Corruption, Pick on Dan Burton
Media Change the Subject from Democratic
Rep. Dan Burton's Government Reform and Oversight
Committee is charged with investigating possible lawbreaking in the
campaign fundraising scandal. Burton has been frustrated by 53
Democratic fundraisers taking the Fifth, 39 witnesses who either fled
the country or are foreign nationals unwilling to testify, and 19
Democrats on his own committee who unanimously refused to immunize four
witnesses cleared by Clinton's own Justice Department. But the media's
spotlight focused instead on Burton's public-relations problems.
On April 30, after independent counsel Kenneth Starr
indicted Webster Hubbell for evading taxes on the $700,000 paid to him
by Clinton friends and donors for little or no work, Burton's committee
released audio tapes of Hubbell's prison conversations in which he
suggests he'd have to "roll over one more time" for the Clintons. After
a day of recounting excerpts of the tapes, the networks claimed the
Burton committee's highlights were edited to remove references more
favorable to Hubbell or Hillary Clinton.
Suddenly, Burton was under attack as a bumbler. "The
criticism of Burton is piling up," ABC's Mike Von Fremd contended in a
May 3 story devoted to Democratic complaints. "Democrat Henry Waxman
accused Burton of selectively releasing portions of the tape just to
make the First Lady look bad." On the May 5 Nightline, Ted Koppel
began: "Tonight, the bumbling of the Hubbell tapes. How evidence of a
cover-up may be lost amid political squabbling." Reporter Chris Bury
seconded Koppel: "Now the tapes will be remembered less for what they
reveal than for the controversy they generated and the President once
again has been blessed by the bumbling of his enemies."
Not to be outdone by the other networks, CNN
President/Clinton golfing buddy Rick Kaplan scheduled an hour-long
prime-time special on Burton's offenses on May 5. CNN political analyst
Bill Schneider complained: "I think the press was far too quick to use
these tapes without proper warnings that they were not complete and they
came from a partisan source."
Schneider was wrong. As National Review's
Ramesh Ponnuru and John J. Miller reported online, journalists had
access to the full tapes as well as committee highlights: "In other
words, the committee's condensation was really a sort of guide to the
highlights of the tape. And even that condensation included passages put
there at [ Henry] Waxman's request."
Handgun Haters. Small
bands of gun control activists held a "Silent March" on May 2, laying
empty shoes at the doors of gun companies, and attracted stories on all
the networks. But five months ago, the annual March for Life in
Washington drew "tens of thousands" (according to Associated Press), but
the networks ignored it. On TV, the pro-life protest was the real Silent
Brian Williams began the May 2 NBC Nightly News:
"Tonight in a number of American cities and towns, there is exhaustion
after a day spent making a point about what many consider one of
America's biggest domestic threats: Handguns."
Reporter Stan Bernard continued: "Just this week the
protesters' claim that guns are too available to young people was
supported by a week-long shooting spree in Hanes City, Florida. Three
teenagers have been charged with killing two and wounding seven. And the
recent school shootings in Jonesboro, Arkansas and Edinboro,
Pennsylvania all provide a background of pain to today's protests."
On that night's CBS Evening News, Elizabeth
Kaledin began: "These are shoes no one would want to fill. More than
5000 pairs of them belonging to children killed by gunfire in one year.
They are on display in Springfield, Massachusetts today as part of a new
campaign to hold gun makers accountable, not only for the cost in lives
gun violence brings, but the cost in dollars as well. "Kaledin aired
three gun-control soundbites and recounted the expensive recovery of one
victim. Like Bernard, Kaledin aired one soundbite from a "gun industry
lobbyist," but concluded: "These protesters say unless these gunmakers
take more responsibility for their product we will all keep on paying in
more ways than one."
Radical Cheek? Despite the
Cold War's recent end, reporters greeted a glossy new version of The
Communist Manifesto not as the frightening re-emergence of a
murderous ideology, but as a cheeky bit of radical chic.
ABC's Anderson Cooper began his May 2 World News
Tonight report: "It's not easy being a communist in America today.
