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 Magazine Watch

Tuesday August 10, 1999 (Vol. One; No. 11)

What Tax Cut?; Bush’s Man in Black; Killer Culture; Suspect Sudan Spin

1. Republicans in Congress may have passed a "$792 billion tax cut" in both houses, but only U.S. News & World Report gave it a full story. Newsweek promoted John McCain’s characterization of the bill: full of "Junk."

2. Campaign 2000 Update: U.S. News offered the only real Iowa straw poll preview, which declared: "Forbes is gathering his support the old-fashioned way: He is buying it." Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff dug up a home-grown mortician’s scandal for Bush the Sequel -- the flap that may become more than a pesky annoyance." Time and U.S. News size up Bill Bradley, but feel bad for Al Gore.

3. All three newsmags came to Hillary’s aid on her Bill’s-childhood-trauma gaffes in Talk magazine. U.S. News let a Democrat claim her interview "can be easily distorted and sensationalized by the media."

4. Newsweek used a Nixon photo spread to underline that Nixon’s crimes were so much more serious than the Clinton impeachment farce. "In the '90s history is repeated as farce, and presidents are impeached for covering up sex."

5. "Contributing editor" Susan Faludi told Newsweek readers that psycho killers like Atlanta’s Mark Barton are just products of a "computerized, consumerized, celebritized" capitalist culture that lets men down.

6. U.S. News & World Report found room for doubting Bill Clinton’s suspiciously timed bombing of a Sudanese site last August: "virtually everything the administration said publicly about El Shifa in the days after the attack has turned out to be wrong."

The covers of the August 16 issues implied a slow news week. U.S. News & World Report offered some very old news in a large cover package on "The Year 1000." Both Time and Newsweek hyped the $35,000 home-video-style horror flick "The Blair Witch Project." Newsweek suggested Chelsea Clinton’s got some competition in the Politician’s Progeny Puffball Department with its valentine to Al Gore’s oldest daughter, Karenna Gore Schiff: "Over lunch with a Newsweek correspondent last week, Karenna seemed a smooth blend of her mother's peppiness and her father's gravitas."


Republicans in Congress may have passed a major tax cut in both houses, but only U.S. News gave it a full story. Major Garrett threw it in as one item in a plethora of legislative items to be considered after Labor Day: "Democrats and Republicans will spend all of August campaigning for or against the GOP's 10-year, $792 billion tax cut. Voter reaction will loom large in the final calculations, but the GOP is already willing to retreat if Clinton follows through on his veto threat."

Newsweek’s "Periscope" section led with a brief, titled "Why McCain Voted for a 'Junk' Bill." It began: "On a recent bus trip through South Carolina, GOP presidential candidate Sen. John McCain said privately that he was leaning toward voting against the GOP pet $800 billion tax-cut bill. ‘The thing is full of special-interest outrages,’ he said. ‘Junk.’" But he was pressured to vote yes on a 50-49 vote by Senate leaders. The magazine’s "Conventional Wisdom Watch" gave the tax cut a down arrow and sneered: "People don't want it, Greenspan doesn't want it, but GOPs gotta have it. Typical."

Time’s print edition carried nothing, but its Web site featured Frank Pellegrini’s "A Closer Look" article titled "Why a big tax cut still isn't such a great idea." Pellegrini’s take on federal spending is contained in this sentence: "Republican leaders say every dollar they leave on the table will just get spent by the ‘Washington bureaucrats’ -- code for either Clinton or some Democratic Congress of the future. Give it all back now, and government will have to stay small." Small?

The news magazines echoed the network coverage, which rarely escaped the mantra tagging the cut as a "792-billion-dollar-tax-cut." None of the national reporters ever made a mantra out of the estimate from the Congressional Budget Office (then controlled by Democrats) that the Clinton health plan would cost $784 billion in the seven years from fiscal 1996 to fiscal 2002.


