January 6, 1997
The Wall Street Journal
White House Heat On Whitewater BeatBy MICAH MORRISON
Bill Clinton's Whitewater problems are due to a "media food chain" through which conservative philanthropist Richard Scaife engineers a "media frenzy"--at least according to a White House report running 331 pages. The notion: Mr. Scaife's funding of the Western Journalism Center and publication of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review introduces "conspiracy theories and innuendo," which are then picked up by the likes of the American Spectator magazine and London's Sunday Telegraph. From there they enter the "right-of-center mainstream media," such as the Washington Times and this editorial page. Then Congress looks into the matter and "the story now has the legitimacy to be covered by the remainder of the American mainstream press as a 'real' story."
Chortling over his newly disclosed power, Mr. Scaife asks, "Now that George Stephanopoulos is going to ABC, does that mean he'll be working for me?" Yet the report from the White House counsel's office--entitled "Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce" and coupling a series of brief analyses with a large package of press clips and Internet gleanings--demonstrates the extremes of White House press management. Lanny Davis, the new White House special counsel for scandals, says the report was created "in response to press inquiries and provided to journalists who asked." Mr. Davis complied with this newspaper's request for a copy, but declined to respond to questions.
A version of the report was posted on the Internet by an ostensibly independent group of Clinton defenders, the Back to Business Committee. The committee, chaired by former Democratic National Committee vice-chairwoman Lynn Cutler, lists a board of advisers that includes former Reps. Tony Coelho and Robert Drinan, S.J.; Dukakis campaign manager Susan Estrich; Carter administration officials Jody Powell, Anne Wexler and Andrew Young; as well as Arthur Coia, president of the court-supervised Laborer's International Union.
White House attempts to manage press coverage of "Whitewater" are especially interesting now, because a new round of press skepticism about the administration is clearly under way, propelled by the controversy over Indonesian campaign contributions and the abrupt departures of a slew of administration officials responsible for damage control. There has also been increased attention to the relative lack of press coverage of the scandals, most prominently in a November article on the Paula Jones case by Stuart Taylor Jr. of American Lawyer magazine and in a Dec. 16 New Republic cover story, "Scandal-shy," by William Powers. But these articles only scratched the surface of the Clinton administration's extraordinary efforts to block, blunt and beat down reporters on the scandal beat.
One of the striking things about press coverage of Whitewater is the number of star reporters who, for one reason or another, are no longer on the beat. Investigative reporter Douglas Frantz quit the Los Angeles Times over its handling of a December 1993 Troopergate story that he co-authored with Bill Rempel. ABC's Jim Wooten took himself off the scandal beat after the network killed a Troopergate-related story, Mr. Powers reported. Washington Post reporter Michael Isikoff left the paper after a bitter internal dispute over the Paula Jones story; he continues to report scandal stories for Newsweek, a sister publication.
At Time magazine, investigative journalist Richard Behar was involved in a dispute with Arkansas powerhouse Tyson Foods over a report linking the company to cash payments allegedly destined for then-Gov. Clinton. Mr. Behar eventually left for sister publication Fortune, though he reports that Time stood behind him even when Tyson yanked a large advertising contract. Even the tabloid New York Post let reporter Christopher Ruddy go; he now details discrepancies in the investigation of Vincent Foster's death for Mr. Scaife's Tribune-Review.
Survivors on the Whitewater beat report, both on and off the record, that life is uncomfortable. Surrogates for the president--including White House spokesman Mike McCurry, ABC-bound presidential aide George Stephanopoulos, and private attorney David Kendall--complain to news executives and lobby to kill stories. And in what Mr. Powers called a chilling "divide-and-conquer approach," whispering campaigns about allegedly shoddy work are launched in an effort to convince reporters to ignore the work of their colleagues. The New Republic story added that a particular target has been Susan Schmidt, a widely admired reporter for the Washington Post.
