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From the May 18, 1998 MediaWatch

Forget Corruption, Pick on Dan Burton

Page One

Media Change the Subject from Democratic Stonewalling

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 March.

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 the attention."

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 "contentious."

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 Times).
  • 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 repeated lies."
  • 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 NBC's Today.
  • 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 Angeles Times).

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.


Page Four

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.



Back Page

60 Minutes Assails Starr

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."


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