Campaign 2000 Update: U.S. News & World Report offered the only real Iowa straw poll preview. Roger Simon explored how the event would be important for Steve Forbes. "Forbes is gathering his support the old-fashioned way: He is buying it. Forbes has spent a good chunk of money on hiring conservative consultants and contributing to conservative groups and Christian Coalition leaders. (Unlike 1996, Forbes now ends every speech by saying, ‘Bless you’ or ‘God bless you.’) And he is looking past Iowa to states the media have not yet concentrated on, like Washington, where he has hired Floyd Brown, who launched the infamous Willie Horton ad in 1988, to be his state chairman."

Funny how reporters never think Willie Horton deserved more infamy than the ad.

Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff dug up a home-grown mortician’s scandal for Bush the Sequel --"the flap that may become more than a pesky annoyance." It seems big-time Houston mortician Robert Waltrip, head of Service Corporation International (SCI), is a major Bush supporter who throws his weight around with state funeral-parlor investigators. Now one of those probers, a Democrat, is suing.

"The state's former chief funeral regulator, Eliza May, has sued the state, SCI and Waltrip, charging that Bush's aides repeatedly pressured her to end the probe -- and that when she resisted she was fired. (Bush is not a defendant in the suit.) The dispute has a whiff of politics: a Democrat, May once served as state party treasurer. Now May wants to call Bush as a witness -- a move the governor's lawyers tried to block, calling it ‘harassment.’"

Isikoff added that May was fired in February, "after another [funeral] commission employee complained that she ordered him to research SCI campaign contributions to state officials. Now the dispute seems to be heading for court -- the last place Bush wants to spend any time this campaign season."

It would be amusing to see these magazines, which pooh-poohed the Clintons’ manipulation of Arkansas savings-and-loan regulators in 1992, devote major resources to this story.

Time reporter Eric Pooley found Bill Bradley’s liberal appeals aren’t drawing black voters. "Arguing against welfare reform in August 1999 is a bit like arguing against the Apollo moon shot in August 1969. The Eagle has landed, and the naysayers appear to be on the wrong side of history. But at least one of them remains unmoved by the news -- because nobody loves a lonely, principled fight more than Bill Bradley."

But Pooley also defended Clinton-Gore: "When Bradley criticized Clinton, he also ignored a fact known to everyone in the room: with Newt Gingrich and now Tom DeLay running the House, no President could launch a war on poverty. It was all Clinton could do to beat back the 1995-96 G.O.P. tide, and the Rainbow members are grateful for it -- but Bradley never acknowledged that, and the omission undermined his credibility."

Notice how Pooley’s new-launch paradigm pretends that there’s not an alphabet soup of billion-dollar bureaucracies who are still theoretically warring on poverty?

In her column on Bradley, U.S. News/CBS pundit Gloria Borger offered Gore her sympathy: "It's hard not to feel for Al Gore. Poor guy, first defending Bill Clinton, then shunning his ‘inexcusable’ behavior. And as all the world wearies of Team Clinton, Gore suffers. (In a recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, one third of all Democrats said they could vote for George W. Bush.) And now Bradley."


All three newsmags came to Hillary’s aid on her Bill’s-childhood-trauma gaffes in Talk magazine. Time carried no article, but placed Hillary among its winners in its up-front "Winners & Losers" feature.

In Newsweek, Debra Rosenberg explained: "The Clinton White House has a familiar ritual for responding to eruptions like this: deny, or at least rely on a hairsplitting reading of the coverage to say the press is misinterpreting; then counterattack. And so it was last week. The First Lady and her aides chided the press, insisting that anyone who read the Talk article would see that she wasn't excusing her husband's behavior, just trying to explain it. It was the first significant spin cycle in the First Lady's all-but-certain Senate race, and her reaction suggested she will use the damage-control reflexes in New York that the Clintons have honed through seven years of scandals in Washington."

Rosenberg detailed how Hillary and her defender James Carville were wrong -- "In the interview, Mrs. Clinton does come close to saying she believes her husband's infidelities can be traced back to his rough childhood" -- but how about those well-honed damage-control reflexes?

