CyberAlert -- 02/25/1998 -- Networks ignored the charge

Networks Ignored the Charge

1) Monday night the broadcast networks ignored the charge that the White House had hired investigators to probe personal lives.

2) The White House conceded a Nixonian act, using a PI, but who did the networks castigate? Starr. Tuesday night ABC declared Starr "out of bounds;" CNN wondered if he was "acting illegally."

3) The much-touted PBS profile of Reagan delivered the usual liberal nonsense: "Cuts in social programs created a homeless population that grew to exceed that of Atlanta. AIDS became an epidemic in the 1980s...Reagan largely ignored it."

>>>> Some sad news. Sandy Hume, the 28-year-old son of FNC's Brit Hume, died Sunday in his Arlington, Virginia apartment, apparently from suicide. A reporter for The Hill, a weekly Capitol Hill newspaper, the younger Hume broke the story last year of how House leaders were plotting to topple Speaker Newt Gingrich. A few years ago he worked for the American Spectator. You may recognize him from his appearances on C-SPAN and most recently on his father's FNC show, Special Report with Brit Hume. <<<<


cyberno1.gif (1096 bytes)The networks were slow to pick up on charges that the White House had tasked private investigators to probe the personal lives of Republican lawyers, prosecutors and witnesses connected to the Lewinsky case. The charge came to light on Sunday's Meet the Press, but the broadcast networks initially ignored it and CNN described such activity as routine. As the February 23 Washington Post reported:

"Joseph E. diGenova, a former federal prosecutor now working for House Republicans, said he was told that he and his wife, attorney Victoria Toensing, 'were being investigated by a private investigator with links to the White House.' DiGenova, who has played a peripheral role in the Lewinsky investigation, offered no evidence, attributing his charge to tips from reporters.

"'If the White House is condoning the investigation of private citizens, looking into their lives...that is truly a frightening...development,' diGenova said on NBC's Meet the Press.

"The White House fired back hours later, berating diGenova for repeating what it called 'blatant lies.'"

Sunday night and Monday night not even NBC's own Nightly News picked up the story, choosing instead to buy the White House denial. Meet the Press host Tim Russert appeared on Monday's Today to discuss Vernon Jordan, but did not raise diGenova's charge.

Specifically, diGenova cited the Investigative Group Inc., headed by Terry Lenzner. But the broadcast networks failed to look into the allegation, despite the questions raised by this intriguing final paragraph in the Post story by Susan Schmidt and Peter Baker:

"Lenzner declined to return phone calls over the weekend about whether his company is investigating Starr or his staff. Mickey Kantor, who represents Clinton as a lawyer in the Lewinsky matter, refused to say whether he has collaborated with Lenzner. As he was speaking to a reporter by phone Saturday, Kantor was overheard telling a family member that Lenzner was on the other line. 'I've known him for 30 years,' Kantor then explained."

Monday night, February 23, the broadcast networks did not air anything about Monicagate or the possible obstruction of justice. Though they all devoted much time to Iraq and the tornadoes which hit Florida, they also managed time for other less pressing stories.

ABC's World News Tonight had time for Peter Jennings to talk about a new asthma drug, the CBS Evening News made room for an Eye on America on how tobacco companies make women's groups shut up by distributing hush money to women's shelters and sports tournaments so many women's groups are now "addicted to big donations from Big Tobacco."

NBC Nightly News managed time for a Fleecing of America piece on a commuter rail project in Vermont, a report on a New Zealand power outage, and a final story previewing the PBS documentary on Reagan. NBC's Bob Faw asserted:

"The documentary shows his contradictions. He preached balanced budgets, but never submitted one. His priorities: budgets so big the Pentagon was spending $34 million every hour. And his courage in 1981 when a bullet from a would-be assassin came within an inch of his heart..."

Only CNN on Monday picked up the private probe angle, only to dismiss its relevance, MRC analyst Eric Darbe observed. In a story aired on both Inside Politics and The World Today, CNN's John King began:

"Sources describe independent counsel Ken Starr as angry at what he considers a White House sanctioned effort to smear his prosecutors in the Monica Lewinsky case. Old news clippings about controversial cases are sent to reporters, along with faxes raising questions about Starr and his team. Such tactics are routine in political campaigns, and most lawyers shrug given the high stakes in the Lewinsky investigation."

