A lapdog press

March 10, 1998|By Linda Chavez

YOU'D think the press would have learned a lesson or two over the past five years in its dealings with President Clinton's White House, but apparently not.

Lesson one: Never believe any categorical denial of wrongdoing on first utterance, because it's likely to be revised with clarifications, qualifications or obfuscations within days, if not hours.

Lesson two: Never underestimate the White House response team's ability to divert press attention from the truth of the accusations, and refocus it on the motives of those doing the accusing.

The recent contretemps over the subpoenaed testimony of presidential assistant Sidney Blumenthal once again demonstrates just how easily the White House can manipulate the media.

On Feb. 22, White House spokesman Mike McCurry flatly denied that the White House had hired private investigators to look into the private lives of federal prosecutors, members of the press or others involved in investigating or commenting on the most recent allegations of presidential misconduct. The denial came after stories surfaced that the White House was trying to intimidate critics by threatening to make public embarrassing information on their private lives.

"No one at the White House, or anyone acting on behalf of the White House or any of President Clinton's private attorneys has hired or authorized any private investigators to look into the background of investigators, prosecutors or reporters," he said.

A day later, however, the Washington Post reported that the president's private lawyers had indeed hired private investigator Terry F. Lenzner, a former Watergate attorney, to investigate independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's staff. This time, Mr. McCurry defended the action by saying the president's team was involved only in disseminating unflattering information about federal prosecutors that was a matter of public record.

"I think there's a difference between looking at what matters are on the public record how people have used their positions of trust and authority -- whether they have misused those positions of trust and authority -- and personal derogatory information. I think there would be some distinctions there. I think it's a moot point because none of that type of work, to my knowledge and what's been conveyed to me by counsel, has been undertaken," Mr. McCurry said.

But a few days later, the press had all but forgotten the latest prevarications coming from the White House. Instead, the media were all in a tither about a former colleague, Mr. Blumenthal, the reporter-turned-White House aide. The focus was no longer on whether those in the White House had once again misled both the press and the American people and why, but on whether Mr. Blumenthal should be forced to reveal his conversations with reporters about Mr. Starr's staff.

A spin doctor

Mr. Blumenthal proved himself a genius at pushing all the right hot buttons.

"I never imagined that in America, I would be hauled before a federal grand jury to answer questions about my conversations with members of the media," Mr. Blumenthal passionately intoned. He failed to mention precisely what dirt he'd been peddling to reporters about Mr. Starr and his staff, however.

The strategy worked. Stories about prosecutorial overreach dominated television reporting that night and in the next several days' papers.

A week that began with stories about the White House hiring gumshoes to track the president's critics ended with editorials questioning whether the critics themselves weren't the real problem. It's hard to imagine the scenario having played out this way during previous administrations. Envision how the press would have reacted during the Iran-contra scandal if former President Ronald Reagan's lawyers had hired private investigators to look into special counsel Lawrence E. Walsh's personal background or those of his staff.

Linda Chavez is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/10/98

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