Scent of a scandal

March 22, 1994|By Jonathan Alter

AFTER four months of steady stories, we still have no idea whether Whitewater is cancer or hemorrhoids.

Either way, the dynamics of the press coverage are perfectly predictable. Regardless of the scale of wrongdoing, the arc of scandal moves from frenzy to boredom and back again.

The media child naps, stirs, races around the room, loses attention, rests, then wakes in full cry. You can almost set your watch by it. The pattern goes like this:

First comes the journalistic prophet, in this case Jeff Gerth of the New York Times, who in March 1992 broke the story of the Whitewater investment and the Clintons' connection to the owner of a failed savings and loan. (To this day the Gerth stories comprise about 80 percent of what we know about Whitewater.)

But the Clinton campaign skillfully deflected questions, and the story disappeared altogether from the news for more than a year.

The lull sets up the frenzy phase. Though Vincent Foster's suicide note didn't even mention Whitewater, his death lent lurid color to a dry story.

The White House bungled the suicide aftermath, raising some real -- and imaginary -- areas for inquiry. Suddenly journalism could read like mystery fiction -- full of preposterous innuendo (that Foster was murdered and his note forged, to name just one).

In this phase, good, aggressive stories and ridiculous ones whiz by at a furious pace. Did that come from the Washington Post or Rush Limbaugh? Even news junkies can have trouble remembering.

As 1994 began, two elements ignited the frenzy. The first was the clear arrogance and political stupidity of the Clintons themselves. Because a modified stonewalling strategy had worked so well for them, they thought they could tough it out.

Several aides tried to tell them the obvious -- that this time it would just generate a thousand more damaging stories. They refused to listen.

The second rocket booster for the media was a different Arkansas story -- the state troopers' allegations of sexual improprieties. The mainstream media disbelieved much of the tale. And ever since Gary Hart was driven from the 1988 campaign, many editors have felt squeamish about sex stories.

So -- believing that they had given Bill Clinton a bit of a break during the campaign (the Gennifer Flowers charges were never much pursued) and again on the trooper story and Paula Jones' sex charges -- news organizations felt some need to show they could chase down the president's Arkansas past.

Soon, legions of reporters and photographers made the trek to Little Rock. Deep Throat's old Watergate advice -- "Follow the money!" -- became the war cry.

The frenzy phase may also have been driven by some unconscious guilt over how badly the press blew the huge S&L scandal.

Some news organizations have used Whitewater almost as a case study to explain the way cozy connections between real estate, law firms and state government led to huge losses for taxpayers.

Having mostly missed the $200 billion S&L fiasco in the '80s, editors figured the least they could do was break some stories on the $60 million in Madison Guaranty losses in the '90s.

After finally agreeing to a special counsel, Clinton aides thought they would enter another lull in the cycle. But they forgot &L something important. After pumping considerable resources into the story, news organizations were not likely to go away empty-handed. And so the return-on-investment phase began.

The first sign was that revelations that might otherwise have been small or medium-size news were played as earthshaking. Take the White House contacts with the Treasury Department. A valid story, but worthy of page one day after day?

Former FDIC chairman William Seidman writes in his memoirs that C. Boyden Gray, George Bush's White House counsel, did more than receive a heads-up on the FDIC's probe of Mr. Bush's son Neil. He even tried for a change of venue. The press never got near that story.

But this time the communication was treated like Watergate. With the air full of the language of scandal (resignations, subpoenas, shredding, cover-ups, even "water"), the arc of the story all but demanded it.

The return-on-investment phase reached its peak last week in the New York Times. Jeff Gerth and two colleagues spent two months investigating Hillary Clinton's $100,000 profits in cattle futures in the late '70s.

Hillary made legal and ethical trades in commodities on the advice of a close friend, who is outside counsel to a huge poultry business.

Whatever they were looking for, the reporters had to recoup their investment of time with a flimsy angle -- that then-Governor Clinton went easy on the poultry industry as a result of his wife's profits. But the economic future of Arkansas was tied to poultry, the state's dominant industry.

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