Media hyperbole

April 05, 1994|By Anthony Lewis

DURING a long trip abroad last month I kept reading, in local papers, Washington reports about President Clinton's "Whitewater crisis." When people asked me to explain what exactly it was, I could not.

Now, after sifting through the news of recent weeks, I do see a crisis: an oncoming crisis of confidence in the press. For magazines, television and newspapers have taken stories that deserve modest attention and blown them up to hyperbolic proportions.

Consider the story about George Stephanopoulos telephoning a Treasury official to complain because the Resolution Trust Corp. had appointed a highly partisan Republican lawyer to look into a matter possibly connected to Whitewater. He was told that the RTC was an independent agency, and he went away.

Time magazine suggested darkly last week that Mr. Stephanopoulos might be charged with obstruction of justice. Sure: Expressing partisan outrage is a crime.

Time's writers and editors and all the others who ludicrously overplayed that tale should be sent back to school to learn some American history. They would discover that partisan talk has been going on in government since the administration of George Washington.

Then there was Time's cover: a photograph of President Clinton and Mr. Stephanopoulos looking harried -- as if by this latest revelation. Only the picture was cropped and old, taken in an entirely different context.

Newsweek's contribution last week was a story quoting an expert to the effect that Hillary Rodham Clinton had invested nothing when she made nearly $100,000 in commodities trading. The expert angrily denied saying any such thing, and Newsweek apologized.

How could supposedly serious magazines go so wrong? Because they, like much of the rest of the press, have been consumed by competitive zeal to get out front on the Whitewater story.

With that zeal, compare the press' slumbering performance in the Iran-contra affair before the Reagan administration disclosed And Iran-contra was profoundly important: the grossest abuse of the Constitution in modern times. A president, or men acting in his name, claimed a right to do what they wished abroad no matter what the law said.

Whitewater at worst involves petty financial juggling and favors years before Bill Clinton became president. There is no constitutional issue, no great question of the separation of powers.

Why, then, has the press been so ravenous over Whitewater? One reason is evidently that the Clinton White House at first stonewalled and deceived. Perhaps it was Bernard Nussbaum, then counsel to the president, who mistakenly thought it was wise to use the tactics of private litigation.

Vincent Foster's suicide, and the secret removal of files from his TTC White House office, naturally aroused suspicions. Suspicion has been carried to the point of suggestions that Foster was really murdered.

A major factor in pushing the Whitewater story has been Jim Leach, the Iowa Republican congressman. He is usually so thoughtful and decent a politician that it is hard to understand how he got so carried away, producing supposed "evidence" that has no proof and no connection to the Clintons.

Mr. Leach appears to be a little uneasy himself now with what he has wrought.

Finally, the press has been excited because the Clintons turned out to be something other than holy creatures devoted to good government and children. They wanted to make some money, too.

That is a subject of some human interest, worth examining. But a sense of proportion would be helpful. Those who make it to the presidency usually had influential friends along the way.

Ronald Reagan had lots more than Bill Clinton. But the press was mostly afraid to tangle with Mr. Reagan.

A sense of proportion is what has been lacking in much of the Whitewater coverage, along with a sense of history. When it is all over, I think the press will regret its hysteria.

At President Clinton's recent press conference a reporter asked whether he had learned any lesson from the Whitewater crisis. The question might as fairly be put to the press.

Anthony Lewis is a columnist for the New York Times.

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