Where's the Outrage Over Janet Reno?

Outside of hermits in Montana mud huts, no one could assert the TV networks haven't followed the saga of Monica Lewinsky. This story is giving last year's "Death of a Princess" bonanza a run for its money. (Which is not to say coverage is unbiased, or that they've pursued every angle, as in Linda Tripp's story of Clintonite threats and surveillance.) Unfortunately, the Clinton scandals without talk of "genetic material" are still going largely ignored.

Exhibit A: the fundraising scandal. Remember that? The House Government Reform and Oversight Committee had to prepare and pass a citation against Attorney General Janet Reno for contempt of Congress before the TV trucks budged.

This bias by omission doesn't apply to newspapers, which still, apparently, care about news. On July 23, New York Times reporter David Johnston revealed on the front page: "After a 10-month inquiry, the departing chief of the Justice Department's campaign finance unit has concluded in a confidential report to Attorney General Janet Reno that she has no alternative but to seek an independent prosecutor to investigate political fundraising abuses during President Clinton's re-election campaign." He added the report from Reno's hand-picked prosecutor, Charles LaBella, "represents a serious internal fracture within the Justice Department."

But was it serious enough for the network sages who beat their breasts over having to cover DNA testing? That morning, NBC's "Today" broadcast two briefs totaling 41 seconds on the matter, while ABC and CBS aired zippo. Despite a question to Reno about the matter at a press conference that morning complete with her videotaped response, that night, ABC and NBC aired nothing, while CBS and CNN aired one full report each.

A week before that, The New York Times noted on its front page that at a Senate hearing, Sen. Fred Thompson read portions of FBI Director Louis Freeh's November memo to Reno, which also insisted on the need for an independent counsel. None of the networks mentioned that except CNN's Pierre Thomas, who mentioned it in his report on LaBella.

On July 24th, both ABC's "Good Morning America" and NBC's "Today" scheduled interviews with Vice President Al Gore from Moscow. But NBC's Katie Couric ignored the scandal. She didn't throw softballs; she set the balls on a tee. At the very end of his interview, ABC's Aaron Brown only asked Gore how he would get beyond those annoying prosecutors: "There are more and more every day calls for an independent counsel to look at the campaign finance stuff, some of which includes phone calls that you made or didn't make during the campaign season. Is there any way short of an independent counsel to put this behind you?"

Finally, on August 4, the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee heard testimony from Freeh and LaBella. Chairman Dan Burton asked Freeh about the "covered persons"the FBI's investigating that could trigger an independent counsel: "Does that include the President and the Vice President?" Freeh replied: "Yes sir." So here we have the FBI Director saying Clinton and Gore are personally being investigated for law-breaking. Was that newsworthy? Not to ABC or CNN, which ignored the exchange that night, focusing only on the escalating dispute between Burton and Reno over his subpoena of the Freeh and LaBella memos. NBC played it deep in their story. Only CBS and Fox News Channel made it the lead of their reports.

When the Burton committee voted to charge Reno with contempt of Congress, the networks relayed just the Democrat lines. On NBC, Claire Shipman claimed: "NBC News has learned that Janet Reno has started a formal 30 day review period to consider the appointment of an independent counsel. There have been review periods before, but what this means is that Reno is doing behind the scenes exactly what she says publicly: seriously reviewing the matter."

They all ignored Republican objections. Only Carl Cameron's report on Fox News Channel noted Rep. Bob Barr's complaint that Reno wouldn't even send any part of the memos with sensitive details redacted. Cameron uniquely reported Reno is breaking her own department's policy: "Republicans deny intimidation tactics. They blame Reno and say she's brought this on herself by violating the Justice Department's own rules which say all congressional subpoenas must be honored unless the President claims executive privilege." In The Washington Times, Rep. Chris Cox said he voted for contempt because Reno "has never discussed with Mr. Freeh and Mr. LaBella their extensive memos."

It seems every career prosecutor who's spent any time with the evidence in the fundraising matter believes the scandal reaches the highest levels of the executive branch. But the networks are still giving Reno the Joan of Arc treatment. When will the networks get serious about the scandals that aren't allegedly "just about sex"?