of ABC's "World News Tonight," has decided the Paula Jones lawsuit is to be mostly ignored, that unless "it matters to the public, that he will make the choice not to do the story." Lost on Donvan (and presumably Friedman, too) was the arrogance in the bold declaration that the press will decide what the public wants. Underscoring that elitism, Donvan declared later that "I've always disagreed with the notion that the news happens to us. We make decisions about it."

The network coverage - an oxymoron when referencing Clinton scandals - of the Thompson hearings illustrates Donvan's point, and explains why the hearings were doomed from the start. Reporters suddenly claimed that witnesses would require marquee value before receiving coverage, a litmus test absent from the journalistic rules of conduct when an unknown lieutentant colonel testified on Iran-Contra in 1987. So what qualifies as "marquee value"? Not the chairman of the DNC and not the National Security Adviser. Worst of all, reporters then used their own spotty coverage as proof of the hearings' failure. As CNN's Candy Crowley claimed: "Even if Thompson should turn up a blockbuster revelation, will anyone know? Relatively few people are watching and front-page coverage is spotty."

On September 9, ABC signaled how the networks were spinning the story in sync with the Democratic Party line. Reporter Linda Douglass suggested: "Today, one Democratic Senator held out an olive branch to Senator Thompson. He said 'Look, forget the Chinese plot. The hearings are important because they're exposing the evil influence of money in politics.' At that moment, Senator Thompson's face relaxed. He said then he was sorry if he left the wrong impression. And it's clear that many of the Senators want to defuse the partisan warfare and get this whole messy issue behind them." Peter Jennings' reply was priceless: "That will be a relief to the public."

Thus, hearings were only useful to the extent that they buried the focus on Democratic wrongdoing and led to passage of a campaign finance "reform" bill. When Roger Tamraz offered his colorful testimony, what was the salient point? It wasn't the solid proof of a White House out of control, violating national security procedures at every turn. No, Tamraz was "a walking ad for campaign reform," said Bob Schieffer on CBS.

On ABC, they went even further, actually using that testimony to attack the GOP! Peter Jennings declared: "Even with all this cynicism about fundraising, some would say disgust, Republicans have been unwilling to bring any campaign finance reform bill to the floor." Reporter John Cochran explained the GOP was trying not "to be seen as stonewalling against campaign finance reform."

Stonewalling? For months, the Democrats have stonewalled the Republicans' attempts to get to the bottom of the fundraising scandal, just as they've stonewalled Republican to get to the bottom of Whitewater, Travelgate, Ron Brown, Trooperagate, and a mountain of other scandals. And now the reporters pull out the word "stonewalling" now and apply it to Republicans?

Shades of labels past. In the second term of the Reagan administration and throughout the Bush years, the favorite press mantra was the "sleaze factor." Every time anyone remotely connected with the administration hiccupeped, the dreaded "sleaze factor" was trotted out, enough so that Bill Clinton would run for president on the issue, eventually promising "the most ethical administration in history" as an antidote. Quick. In the last five years, can you name me an instance when "sleaze factor" has ever been attributed to the Clinton administration?

Diverting the focus from the fundraising scandal to "reform" legislation isn't just bowing at the feet of Democratic damage controllers, it's a triumph of Clintonian chutzpah. Liberal corruption is transformed into the best excuse for liberal legislation. (Could you imagine the liberal media's reaction if the Republicans in 1987 had the chutzpah to suggest that the obvious answer to the problems of Iran-Contra was more Contra aid?) The laws that the DNC and the Clinton White House violated with abandon are the very laws that the Democrats elected right after Watergate passed to clean up the system. Shouldn't the Democrats be held a little more accountable than the Republicans as they mangle their own handiwork?

The Republicans should be having a field day. Lady Luck doesn't put in this kind of overtime, year after year providing the GOP with one opportunity after another to filet the opposition. It is amazing testimony to the brazenness of Bill Clinton, who will lie with abandon, and the national news media, which will insulate him from public scrutiny no matter what, that he's still in office. And it's apparent the Republicans have no earthly idea what to do about it.