Jeff Gerth of the New York Times, who broke the original Whitewater story in 1992 and who, along with other Times reporters, revealed Hillary Clinton's now famous commodities trades, has been an abiding White House target. "For a long time, the White House thought if they could just neutralize Gerth, the whole scandal thing would go away," says a White House reporter from a rival newspaper. "In private, they would just savage the guy." By contrast, Jerry Seper of the Washington Times, who also provided early ground-breaking coverage of the scandals, says he escapes pressure because the White House strategy is to ignore him.
Recently, Mr. Gerth and fellow Timesman Stephen Labaton reported on White House visits by Lippo Group scion James Riady. They wrote that presidential aide Bruce Lindsey "was the central figure behind the White House's decision to call the meetings social calls, ignoring the counsel of two White House lawyers." The White House explanation was false; after the election, it emerged that Mr. Riady had discussed trade policy toward Indonesia and China with Mr. Clinton at these meetings, and on one occasion had successfully lobbied for the transfer of now-suspect fund-raiser John Huang from a post at the Commerce Department to the Democratic National Committee.
The Times story directly quoted former White House lawyer Jane Sherburne as warning against the false description of the meetings. According to reporters and others, White House aides immediately launched personal assaults on the two Times reporters in off-record remarks. Then pro-Clinton TV talking head and Time magazine columnist Margaret Carlson attacked Messrs. Gerth and Labaton by name in the Dec. 16 Time, linked reporting on the Indonesia controversy to liberal bete noir Rush Limbaugh, and cited anonymous sources "close to Sherburne" saying that the White House lawyer "felt she had never been overruled or lied to by Lindsey and that the Times had torqued up a conflict."
Actually, the meticulous Gerth-Labaton report had not used the words "lied" or "overruled." (The latter was used in a Times editorial, and certainly seems a legitimate opinion to draw from the facts of the case.) Time then ran a letter from New York Times Washington bureau chief Andrew Rosenthal and an editor's note setting the record straight. While such sniping may seem minor, reporters view attacks like Ms. Carlson's as a kind of drip-drip water torture to try to undermine the credibility of journalists working the story.
The Columbia Journalism Review conceded in another editor's note that an attack it had made on Mr. Gerth had also been in error, inaccurately describing how he obtained one of the first interviews with Whitewater witness David Hale. That mistake occurred in a May-June 1994 article by Trudy Lieberman. (Just recently, the magazine has named a high-powered new editor, Marshall Loeb, formerly of Fortune.) Ms. Lieberman's article, "Churning Whitewater," closely parallels parts of the White House "conspiracy report."
In particular, Ms. Lieberman breathlessly flayed "the frenzied media" for listening to information from partisan sources such as Citizens United, and its one-time Whitewater investigator, David Bossie. Of course reporters listen to such sources, and then seek independent confirmation before passing stories up the "food chain." Mr. Bossie's information, much of it in documents, checked out so often he moved on to become a congressional investigator, though still frequently under attack. In the same recent issue that defended Mr. Powers against a White House attack on his article, the New Republic also demanded that Mr. Bossie, in a new position with a House oversight committee, be fired for news leaks--perhaps the only known example of a publication demanding that someone be fired for telling the truth to journalists.
Writers with a pro-White House history have recently been asking questions about The Wall Street Journal's coverage of Arkansas housewife Linda Ives, whose crusade for answers to the unsolved deaths of her son Kevin and his friend Don Henry was detailed here April 18. Indeed, this editorial page first learned of the "conspiracy report" from Philip Weiss, a writer on assignment for the New York Times Magazine, who cheerfully acknowledged that he had discussed the Ives case with White House officials and had been given a report on "the conspiracy feeding frenzy."
Mrs. Ives alerted this page that Mr. Weiss had called, asking "what journalists I was talking to. Mark Fabiani, the White House spokesman, had sicced him on me, he said. I found that curious. What would the White House want with me?" Mrs. Ives had gone through essentially the same experience several months earlier with a producer from CBS's "60 Minutes." When her teenage son and his friend were run over by a train in August 1987, the state medical examiner ruled the death "accidental," saying the boys had fallen asleep on the tracks after smoking marijuana. A second autopsy called it murder; one local prosecutor who developed information suggesting air-drops of drugs might be involved was run out of the state, while a second prosecutor is now himself the subject of a federal drug-corruption probe. Mrs. Ives says that "60 Minutes" had been interested in the story as an example of "Clinton bashing," but killed the report after listening to her account.