"Cooper seemed surprised that "At New York University this weekend some
very earnest academics have gathered to praise Marx, not to bury him.
"Cooper said cheekily: "At Revolution Books, New York 's only
Marxist-Leninist-Maoist bookstore, they're, well, tickled pink by all
On April 20, Washington Post reporter Paula
Span relayed the marketing vision of Verso's Colin Robinson, with
Madison Avenue mannequins lifting the Manifesto in store windows.
Span suggested: "Why couldn't Marx, who did have a way with words....be
the next out-of-fashion political philosopher to stage a comeback?" Why
not Hitler with Mein Kampf?
Reporters even find "first-edition" communists
adorable. New York Times reporter Sara Rimer profiled a Los
Angeles old age home for "former communists, still-staunch socialists,
liberals, intellectuals and other freethinkers." After noting that
Sunset Home's library was graced with a bust of Lenin, Rimer gushed:
"Their sympathies remain with workers everywhere." Rimer didn't ask
whether their "sympathy" extended to the Cossacks butchered on Lenin's
orders in 1919.
What Is Bipartisan? CNN
often identifies the McCain-Feingold bill as "bipartisan" campaign
reform. But when there is bipartisan support for a conservative idea,
like partial privatization of Social Security, CNN called it
When the House killed a version of McCain-Feingold,
CNN's Brooks Jackson reported on the March 30 The World Today:
"Speaker Newt Gingrich attending a Congressman's funeral in New Mexico
today also wants to bury a bipartisan bill that would ban soft money
contributions to political parties."
On the April 28 The World Today, Wolf Blitzer
opined: "One contentious option involves privatizing some parts of
Social Security." Blitzer ignored proof of bipartisanship: support from
Democratic Senators Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Bob Kerrey and an August
1997 Democratic Leadership Council poll which showed 73 percent of
Democrats support some form of privatization.
Networks Provide No Context for Indictment
Failing to Assemble the Hubbell Puzzle
Associate Attorney General Webster Hubbell, the
number-three law-enforcement official in America, resigned in March 1994
and pleaded guilty in December to stealing almost $500,000 from his
partners at the Rose Law Firm. In the months after Hubbell resigned, he
received more than $700,000 for little or no work from Clinton friends
and donors, which Whitewater counsel Kenneth Starr believes could be
hush money to prevent him from cooperating. Despite receiving nearly $1
million between 1994 and 1997, he paid only $30,000 in taxes and now
owes more than $900,000 in taxes, interest, and penalties. Starr's
indictment charged that in those years, the Hubbells spent $750,000 on
personal expenses, like private school tuition and domestic help.
This might sound like an explosive story with a late
'80s Decade of Greed motif -- embezzling Clinton buddy gets a huge
payoff before heading to prison, then fails to pay taxes on it. But the
networks have never been interested in investigating it, let alone
painting it in harsh Decade of Greed hues. The networks focused on the
release of Hubbell's tapes and his emotional denials instead of the
evidence behind Starr's belief in Hubbell's obstruction of justice.
Last June, MediaWatch chronicled the
cracking of the Hubbell money-for-nothing scandal in newspapers from
The New York Times to the Los Angeles Times to The
Washington Times, and how these stories were ignored by the
networks. From January to May 1997, the Big Three aired only ten full
morning or evening stories and eight anchor briefs on Hubbell's
problems, and CNN aired six full reports and ten anchor briefs.
From June 1, 1997 through Hubbell's new indictment for
tax evasion on April 30, the networks remained aloof. The Big Three
morning and evening shows added only two full stories and one interview
segment, seven anchor briefs, and seven passing mentions of Hubbell.
CNN's The World Today has aired nothing. (CNN aired one interview
and one brief on its afternoon show Inside Politics.)
ABC's World News Tonight aired one brief
mention of Vernon Jordan aiding Hubbell in January, while ABC's Good
Morning America reported just two anchor briefs. CBS Evening News
aired two anchor briefs, CBS This Morning one brief, and all
three -- airing in July 1997, January and April 1998 -- only predicted
Starr would indict Hubbell again.