Rosenberg concluded: "Despite Hillary's travails, in the end it was the GOP that appeared nervous about the race. On Friday New York Gov. George Pataki joined former senator (and Hillary nemesis) Al D'Amato in embracing their longtime political foe, Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Until then, they had backed upstart candidate Rick Lazio, in part to irritate Giuliani. But polls last week showed Mrs. Clinton in a dead heat with Giuliani -- and the Republicans decided it was time to unite against her. The GOP once laughed off Hillary's Senate aspirations. Now, they've begun to worry that the First Lady's campaign is more than just talk."

U.S. News titled their story "Hillary becomes the hot talk of the town." Franklin Foer and Kenneth Walsh asserted: "But underlying the ‘not again’ groaning, the latest Clinton tempest may ultimately have something to say about candidate Clinton -- and not all of it bad."

Foer and Walsh noted the harsh pundit reaction, and added: "The first lady and the president denied she was trying to make excuses for him. Still, her advisers remain concerned that voters might now see her Senate campaign more as a form of personal therapy than as part of a debate about issues affecting their lives. On the contrary -- or so the polls would seem to indicate. It turns out that by talking to Talk now, Mrs. Clinton just may have inoculated herself against future hits. According to politically independent pollster John Zogby, her numbers actually went up last week, closing a 10-point deficit with Giuliani. And strategists say she may have performed a more important feat: taking l'affaire Lewinsky off the table for good. ‘She's weathered the story now in the dead of summer, long before the election,’says Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf." (This is the same Hank Sheinkopf who Foer quoted in the July 12 issue saying he couldn’t see her winning.)

Another strange soundbite: a "senior Democratic strategist" told the U.S. News team: "If she had bothered to ask, people would have told her to avoid loose language -- which can be easily distorted and sensationalized by the media."

Foer and Walsh concluded with high hopes, seeing Hillary’s glass as half-full: "Although Pataki and Giuliani are making nice, Long Island Rep. Rick Lazio says he's not playing. The 41-year-old congressman says he'll announce his bid for the seat on August 16–no matter what. ‘At this point,’ he says, ‘nobody, not even Pataki, can stop me.’ If he means it, things could once again turn in Mrs. Clinton's favor -- very soon."


Newsweek used a Nixon photo spread to underline that Nixon’s crimes were so much more serious than the joke impeachment of Bill Clinton. The unbylined introduction called Nixon "a man of endless contradictions, he built his career on Red-baiting, then embraced Mao's China; he sharpened racial "wedges," then enacted affirmative action. Finally, at the hour of his greatest glory -- 1972, the year of a massive re-election -- he lost it all, undone by lies that transformed chicanery into a constitutional crisis."

The magazine asked and answered "How will the future view Nixon? His fans now call him a ‘war president,’ arguing that Nixon and his men thought they were protecting the country from subversives. The real divide, however, may be between those who take the Age of Nixon seriously and those who view public life through a post-Lewinsky prism. In the '90s history is repeated as farce, and presidents are impeached for covering up sex. This week the Age of Clinton wins as the movie Dick, a comedy that plops two teen blondes in the middle of Watergate, opens nationwide."


"Contributing editor" Susan Faludi told Newsweek readers that psycho killers like Atlanta’s Mark Barton are just products of a "computerized, consumerized, celebritized" capitalist culture that lets men down. The subheadline read: "Only a few deranged men go on shooting sprees, but many feel cheated that 'the system' has let them down. And, in some powerful ways, it has."

In 1991, former Wall Street Journal reporter Faludi wrote Backlash, a feminist tract that complained "the increasingly reinforced fortress of an antifeminist culture daunted women more than it galvanized them." Now, apparently, Faludi has decided it’s men’s turn to be victimized by the culture. Faludi quoted from Barton’s suicide note, and declared: "More and more, the American community fails to offer its postwar sons and grandsons what it used to offer all men: a chance to ground their manhood on utility, dedication and loyalty, whether as a GI serving a nation and caring for his fellow grunts or as a civilian plying a craft essential to his society. For all the grim aspects of industrial labor and World War II-era sacrifice, men could at least feel they belonged to a meaningful brotherhood and provided a utility beyond mere earning power."

