MediaWatch: March 1997

Vol. Eleven No. 3

Janet Cooke Award: Martha Makes Nice, Not News

Who's Shooting the Messenger Now?

The White House insists: it doesn't matter whether a story is true or false, only who's telling it. On January 6, Wall Street Journal editorial writer Micah Morrison revealed the White House counsel's office report "Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce," a 331-page packet of photocopied articles and media food-chain theorizing.

Prepared at taxpayer expense in 1995, White House aides constructed an elaborate conspiracy theory of right-wing operatives landing anti-Clinton stories in the mainstream press. Clinton aides hoped to shame fellow liberals in the press, arguing that seeking to demystify White House scandals is to serve as a tool of the "far right."

None of the White House reporters handed the packet in 1995 noted it publicly. While the Washington Times and Washington Postfollowed up the Journal with front-page articles, the networks ignored the packet story. Perhaps since the packet was mostly reproductions of articles and transcripts from sources like The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, and CBS's 60 Minutes, it seemed too close to home to be scandalous. The February 23 New York Times Magazine echoed the White House approach in a cover story entitled "Clinton Crazy." For focusing on the personal quirks of anti-Clinton "crazies" and "fanatics" rather than investigating the merits of any one allegation, the Times earned the Janet Cooke Award.

The cover announced "The Clinton Haters," with the subhead: "No President has been put at the center of more conspiracy theories, nor been the object of more virulent accusations. What is it about Bill Clinton -- and the nation he leads?" Philip Weiss, a self-described "liberal Democrat" novelist who freelances for the Times, made no attempt to prove that thesis, in the face of charges that Lyndon Johnson ordered the death of John Kennedy, or that Ronald Reagan postponed the return of the Iranian hostages, or sat by as his CIA sold crack to California school children.

The article began by asserting: "They accuse him of drug smuggling, covering up the murders of some and ordering the murders of others. They build Web sites, peddle videos, blanket talk radio. They may have something to say -- but it's more about America than about its President." Weiss focused on the scandal promoters instead of the scandals, stitching a patchwork of character studies, an answer to the question "what makes the crazies tick?"

Weiss touched on many different scandal stories from Arkansas, including the deaths of Vincent Foster, former Clinton bodyguard Gary Parks, the wife of state trooper Danny Ferguson, and teenager Kevin Ives. In some instances, Weiss appeared sympathetic, as in the Ives case: "Here one can glimpse how a legitimate question gets spun into a conspiracy." But none of these stories merited more than a few paragraphs, giving the reader no grasp of why these stories are worth following.

Was this objective? Weiss told MediaWatch: "No, it's highly narrative, it has a very subjective component. I'm a very subjective writer." He added: "The Times was far less interested in these stories than in the personalities...they were not interested in the substantive issues." Weiss declared victory just getting the stories mentioned: "The Times is a very conservative institution. Whatever its ideological bearings, its sensibility makes it very reluctant to publish sexual allegations against Clinton. Here were a set of stories that had never gotten in the Times, and I felt a sense of achievement in getting these stories in there, without discrediting them."

But Weiss blurred together serious, truthful journalism and unsubtantiated accusations into one indistinguishable mass of "crazy" activity. Larry Nichols, a disgruntled former Arkansas state official, and Pat Matrisciana, producer of unreliable videos like The Clinton Chronicles, were lumped in with investigative reporter Chris Ruddy and the Wall Street Journal editorial page:
"The number of influential Clinton crazies is probably no more than a hundred, but their audience is in the tens of millions. The percolation of questions about the Foster case from Web sites to newsletters to talk radio to newspapers like The New York Post and The Wall Street Journal motivated the White House counsel's office to draft its report on conspiracies just before the Senate Whitewater hearings in the summer of 1995."

Weiss continued: "On a central point the Clinton administration and the Clinton haters are in perfect agreement: because of new forms of communication -- talk radio, newsletters, the Internet, mail-order videos -- a significant portion of the population has developed an understanding of Bill Clinton as a debased, even criminal politician." Later in his piece, Weiss added: "I wasn't faring all that better with other Clinton crazies. The Wall Street Journal attacked me twice on its editorial page as a White House dupe." When asked about calling the Journal editorial page "crazies," Weiss replied: "I think they're assholes, and they're paranoid."

How did Weiss expect his article, laced with words like "crazies," "fanatics," and "haters," to create sympathy for the subjects? Weiss protested to MediaWatch: "I was very careful to use the word haters, but when someone compares Clinton to Hitler, that level of virulence seems to justify it." But Foster buff Hugh Sprunt, who Weiss found "very compelling," appeared on the cover over the words "The Clinton Haters." Weiss replied: "I didn't write the headlines." As for the 11 uses of "crazies," Weiss said: "I really wanted to convey these stories in what I felt was a sympathetic light. At the same time, I would feel the need, like the Timesfelt, to distance myself from these people. So I chose this word.

Friends argued that it served to discredit every one of these people."

The New York Times has reserved its classifications of emotional instability for figures on the right. A Nexis search finds no use in the last 20 years for the terms "Reagan haters," "Reagan crazies," "left-wing attack machine," or "October Surprise fanatics." But it was the Times who had former Carter official Gary Sick jump-start the October Surprise conspiracy on its op-ed page in 1991; and used its front page to publicize Kitty Kelley's book Nancy Reagan, printing wild rumors about the First Lady's sex life; and publicized the lawsuit by convicted bomber Brett Kimberlin claiming he was mistreated by prison officials because he (falsely) told reporters he sold drugs to Dan Quayle. They were deemed important sources with important stories to tell, not tragic symptoms of a sick America.

Weiss recommended a look at his March 17 article in The New York Observer newspaper. He had a very different take, laying out the forensic mysteries of the Foster death, and praising Ruddy's and Sprunt's spadework. He decried the lack of Foster coverage, saying "No one in the media can think for himself or herself." Apparently, Weiss only fails to think for himself on the Clinton scandals when the Times is paying the bill.

All of Weiss's proclaimed sympathy with his subjects, the Times failed to provide the public with a useful investigation. But it did provide a welcome addition to the White House spin controllers' packet of Xeroxed hit pieces.