Almost all of the Big Three coverage appeared on NBC.
They promoted Hubbell's book Friends in High Places in a segment
of Dateline NBC on November 21, 1997 and a Today show
interview on November 24. Katie Couric began: "Yours is a story of a
fall from grace of Theodore Dreiser proportions. Is this an American
tragedy?" She then emphasized: "You did not go to jail because of your
involvement with any of the so-called Clinton scandals."
To demonstrate the incomplete nature of TV coverage,
here are a list of scoops that have been ignored by the networks right
through the night of Hubbell's indictment. Rare exceptions are noted:
- Hubbell's refusal to cooperate with House and
Senate fundraising inquiries, especially surrounding his relationship
with the Lippo Group. (2/24/97 Washington Times).
- Lippo executive James Riady gave Hubbell the
largest "fee" -- $100,000 -- after five days of meetings in Washington
with administration officials (3/20/97 New York Times). CNN's
John King was the only network reporter to mention this finding on the
night of the indictment. On Dateline NBC, Stone Phillips asked
Hubbell about it.
- White House aide Marsha Scott's role as liaison to
Hubbell. "In private, the Clintons have quietly stayed in touch with
Hubbell -- through a trusted White House aide who acted as a
confidential go-between." White House lawyer Jane Sherburne wrote
"monitor cooperation" by Hubbell's name in a 1994 Whitewater
damage-control memo (2/25/97 and 4/6/97 Los Angeles Times).
- Despite Scott's hovering presence in the Hubbell
tapes, the networks have never investigated her. NBC's interviews with
Hubbell portrayed Hubbell sympathetically as cut off from his buddies,
instead of connected to them through Scott. Couric asked: "When will
they become your friends again? All these people who have basically
abandoned you?" Phillips also pushed the sympathy button: "Hubbell
says he understands why old acquaintances are now afraid to talk to
him, especially those friend from Arkansas he once thought of as
family." "Despite claims they knew little about Hubbell's importance
as a Whitewater witness, White House officials knew when Hubbell quit,
he'd already emerged as a "crucial witness." (4/12/97 New York
- Hubbell had more than 70 meetings with White House
officials in between resignation and plea bargain, including four with
Bill and Hillary (4/16/97 and 5/3/97 Washington Post). Phillips
suggested the Clintons knew nothing of Hubbell's troubles until the
end of 1994. Hubbell told Phillips that Hillary Clinton still
encouraged him to fight the charges at Thanksgiving: "Webb Hubbell
insists they were encouragement from a loyal friend who believed his
- Clinton lawyer David Kendall and friend James Blair
warned the Clintons early in 1994 that Hubbell "needed to resign as
quickly as possible" (5/5/97 New York Times). This drew 33
seconds on CBS Evening News, and a mention the next morning on
- Los Angeles City Controller Rick Tuttle charged
Hubbell lied in itemizing his supposed work for the city of Los
Angeles, and should be prosecuted. (5/24/97 Los Angeles Times).
Nine months later, NBC's Lisa Myers became the only TV reporter to
mention this story.
- Clinton friend (and now architect of Lewinsky
scandal strategy) Mickey Kantor acknowledged in congressional
testimony that he lied when he denied helping Hubbell get nearly
$25,000 in payment from the city of Los Angeles (12/14/97 Los
The networks had little trouble selecting a soundbite
when Hubbell was indicted. "They can indict my dog. They can indict my
cat, but I'm not going to lie about the President. I'm not going to lie
about the First Lady or anyone else."
CNN and NBC led with the quote. Why lead with this
bold declaration against lying from a man who admitted to multiple
counts of fraud and years of lying to his friends? The public would be
better served if the networks offered long-missing context to the
Hubbell story instead of leading with overwrought references to the
indictment of household pets.
ABC's of Helping Hubbell
Former CBS News Washington correspondent Linda
Douglass, now with ABC News, had a very unusual relationship with
convicted embezzler Webster Hubbell: She and her husband John Phillips
were close friends with Hubbell and his wife Suzy. In the May
American Spectator, Byron York revealed that Phillips arranged for a
consulting deal to cushion Hubbell, that Douglass and her husband paid
for the Hubbells to join them on a Greek vacation and that Hubbell
talked on the phone to Douglass from prison.
