News media's nose ignores whiff of internal scandal


August 13, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

WASHINGTON -- Vincent Foster, the deputy White House counsel who killed himself on July 20, left a note that read in part: "Here ruining people is considered sport."

He was wrong. In Washington, ruining people is not a sport.

It's a job.

Reporters are supposed to report without fear or favor, not worrying if people are ruined in the process.

But what happens when the press is supposed to investigate itself?

Not much, as it turns out.

One line in Foster's note said: "The press is covering up the illegal benefits they received from the travel staff."

And on May 24, Wall Street Journal reporter Michael K. Frisby had written in a story about the White House travel office: "One veteran reporter tells of paying $200 for two rugs worth $10,000 during a trip to China several years ago. He says that he paid no duties or taxes on the rugs, and that Mr. [Billy] Dale [then director of the office] let him put the rugs on the press plane home. Many reporters have similar tales to tell."

Would such actions be illegal?

According to Steven Duchesne, spokesman for the U.S. Customs Service, they would.

"According to the rules, duty should have been paid on the $10,000 value of the rugs," Duchesne told me yesterday. "There is a certain honor system here. We rely on reporters' truth and honesty."

Had that reporter with the rug been traveling on an ordinary plane, however, going into an ordinary airport as a tourist or business traveler, he might have been caught by customs inspectors.

But the chances of getting caught when traveling as a member of the White House press corps are slim to none.

At Andrews Air Force Base, where the press and president land, there are no customs lines and no inspectors checking baggage.

Reporters merely wait for their luggage to be taken off the plane, and then they go home.

The Customs Service, a division of the Treasury Department, does not believe, however, that reporters abuse this privilege.

"And luggage can be checked when it is loaded on board the plane," Duchesne pointed out.

But when I asked him, Duchesne said that he knew of only one such instance when this took place and that it had occurred during the Reagan administration.

When returning from a foreign trip, reporters are handed customs declaration forms, and a customs inspector is on board the plane.

And if reporters list goods exceeding the $400 personal exemption that each U.S. citizen is allowed, they are billed for extra duty.

But how many reporters fully reveal what they have purchased, especially since they know there is virtually no check on their behavior?

Duchesne reviewed the records of President Clinton's trip to Japan and South Korea in July. Of 166 passengers and crew, 10 persons voluntarily listed goods in excess of their exemptions and were billed.

Duchesne did not know, however, if those people were White House staff or reporters or included both.

So does the press receive "illegal benefits"?

Well, they certainly get treated better than ordinary citizens, and reporters could break the law with little chance of getting caught if they wished.

But Vincent Foster was confused on at least one point: Such failure to declare goods has little if anything to do with the White House travel staff. If reporters are breaking the law, it is their own fault and not the fault of the people who arrange the trips.

How seriously, however, is the press interested in this allegation about its own conduct?

On the day Foster's note was released to the press, ABC's "World News Tonight" covered the story but made no mention of Foster's allegation about the press and "illegal benefits."

And how many news organizations are actively engaged in investigating -- or even asking their White House reporters about -- this allegation?

It may be no great scandal as scandals go. It may be no scandal at all.

But the press would think nothing of investigating and exposing it if public officials were involved.

And if we in this profession are going to ruin people, we ought to be fair about it and let the chips fall where they may.

Even if they fall upon our own heads.

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