(Monday night the Fox News Channel delivered a story on another aspect of Monicagate, with FNC's David Shuster offering this fresh take: "Starr and his team of prosecutors, according to sources, are considering the possibility that President Clinton helped Monica Lewinsky write the so-called talking points memo. Lewinsky and Clinton met in the White House at the end of December, just a few weeks before Lewinsky gave Linda Tripp the memo suggesting how to answer allegations in the Paula Jones lawsuit...")


cyberno2.gif (1451 bytes)On Tuesday White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry conceded that Clinton and White House lawyers had indeed employed private investigators, but instead of pouncing on this admission of Nixonian behavior ABC concluded Starr "is out of bounds" and CNN's Bernard Shaw demanded to know if "by calling before the grand jury people such as Sidney Blumenthal, is Ken Starr acting illegally?" CBS and NBC refused to make a moral choice, treating the whole matter as a cat fight between equally corrupt sides.

Here's a rundown of February 24 evening show coverage. All led with the weather damage in California and Florida with both

ABC and NBC featuring full stories on an 18-month-old boy found safe inside tree after a tornado. About 20 minutes into their shows all the broadcast networks got to Starr's decision to call before the grand jury those he suspects of spreading misinformation to the press about his staff.

-- ABC's World News Tonight. Peter Jennings set up the story by emphasizing how Starr has gotten off track:

"In Washington today, the independent counsel Kenneth Starr, who's investigated everything from Whitewater to the President's behavior with Monica Lewinsky, has been trying to find out how information about his staff ended up in the media, so today's events were not about getting to the actual details of the allegations in the Lewinsky case, they were a fight with the White House over tactics."

Jackie Judd began: "Starr struck back at what prosecutors believe is a campaign coordinated by the White House to smear them in the press."

Following a clip of Starr Judd explained how White House aide Sidney Blumenthal and private investigator Terry Lenzner had been subpoenaed, explaining: "Lenzner's appearance at the courthouse caused the administration some discomfort because on Sunday he had issued an apparently definitive statement that 'No one...hired...any private investigator to look into the background of..investigators, prosecutors or reporters.' Today, Mr. Clinton's attorney's conceded Lenzner has worked for them since 1994. Mike McCurry claimed there was nothing unusual about his work."

After a soundbite from McCurry, Judd concluded by painting the Clinton White House as the aggrieved party:

"Starr justified the subpoenas of Lenzner and Blumenthal by saying a smear campaign could amount to obstruction of justice, but even some current and former federal prosecutors say that Starr is out of bounds and he should get on with the issues that really matter in the Lewinsky case."

-- CBS Evening News. In his typically overwrought manner, Dan Rather highlighted Starr's supposed misdeeds:

"Special prosecutor Kenneth Starr has increased the pressure even further on President Clinton today in what some call the nastiest and most personal clash yet. The Clintons have accused Starr of illegal, false and self-serving leaks of grand jury testimony in a campaign to get the Clintons at all costs, as they see it. Tonight, as CBS News White House correspondent Scott Pelley reports, Starr is boring in bigger, harder."

Pelley explained how Starr is asking the grand jury to probe White House efforts to sabotage his investigation by telling reporters about skeletons in the past of his prosecutors. As for hiring a private investigator to dig up dirt, Pelley reported: "Spokesman Mike McCurry said the lawyers deny that allegation. Then he was asked if the lawyers are telling him the truth." CBS showed McCurry saying "yes."

Pelley continued: "Then McCurry added, quote 'God help them if they're not.' The prosecutors tonight say that the techniques they are using are appropriate and traditional. But CBS News has learned this evening there is another provocative move from Ken Starr. He has subpoenaed Lanny Breuer, one of the President's principle lawyers here at the White House."

-- NBC Nightly News. Tom Brokaw treated both sides as equally unprofessional:

"In Washington tonight, the charges and counter-charges between the White House and the office of Whitewater investigator Kenneth Starr have reached now a new low. Is Starr overstepping his bounds? Is the White House snooping into the private lives of Starr's staff?"

Lisa Myers opened: "Today the war between independent counsel Ken Starr and the White House got nasty as critics warned both sides may have gone too far."