Douglass, a long-time Los Angeles television reporter,
and her lawyer husband are old friends with Clinton buddy Mickey Kantor.
While working on the 1992 campaign Kantor invited Douglass and Phillips
to Little Rock where they met the Hubbells. In January 1993, York
reported, they moved to Washington where Douglass landed a position with
CBS News. The couple began having Kantor and Hubbell, whose wives
remained in Arkansas, over for dinner. When their spouses arrived they
joined in the frequent gatherings.
Following Hubbell's March 1994 resignation from his
position as Associate Attorney General to face charges of embezzling
from the Rose Law Firm, Phillips arranged for the Consumer Support and
Education Fund, which he helped establish, to pay Hubbell $45,000 to
write an essay on public service. "In August," York recounted, "the two
families flew to Greece for a vacation." Phillips told House
investigators that the couples agreed Phillips "would use his frequent
flyer miles to purchase plane tickets for Webb and Suzy Hubbell, and the
Hubbells would buy a full-fare ticket for Phillips's daughter. Phillips
also paid to rent a boat on which the couples spent ten days visiting
the Greek islands."
By December Hubbell had pled guilty to fraud and tax
evasion charges. He never produced the essay, forcing Phillips to pay
the $45,000 back to the foundation. Nonetheless, "even after Hubbell
went to prison, Phillips and his wife kept in touch with their disgraced
friend." Phillips visited and "Douglass also talked with Hubbell from
prison" by phone.
Eventually, they lost faith. Douglass told York she
had aided Hubbell "in a time of need. 'I went to church with Webb,'
Douglass remembered. 'I was trying to help him with his personal
redemption.' But Hubbell could not be saved. Of the end of the
friendship, Douglass said curtly, 'Look, we were lied to.'"
If only a few more in the media would realize Hubbell
has no credibility.
As if to atone for the sin of running an interview
with Clinton sex accuser Kathleen Willey, 60 Minutes opened the
May 3 show with "Starr Wars," an effort to expose Ken Starr's
persecution of innocent Arkansans in his quest to get Clinton. Morley
Safer relayed horror stories from four of Starr's "victims," stating as
fact that "in his effort to net the biggest fish of all -- the President
and the First Lady -- the independent counsel went after some very small
fish indeed. And he used some pretty tough tactics on, among others, a
woman named Sara Hawkins."
Safer explained Starr's office implicated Hawkins in a
scheme to illegally back-date loan appraisals at Madison Savings & Loan:
"Adamant that she was innocent, she met with Starr and his deputies who
she says threatened if she didn't cooperate, name some names, accept a
plea bargain and admit to a felony they would really throw the book at
her." Safer recited the damage: "Hawkins, the sole support of her two
daughters and two granddaughters says her income fell from about
$100,000 a year to less than $25,000. Her oldest daughter had to leave
college. They went on food stamps."
Safer picked up the tale of Madison staffers Herbie
Branscom and Rob Hill, tried and acquitted on tax fraud charges:
"Neither will talk about their bitter experience, but Branscom's lawyer,
Dan Guthrie, says Starr's tactics were crude and abusive."
In 1995 Steve Smith pled guilty to loan misuse, but
insisted Starr's team wanted him to say "things that I had repeatedly
told them were not true....Yet there it was typed up as my testimony."
Safer countered a brief pro-Starr soundbite from former U.S. Attorney
Henry Hudson by showing the hostility felt against Starr in Little Rock:
"They point to the hundreds of subpoenas Starr's office issued and the
number of people they believe were threatened the way Sara Hawkins and
Steve Smith were. But Hawkins and Smith went public with their ordeal,
most others say they are too frightened of Starr to even talk about it."
Safer ended with video of a car displaying a bumper
sticker: "Ken Starr: Go Home."
Home | News Division
| Bozell Columns | CyberAlerts
Media Reality Check | Notable Quotables | Contact
the MRC | Subscribe