The Strange Eruption Over Brill's Content
by L. Brent Bozell III
June 18, 1998
Watching and reading the virtual non-stop barrage of
"news" stories concerning Steve Brill's "bombshell" about
Ken Starr's "leaks," I've concluded one thing's missing.
"Twilight Zone" music. We have now moved beyond the ridiculous and
into the realm of the truly bizarre. Consider:
1. Can Ken Starr be attacked from absolutely any angle?
Journalism professor Ted Smith wrote many years ago about the media's talent
for "omnidirectional" criticism. They began this year by positing as
fact that Starr was hopelessly inept at public relations, which no doubt
spurred him to be more receptive to reporters, including Brill. Now the media
are attacking him for being so inept as to give Brill an interview. And they
wonder why he wanted to leave for Pepperdine!
2. Where's the story?? ABC's Charles Gibson suggested:
"In a statement today, Mr. Starr said nothing his office has done
violates the law or Department of Justice policy. That is his legal argument.
But legal issues aside, Kenneth Starr has really handed the White House an
incredible political gift, one they've already started to use against
him." That statement encapsulates the media's read on things. But wait a
minute. The legal issue - did Starr & Co. break the law? - is the issue!
And it's precisely because the media are setting law-breaking aside - Starr
& Co didn't - that the White House is so gleefully upset right now. Put
another way: if the media focused on the real story and not politics, there'd
be no story at all. Instead, they're fueling the fires of yet another hatchet
job on Ken Starr, to the Clinton machine's delight.
3. Doesn't the media's coverage of Brill's story completely
refute Brill's argument? Brill thinks "the press seems to have become an
enabler of Starr's abuse of power...almost everyone in the press eagerly let
the man in power [Starr] write the story - once Linda Tripp and Lucianne
Goldberg put it together for him."
If the media were such Starr lackeys, how does Brill
explain...reality? A study recently released by Dr. Robert Lichter's Center
for Media and Public Affairs found 89 percent of network comments evaluating
Starr (that didn't come from Starr or his staff) have been negative in the
first four months of this year. And this doesn't begin to measure the degree
of media hostility that includes giving credence to all manner of wacko
conspiracy theories, including putting Starr in cahoots with "Clinton
haters" like philanthropist Dick Scaife. Not every reporter's agreeing
with Brill, especially the alleged Starr stooges, a half dozen of whom have
denounced Brill for everything from mischaracterizations to outright
defamation. But the amount of attention this non-story is getting reeks of
continued pro-Clinton bias.
4. Doesn't Brill's partisan background matter? Take it from
me: a conservative media critic discussing press coverage of this
administration can't complete his first sentence without the establishment
press questioning his agenda and the like. Conservatives, they believe, are
disqualified because of ideological bias. And Brill? He's a major donor to the
Clinton-Gore campaign, not to mention numerous other liberal Democrats. A 1997
Brill essay in a Yale alumni publication sadly remembering the burning of the
Yale law library says it all: "I knew I was a good, progressive liberal
who sympathized with everyone who wanted to drive back the Nixonian forces of
evil. I'd been a Timothy Dwight organizer of the campus-wide toilet flush
timed for the moment of President Nixon's inauguration." Five years ago,
Newsweek's Jonathan Alter denounced right-wing and left-wing media watchdog
groups: "What you realize is these people aren't really interested in
media criticism. What they're doing, often, is just ax-grinding for a
political view in the guise of media criticism." Now Alter is on the
"Today" show praising Brill's new magazine as a good idea. Jonathan,
5. So why does this Steven Brill scoop matter? When Brill's
magazine The American Lawyer published a Stuart Taylor cover story in
mid-October 1996 suggesting that Paula Jones had a serious case against the
President, ABC gave it a sentence - a week later. CBS and NBC waited ten
weeks. When two years before that, Taylor attacked the media's coverage of the
"Iraqgate" story as a bunch of unsubstantiated hooey, the media
ignored that. Two years before that, The American Lawyer ran an article
criticizing the media's coverage of the Rodney King trial - to media silence.
You could argue that these isolated pieces show Brill's not a knee-jerk
liberal, and I'll buy that (I think). But none of them attracted a fraction of
the brouhaha the Starr piece did. Why so much attention to this attack on Ken
Starr? Because it's an attack on Ken Starr.
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