Myers told viewers that Starr hauled a private investigator and Blumenthal before the grand jury, though Blumenthal was never called into the room and left the courthouse angry. Myers then relayed the spin offered by both sides. First, those against Starr:

"Tonight Starr said he trying to find out who is spreading misinformation about his staff and whether they are trying to intimidate prosecutors, intimidate witnesses, or otherwise obstruct justice. But some lawyers say Starr is on shaky legal ground at best."

Professor Michael Seidman, Georgetown University: "This investigation has now really gone over the top. It's one thing to investigate the President, it's another thing to investigate those who criticize the prosecutor."

Second, those on Starr's side:

"But other lawyers say the White House may have overreached too, with its use of private investigators. Tonight an embarrassed White House had to admit that investigators have in fact been digging into the backgrounds of Starr and his team. Just two days ago the White House insisted that was not true. In a statement, presidential lawyers now say only that they have not investigated the personal lives of prosecutors. Some lawyers worry that Clinton's investigators also are going too far in digging up dirt on witnesses in the case."

-- On CNN's Inside Politics, after a story from John King similar to the one delivered by Myers, co-host Bernard Shaw decided Starr, not the White House, deserved more review. Shaw announced:

"We want to take a closer look at the legal tactics Ken Starr is employing. Joining us for that, CNN justice correspondent Pierre Thomas. By calling before the grand jury people such as Sidney Blumenthal, is Ken Starr acting illegally?"

Thomas replied: "I talked with a number of Justice Department sources today, and they don't think what Ken Starr is doing is illegal, but they ask questions about what is the end game. How useful is this to his investigation? The other question they have is he becoming too sensitive to criticism? One of the cardinal rules of Justice Department investigations, they tell me, is when there is criticism not to say anything."

Shaw's next question: "Are his tactics routine, or are they unusual?"

Thomas again criticized Starr: "Again, I spoke with a number of sources today. They say that these might be a little bit unusual, but they raise the question of how does this affect his investigation? Is it helpful to his investigation? And they say they can't see how it's useful to his investigation, so why do it."


cyberno3.gif (1438 bytes)The much talked about PBS documentary on Ronald Reagan has aired and while it overall did not reflect Bryant Gumbel's take on Reagan, it did deliver some Gumbel-like assessments. That is, long on ideological disgust, short on factual information. The two-part profile, part of "The Presidents" series produced by WGBH in Boston for PBS's American Experience, certainly included much material laudatory of the former President and as PBS goes it was better than you'd expect with a respectful review of many of Reagan's accomplishments. But, PBS marred their presentation by refusing to refrain from repeating liberal assertions from the 1980s that have little basis in reality.

Here are just two quick examples. First, from the two hours aired by most PBS stations on February 23:

"The cuts fell most dramatically on programs designed to help the poor. 'I'm trying to undo LBJ's Great Society,' Reagan wrote in his diary. 'It was his war on poverty that led us to this mess.' Reagan also called for a 30 percent tax cut across the board. All taxpayers would benefit, but the wealthy would benefit the most. Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill vowed to fight. 'Reagan's program,' he said, 'soaked the poor to subsidize the rich.'"

Second, from Tuesday night, February 24:

"The stock market crashed in October 1997, another setback for Reagan. Black Monday raised doubts about the soundness of Reagan's economic policies. On Reagan's watch tax revenues would double, but they never kept up with spending. The national debt nearly tripled. Although most Americans benefitted, the gap between the richest and poorest became a chasm. Donald Trump and the new billionaires of the 1980s recalled the extravagance of the captains of industry in the 1880s. There were losers. Cuts in social programs created a homeless population that grew to exceed that of Atlanta. AIDS became an epidemic in the 1980s, nearly 50,000 died. Reagan largely ignored it..."

That's quite a high rate of erroneous assertions per minute. Not one thing after the date of the stock market crash is correct, as the MRC has repeatedly documented in MediaWatch over the years. Someday, a reporter might actually check the facts and learn that not one social spending program grew slower than inflation in the 1980s.

There's plenty more material I could cite from the PBS series, including quite a bit of bias on the PBS Web site feature on "The Presidents," but more on that when I have more room in a future CyberAlert.

-- Brent Baker

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