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From the January 1999 MediaWatch

Time Drags Starr Down to Clinton's Level

Moral Equivalence on "Men of the Year"

The Cold War may be over, but Time is putting moral equivalence back into fashion. Time’s December 28-January 4 "Men of the Year" package stressed how indistinguishable Bill Clinton and Ken Starr were. What was really fuzzy was the line between news reporting and opinion. Time matched two articles that were mostly reporting (on Ken Starr and Hillary Clinton) with bushels of liberal opinion:

The article summarizing the package began with two pages of photos lined with large-type copy that read: "There is rubble everywhere around us now. The fate of a President moved from the hands of a flushed girl on a rope line to the halls of a howling Congress in battle fatigues. Civility, long rationed, ran out first. Politicians no longer express opposition: they are expressing hatred. No action, however solemn, is judged on its merits; everyone’s got an angle. Even if the fighting ends tomorrow, it will be years before the wreckage is cleared." That’s not how Time summarized Watergate.

Senior Editor Nancy Gibbs epitomized Time’s moral-equivalence angle: "Bill Clinton did something ordinary: he had an affair and lied about it. Ken Starr did something extraordinary: he took the President’s low-life behavior and called it a high crime. Clinton argued that privacy is so sacred that it included a right to lie so long as he did it very, very carefully. Starr argued that justice is so blind that once he saw a crime being committed, he had no choice but to pursue the bad guy through the Oval Office, down the hall to the private study, whatever the damage, no matter the cost. One man’s loss of control inspired the other’s, and we are no better for anything either of them did." She concluded: "This, then, is the legacy of a year that cannot end too soon. A faithless President and a fervent prosecutor, in a mortal embrace, lacking discretion, playing for keeps, both self-righteous, both condemned, Men of the Year."

In "How Starr Sees It," Eric Pooley and Michael Weisskopf presented the results of their three interviews with Starr. Unlike many Time articles over the past year, the story allowed evidence that perhaps Starr wasn’t a right-wing fanatic, although regularly referring to the perception he "so often seemed wild and obsessive." Eventually, moral equivalence surfaced again: "The more Clinton stalled, the more Starr pushed. The more Starr pushed, the more Clinton stalled. And in the end, each drove the other to a kind of madness." They claimed "Time and again, Starr’s confidence in his own moral rectitude has blinded him to, at the very least, the appearance of bias and conflict of interest." They ended by noting Starr "needs to place himself in the company of heroes and saviors...like Bill Clinton, he still dreams of being found not guilty."

Margaret Carlson’s column was titled "The Clinton In Us All: Those who hate him seem to bear more than a passing resemblance to him." Carlson focused on the infidelity excuses of Bob Livingston, Dan Burton, Henry Hyde, and Helen Chenoweth, as well as Bob Barr’s complaints about coverage of his speech to a racist group.

A Richard Lacayo "Viewpoint" article was headlined "Where the Right Went Wrong: In backing Starr’s witch hunt, conservatives fell in love with big government." Lacayo claimed that for conservatives, "government interference with private economic behavior remains a bad thing, but regulation of other kinds of private behavior, chiefly meaning sex, is something America needs more of." Lacayo concluded: "What most people decided this year is...Clinton at his most unbuckled and slippery is still less a threat to American values than Starr. They decided that Starr’s questions are worse than Clinton’s lies."

In "The Better Half," Karen Tumulty and Nancy Gibbs analyzed how "During her husband’s greatest crisis, Hillary has come into her own." The two did lay some blame for the scandals on Hillary’s resistance to investigation. But they failed to crystallize what Hillary knew and when she knew it. And they wondered if Hillary’s fidelity made her "his co-conspirator...Or was she the ultimate family-values conservative?" Time noted Hillary’s vital role in bucking up the White House, noting in her interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer, "She shone the light on Starr — his agenda, his henchmen, his ideological gene pool — and suggested that this was the real story, the real danger, rather than anything her husband might have done...By the end of the year, a majority of the public had come to agree with her about Starr, their fear of unaccountable government agents more intense than their distaste for even a lecherous, lying President."

feinted to the right. Humorist Andrew Ferguson interviewed Lucianne Goldberg and humorist Christopher Buckley joked about Monica’s future.

In a sidebar titled "The Friend From Hell," Paul Gray laid into Linda Tripp, noting that Dante would put her on the lowest rungs of Hell for her "ongoing personal treachery." In responding to the notion that Tripp taped Lewinsky in self-defense, Gray argued: "This line of defense amounts to a condemnation: she hoodwinked a friend in order to protect herself. Even the most rabid Clinton haters, who would welcome any means of getting a philandering perjurer out of the White House, must, or should, wonder: What would life be like if everyone, all friends and loved ones, behaved like Linda Tripp?"

In the third liberal editorial, Michael Kinsley claimed: "Is there anybody with no secrets he or she would be tempted to commit perjury for? That’s not a blanket excuse for perjury. But when the perjury was a your-secrets-or-your-life stickup staged by a prosecutor who couldn’t nail his target on anything else, anyone with an ounce of imagination is tempted to excuse it."

Essayist Roger Rosenblatt wrote on the final page: "The press...thought it was still playing Watergate and pursued the story toward an ending the public did not seek. So did House Republicans. Eventually the press caught up with the people. Could that be the story of the year?" Rosenblatt must not have been reading Time this year.




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