Journalist, Heal Thyself

Journalist, Heal Thyself
by L. Brent Bozell III
May 7, 1997

Am I dreaming? Has the whole world gone mad? Are the liberal media really running down Congressman Dan Burton for a lack of objectivity, and the use of selective editing?

Let's be clear here. These are not offenses if you're working for this country's "objective" press. They're cherished professional requirements. How could the liberal media get through the day without tendentious bias and selective editing? If you take the coverage of Dan Burton himself and his release of prison transcripts starring Webster Hubbell, the shameless crook who was once the number-three law enforcement official in America, these three media tactics emerge:

1. Changing the Subject. The subject should have been Hubbell's statements on the tapes. Instead, reporters focused largely on the allegedly violated privacy of the poor crook and his spouse, even though ex-Associate Attorney General Hubbell was clearly aware that these conversations were taped and became government property. For years now, the media have presented Hubbell as a sympathetic victim of someone - Ken Starr, House Republicans, even the Clintons. But Hubbell is just a thief, and a stupid thief at that. First, he stole almost half a million dollars from his law partners. (Where were the stories about them?) Then, the President's buddies ponied up more than $700,000 for him after he was pushed to resign and before he was slated to cooperate with the Whitewater grand jury. (Who said crime doesn't pay?) Then, despite receiving more than $1 million in 1994, this scoundrel cheated the public again by paying less than $30,000 in taxes, and now stands charged with failing to pay nearly $900,000 in taxes, interest, and penalties. The new Hubbell indictment notes that the Hubbells spent $750,000 on personal items between 1994 and 1997, including clothing, private school tuition, and domestic help. But the media have ignored this, preferring to make them look like victims impoverished by lawyers responding to Clinton-hating investigators.

Let's not forget that Hubbell took the Fifth and refused to testify before Burton's committee, and yet somehow Burton is the evil one. Burton's Government Reform and Oversight Committee stands charged with investigating potential lawbreaking, and is frustrated by 53 Democratic fundraisers taking the Fifth, and 39 witnesses fleeing the country, not to mention 19 committee Democrats who refused to immunize four witnesses cleared by Clinton's own Justice Department. And yet the media focuses on the ethics of Chairman Burton. Unbelievable.

2. Bad Public Relations Instincts. Burton, like Ken Starr before him, was attacked by the liberal media as a P.R. bumbler. On "Nightline," Ted Koppel began: "Tonight, the bumbling of the Hubbell tapes. How evidence of a cover-up may be lost amid political squabbling." Reporter Chris Bury seconded Koppel's amnesiac urgings: "Now the tapes will be remembered less for what they reveal than for the controversy they generated and the President once again has been blessed by the bumbling of his enemies." That's awfully coy. Who fancies themselves as the arbiters of what gets remembered and what's easily forgotten?

In truth, Burton did bumble in failing to expect the liberal media to center their outrage machine on his conduct. (Of course, he could have appeased the press and avoided the attacks by shifting the news focus from investigating the President to pandering to liberal policy pipe dreams - see Sen. John McCain.)

3. The "Even" Republicans. Watch out for that pathetic breed the media identify as the "Even" Republicans. CBS's Bob Schieffer charged the release of the Hubbell tapes disturbed "even some Burton supporters." Schieffer concluded: "One Republican told us it's gone beyond being a matter of concern in the House, this is a problem now for all Republicans, Dan." Liberal critics constantly whine about anonymous sources on the Clinton scandals, but wouldn't it be refreshing to see this anonymous weasel actually named?

Not to be outdone by the other networks, CNN President/Clinton golfing buddy Rick Kaplan scheduled an hour-long special on Burton's offenses, which began with Bruce Morton comparing Burton to Oliver Cromwell, the English despot. In the midst of this in-the-tank special, CNN political analyst Bill Schneider complained: "I think the press was far too quick to use these tapes without proper warnings that they were not complete and they came from a partisan source." If that was true, the network news shows ought to all begin every night with this disclaimer about their own product.

But Schneider was wrong. As National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru and John J. Miller reported online, journalists had access to the full tapes as well as the committee's highlights: "In other words, the committee's condensation was really a sort of guide to the highlights of the tape. And even that condensation included passages put there at [liberal ranking member Henry] Waxman's request." So who's more guilty of misleading the American people with selective editing? Journalist, heal thyself.