Yahoo News correspondent Michael Isikoff is retreading old news to once again try to thrust Whitewater into the national political debate, continuing an obsession of his that dates back more than 20 years.
Isikoff dramatically touted the "first extensive public comments" made by Robert Fiske, the federal prosecutor initially appointed to investigate the failed Whitewater land deal, in which the Clintons lost money but were at first falsely accused of criminal conduct. Fiske spoke to Isikoff during a recent interview about his soon-to-be-released memoir and Whitewater, which Isikoff warned "seems likely to be revived by political foes if, as is widely expected, Hillary Clinton runs for president."
This is a convenient dodge for Isikoff, who has spent two decades helping political foes use Whitewater to try to bring down the Clintons.
But nothing in Isikoff's latest entry in his Whitewater saga about the Clintons is new.
"For years, the Clintons have sought to portray the entire investigation as a politically inspired witch hunt, pushed by partisans hunting for any ammunition they could find to damage the president and first lady," Isikoff wrote. "But the new account of Fiske, a pillar of the New York legal community, offers a more complicated picture."
Isikoff doesn't back that up.
In fact, Fiske himself undermined the claim that Whitewater could be used against Clinton, noting that he never uncovered any evidence that Bill or Hillary Clinton were connected to any crimes:
He describes how he had quickly uncovered "serious crimes" in the Whitewater investigation but that his probe was cut short after conservatives falsely accused him of a "cover up."
"There were indictments, there were convictions," said Fiske when asked about claims that there was "nothing" to the investigation. "People went to jail. There was never any evidence that was sufficient to link the Clintons to any of it, but there were certainly serious crimes."
Isikoff suggests that one new detail is Fiske's claim that he was prepared to bring indictments against individuals connected to the land deal. But this hardly noteworthy, given that it has been publicly known that indictments were brought against individuals connected to the land deal.
Isikoff even tries to revive the ancient news that billing records connected to the investigation were at one point found in the White House residence, an aspect of the story the right has long attempted to twist into a scandal.
"One of [Fiske's] first moves was to subpoena Hillary Clinton's law firm billing records," Isikoff writes, "documents that were later found under mysterious circumstances in the White House living quarters." What Isikoff never mentioned is that those billing documents actually backed up what Hillary Clinton had long maintained, that she did very little work for her law firm on behalf of the land deal -- nor does he note that Kenneth Starr, the investigator who ultimately replaced Fiske, found no evidence that the billing records were ever mishandled.
Isikoff's Yahoo News piece, devoid of relevant new facts, lacking in critical details, and filled with insinuations of wrongdoing that he actively undermines, is troubling given the praise conservatives media figures have showered him with for his inadequate Clinton reporting in the past. At one point in 1998, Sean Hannity spent four consecutive days lauding Isikoff for his reporting.
In contrast, Jeffrey Toobin, currently a legal analyst at CNN, told Salon in 2000 that Isikoff acted as "an uncritical water-carrier for the anti-Clinton forces."
It's a history worth remembering as Isikoff warns how Clinton's political foes might attack her.
The most hilarious right-wing claim of liberal media bias to surface this week has to be Rush Limbaugh-biographer Zev Chafets' suggestion that Newsweek was in the tank for Bill Clinton in the 1990s and tried to bury the Lewinsky story:
The mainstream media was with the Clintons; Newsweek had refrained from even publishing the Lewinsky story, which it had before Drudge, evidently out of a misguided belief that it could keep the story from going public.
As Media Matters has explained, that isn't why Newsweek held the story -- it held the story because it hadn't nailed it down yet.
But even absent that explanation, no fair-minded person who was paying attention at the time could possibly believe Newsweek was "with the Clintons" or that it wanted to downplay Clinton controversies.
A quick search of the Nexis database of Newsweek archives finds 304 articles that mentioned Lewinsky in 1998 alone. 304. That's not exactly a sign of a news organization that was trying to suppress the story.
Then there's the fact that when Washington Post reporter Michael Isikoff's overzealous obsession with the Paula Jones "story" led to the Post (which was eagerly pushing more than its share of trumped up non-scandals) tiring of his act, Newsweek snatched him right up. Michael Duffy, who was Time's Washington bureau chief at the time, said in 1998 that "Paula Jones was practically a subsidiary of Newsweek's." Hiring Mike Isikoff is certainly not something a magazine would do if it was in the tank for Bill Clinton.
Nor would a magazine that was in the tank for Bill Clinton do the bidding of Ken Starr's office, as Newsweek acknowledged it did. Newsweek assistant managing editor Ann McDaniel said in 1998 that "The independent counsel's office pleaded with us not to make calls that would interfere with the investigation … In an effort to find out more about the story, we complied." American Journalism Review added some detail:
January 17: Four p.m. came and went, but Starr's people weren't ready. They still wanted more time, Isikoff says, because they hoped to "flip" Lewinsky, to get her to cooperate with the investigation. Starr had tapes of conversations in which Lewinsky intimated that the president and Jordan encouraged her to lie in her sworn affidavit in the Jones case, as well as other evidence. But he wanted more.
"At that point the prosecutors had said to Mike: 'If you call anybody for a comment, it's going to blow our case. We haven't had a chance to interrogate Monica,' " says Mark Whitaker, Newsweek's managing editor.
In other words, Ken Starr's office asked Newsweek not to make phone calls that could tip Clinton off to the investigation -- and Newsweek agreed, in effect becoming an ally of Starr's investigation rather than an observer of it. Had Newsweek been in the tank for Clinton, as Chafets absurdly claims, it would certainly have behaved differently.
And, of course, a magazine eager to cover for the Clintons probably wouldn't have published the (Isikoff-penned) 1997 article detailing allegations against Clinton by the breathtakingly unreliable Kathleen Willey.
You get the point: Newsweek's coverage of Bill Clinton was downright nasty; the magazine hyped Paula Jones' lawsuit though it was obvious she simply didn't have a case; it peddled Kathleen Willey's claims dispute her absolutely astounding lack of credibility; and it ran enough Lewinsky articles to fill a book. And yet Zev Chafets insists Newsweek was in the tank for Clinton. That belongs in the "nutty right-wing media criticism" hall of fame, alongside Brent Bozell's complaint that the media, at 500 news reports a day, wasn't paying enough attention to the Lewinsky story in 1998.
Disregarding U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald's warning to "not cast aspersions on people for being named or being discussed" in the criminal complaint against Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, several in the media have used the scandal as an opportunity to engage in suggestions of guilt-by-association against President-elect Barack Obama, by rehashing Obama's purportedly "questionable associations," or suggesting that Obama is a product of corrupt "Chicago politics."
MSNBC Live co-host Contessa Brewer baselessly speculated that Gov. Rod Blagojevich's arrest for, among other allegations, allegedly trying to sell President-elect Obama's Senate seat, might "taint" Obama and "whoever gets named to the Senate seat." Newsweek's Michael Isikoff responded, in part, that "this is a very sticky matter for Obama," adding: "There are a lot of -- a web of interrelationships between Obama and Blagojevich's political world that's gonna make this awkward." Neither noted that, as U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald did later, the criminal complaint "makes no allegations about the president-elect whatsoever."