New Yorker writer David Remnick, on assignment for a forthcoming PBS documentary segment on this page and The Wall Street Journal Editor Robert L. Bartley, also asked about the Ives case. His question concerned the relevance of the story to Bill Clinton--the answer to which is that Gov. Clinton's support of state medical examiner Fahmy Malak was highly controversial, and that President Clinton's hand-picked U.S. attorney in Little Rock, Paula Casey, now has authority over the drug-corruption probe involving public officials entangled in the case. Although the Little Rock FBI forwarded Ms. Casey the train deaths file 18 months ago, she has taken no action on it.
ABC News also has had a series of battles with the White House over the Clinton scandals. In 1994, when the network was set to run a story about Gov. Clinton's use of state troopers to procure women, Mr. Clinton's private attorney David Kendall flew to New York to lobby against the piece. White House officials suggested that ABC correspondents look into reports that the main source for the story, Arkansas State Trooper L.D. Brown, had murdered his mother. The ugly allegation was false, but the ABC story never ran.
In June, the White House launched a furious blitz at ABC executives to block former FBI agent Gary Aldrich from appearing on "This Week With David Brinkley" to discuss his book on White House mores. ABC didn't back down, but NBC's "Dateline" and CNN's "Larry King Live" caved to White House pressure, canceling plans to interview Mr. Aldrich. "We killed it," Mr. Stephanopoulos later boasted.
Last January, ABC correspondent Jackie Judd and investigative producer Chris Vlasto were working on a story about the political nature of Sen. Alfonse D'Amato's Whitewater Committee. The White House, Ms. Judd recalled, "instantaneously produced a D'Amato packet." The D'Amato "Ethics Sampler" recounted allegations of the senator's influence peddling and supposed mob ties. "The packet was given to us without any conditions," Ms. Judd said, "so it became part of the story." White House spokesman Mike McCurry was furious that the derogatory information was attributed to the White House. According to several people familiar with the incident, Mr. McCurry complained to network executives, and in an angry call to Mr. Vlasto, he screamed: "You're never going to work in this town again!"
Mr. Vlasto, still employed by ABC and still working on Whitewater stories, confirmed the incident in a brief phone call, but declined to be interviewed. Mr. McCurry denied that he threatened Mr. Vlasto, but said he sometimes criticizes stories.
Apparently not everyone is as fortunate as Mr. Vlasto. New York Daily News reporter David Eisenstadt was fired Nov. 11 after filing a story linking top Clinton fund-raiser Terry McAuliffe to Asian fund-raising and Mr. Huang. Mr. Eisenstadt's attorney sent the Daily News a letter saying he would file a lawsuit because the paper had "improperly thwarted the truth and succumbed to political pressure" in terminating the reporter. James Ledbetter of the Village Voice reported that Mr. Eisenstadt was fired "after the Clinton campaign reportedly complained to News co-publisher Mort Zuckerman," a frequent White House guest. Another Daily News reporter, Ying Chan, has been charged with criminal libel in Taiwan after co-authoring with a Taiwanese magazine writer an article reporting that a top official of the island nation's ruling party had offered an Arkansas operative $15 million for the Clinton campaign. While several media organizations and New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis have protested Ms. Chan's treatment, the Daily News has remained silent.
In an interview, Mr. Zuckerman indicated he was not aware of Ms. Chan's plight, but rejected suggestions Mr. Eisenstadt had been fired due to political pressure. "We will publish and have published critical reports on the Clinton administration," Mr. Zuckerman said.
With revelations continuing to unfold in the myriad Clinton scandals, it seems unlikely the White House effort to intimidate the press will end anytime soon. "The White House views this as a war," says ABC's Jackie Judd, "and they're going to use whatever they can to win it."
Mr. Morrison is a Journal editorial page writer.
Reprinted with Permission