She continued: "But the heirs of the GI generation increasingly find themselves stranded in a different world: computerized, consumerized, celebritized. In an ornamental culture where worth is measured by bicep and SUV size, by image and celebrity, men feel severed from fellowship and a tangible craft, valued only for their stock-market portfolios. In that way, Mark Barton was the garish distillation of the modern male predicament -- a Dockers-and-polo-shirted figure seated alone in his suburban home, wired to the Internet so many hours a day that no one else could make a phone call. Meanwhile, his ignored children roamed the streets. Even as men have been freed (thanks largely to the women's movement) to be more involved fathers, their progress is undermined by a sweepstakes culture where only the biggest winner is valued."

Newsweek touted Faludi as author of the forthcoming Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, to be published in September.


U.S. News & World Report found room for doubting Bill Clinton’s suspiciously timed bombing of a Sudanese site last August. On August 20, 1998, three days after being forced to admit to a grand jury that he was misleading but "legally accurate" about a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, Clinton authorized missile attacks on sites in Sudan and Afghanistan the administration claimed were tied to Arab terrorist Osama bin Laden. Warren Strobel and Kevin Whitelaw reported: "The administration's evidence against El Shifa remains secret -- even to most American officials. What is known isn't encouraging. In the strike's immediate aftermath, an informal review conducted by the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research failed to turn up a single piece of evidence linking El Shifa to chemical weapons or bin Laden. The bureau was discouraged from even reporting its findings....

"The decision to bomb El Shifa was made by fewer than a dozen top U.S. officials. This meant that experts on both Sudan and chemical weapons were not consulted about the government's evidence. Over the past year, White House officials, including National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, have backed away from their charge that El Shifa was actually producing chemicals for weapons as opposed to being a storage or transshipment point. But Clinton advisers insist they have seen no new evidence to undercut their conclusion that the plant was linked to bin Laden and the Iraqi chemical weapons program. Another factor, says one official, ‘tipped the scales’: It could be struck with little risk of civilian casualties.

"Still, virtually everything the administration said publicly about El Shifa in the days after the attack has turned out to be wrong. At the time of the attack, the United States did not know who owned the plant. No evidence has surfaced to support claims that the plant was heavily secured. And government spokesmen misspoke when they said El Shifa did not produce legitimate pharmaceutical products, apparently unaware the plant had a United Nations license to ship drugs to Iraq.

"The key evidence touted by U.S. officials was a soil sample taken by a CIA operative from the grounds of El Shifa that supposedly tested positive for EMPTA. But tests by outside labs of samples taken after the bombing have found no trace of EMPTA or any of its components. And the House intelligence committee was told that the CIA's original soil sample was so small it was used up in the initial testing.

"U.S. officials have been unable to publicly back up their assertions that El Shifa's owner, Saleh Idris, a Saudi Arabian businessman, is linked to bin Laden. After the strike, the Treasury Department promptly froze $24 million of his assets, alleging links to terrorists. Idris denied the charges and sued the government. An intermediary spoke with White House counsel Charles Ruff, who apparently helped release the assets in May after obtaining an intelligence briefing..."

Strobel and Whitelaw concluded by noting "In Washington, House and Senate intelligence committees are continuing to investigate the decisions leading to the attack," but Congress’s opposition to the Sudanese regime means "For now, any comprehensive scrutiny of the missile strike remains unlikely."

The magazine’s skepticism strikes a somewhat different tone than the issue after the attack on August 31, 1998. The article on the attack was headlined "America fights back." Up front, Stephen Budiansky announced: "The only comforting bit of normality in the entire week was provided by the reliable inanity of the Washington press corps. The reporter who demanded to know if Defense Secretary William Cohen had seen the movie Wag the Dog reassured us that in one tiny corner of the globe, at least, all was right." He declared: "Had the President failed to act, America’s enemies would have rejoiced in his paralysis and distraction."

Reporters who lapped up Peter Arnett’s tales of bombing Iraqi baby-milk factories found it somehow suddenly unpatriotic to follow up on this still largely unknown story.

-- Tim Graham


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