Blitzer defended media coverage of Lewinsky investigation, ignored widespread failings

During a November 18 interview with ABC's Peter Jennings, former President Bill Clinton was sharply critical of media coverage of his administration, particularly the cozy relationship many in the media had with Independent Counsel Ken Starr. Discussing the Clinton interview with former White House aide Lanny Davis on the November 19 edition of CNN's Wolf Blitzer Reports, host Blitzer said the following in defense of the media:

BLITZER: But Bill Clinton is such a smart guy. And you are so smart. If there's an independent counsel who is investigating the president of the United States, those of us in the news media, what, are we supposed to ignore that investigation, not report about it?

Blitzer was setting up a false choice. The choice isn't between covering something poorly and irresponsibly, as Clinton said the media did, and not covering it at all. There is another option, one that Blitzer apparently did not consider -- covering the investigation accurately and fairly.

When Davis responded by criticizing years of media obsession with Whitewater, Blitzer demanded:

BLITZER: Who appointed Ken Starr? Do you remember who appointed Ken Starr?

DAVIS: It was under a great deal of pressure that President Clinton --

BLITZER: Was it Janet Reno, the Democratic attorney general of the United States?

Blitzer's taunting aside, Reno did not appoint Starr as independent counsel, as Blitzer was forced to concede moments later. Starr was appointed by a three-judge panel chaired by District of Columbia Circuit Judge David Sentelle, a close associate of then-North Carolina Senators Lauch Faircloth and Jesse Helms, both Republicans and both bitter adversaries of Clinton. The Sentelle panel installed Starr to replace Robert Fiske, a Republican who had been serving as special prosecutor (the Independent Counsel statute had lapsed when Fiske was appointed) but had been criticized by some conservatives for not pursuing Clinton aggressively enough.

Blitzer again defended the media's coverage of the Starr investigations:

BLITZER: I can understand he is angry, angry at Ken Starr for the investigation. But if he is angry at the news media for covering that investigation, he does not understand how the news media in this country works.

DAVIS: Well, look, I think that anger with the news media in coverage cuts both ways. Reporters have to do their jobs.

BLITZER: Well, and that's what they were doing.

Blitzer seems not to understand that there is a difference between “how the news media in this country works” and “how the news media in this country should work.” There has been no shortage of criticism from disinterested parties of the media's handling of the Starr investigations over the years.

Blitzer's is an extremely generous recap of the role the media played in the Lewinsky investigation. Some other, less generous assessments:

  • Committee of Concerned Journalists: “The findings of the study, conducted by the Committee of Concerned Journalists, raise questions about whether the press always maintained adequate skepticism about its sources. There were occasions, moreover, when the press got ahead of the facts in its basic reporting. Others then used that work to engage in sometimes reckless speculation and propaganda. ... Overall, the research paints a picture of a news media culture that in breaking stories usually relied on legitimate sources and often was careful about the facts in the initial account. But even in these careful stories, the press at times tended to accept interpretations from those sources uncritically and may have had a penchant to emphasize the perspective of investigators over those being investigated. ... At other times, reporting was based on sources whose knowledge was second hand, and this occasionally got journalists into trouble. ... On occasion, the press also ferried speculation, some of which could have been construed as threats, from investigators into news accounts, raising questions about whether the press was sufficiently wary of being used by sources, especially law enforcement sources.”
  • Marvin Kalb (author, former CBS and NBC correspondent, and founding director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy): "[T]he press was clearly in collusion with the prosecutor."
  • Carl Sessions Stepp (American Journalism Review senior editor): “While the press treated Clinton-Lewinsky as one of history's Biggest Big Stories, the public all along knew better. In his new book, Marvin Kalb doesn't frame the discussion in these terms. But the book underlines that Clinton-Lewinsky was, from beginning to end, largely about sex. It was gossip, pure and simple, a five-star Little Big Story. The problem wasn't that the press should not cover this stuff. Juicy gossip has always made news. Instead, the press floundered because it tried to stretch its protocols for important stories and apply them to a soap opera sideshow. Even now, just a couple of years later, it seems unreal that this mess actually led to impeachment. ... To justify their huge coverage, journalists tried to sell the story as a super-important matter of state and thus blew it out of proportion. The constant talk of impeachment, indictment and national crisis -- an effort, presumably, to establish significance -- created a drumbeat effect that inflamed the situation and irritated the audience.”
  • Geneva Overholser (former Washington Post ombudsman): “We allowed ourselves to be used by leakers, and we gave people cover -- and encouraged their underhanded methods -- by constantly quoting people anonymously.”
  • Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel (chairman and vice chairman of the Committee for Concerned Journalists): “The way in which the new Mixed Media Culture has diluted the stream of accurate and reliable information with innuendo and pseudofacts had an impact on the Clinton scandal. It partly explains why the impeachment left so many Americans estranged, as if it were a TV show rather than a political crisis.”
  • Columbia Journalism Review: “A study commissioned by the Committee of Concerned Journalists examined the reporting of the first six days of the scandal, in which the dress played a central role. It concluded that: 'Nearly one in three statements (30 per cent of what was reported) was effectively based on no sourcing at all by the news outlet publishing it.'”
  • Todd Gitlin (journalism professor at Columbia University): “We have come a long way from the time when Jack Newfield could call White House reporters 'stenographers with amnesia.' The stenographers moved on to the Office of the Independent Counsel.

Apparently oblivious to the widespread criticism of the media's performance during the Monica Lewinsky investigation, Blitzer went on to claim that the media's reporting of the Lewinsky saga was confirmed by the Starr report:

DAVIS: In some cases, they were doing. In other cases, not good reporters were reporting innuendo without fact. And if you go back to the reporting about Whitewater and you --

BLITZER: And yet the serious news organizations, the mainstream press, the elite press, they were reporting all the information. And you know what? When the independent counsel's report and all the information came out, almost all of those sleazy details were confirmed in that report, weren't they?

DAVIS: In the Whitewater investigation?

BLITZER: No, I'm talking about his personal relationship with Monica Lewinsky, including the red dress and all that, the blue dress.

As Davis tried to discuss the larger scope of the Starr investigations and the media's coverage of them -- as Clinton had in his interview with Jennings -- Blitzer refused, insisting on discussing only Lewinsky. But even after artificially narrowing the discussion, Blitzer was wrong. Starr's report didn't confirm almost all the details the media had been reporting (based largely on leaks from Starr's office). Rather, the report showed that some of the most significant allegations against Clinton were baseless.

In 1998, the key allegations against Clinton (or so Republicans and the media repeatedly insisted) weren't that he and Lewinsky had a relationship or that her blue dress contained physical evidence of that. The key allegations were that Clinton committed perjury, obstructed justice, and suborned perjury in others.

For example, media reports throughout the year -- relying on leaks from Starr's office -- played up as evidence that Clinton had suborned perjury by inducing Lewinsky to produce a set of “talking points” given to Linda Tripp. Those “talking points” - the basis for so many news reports, and for the notion that Tripp was asked to lie -- turned out to be a red herring, there was no evidence they came from Clinton or anyone close to him, and they were absent from Starr's report. Likewise, media reports that a White House steward witnessed inappropriate activity between Clinton and Lewinsky turned out to be false. Far from confirming “almost all” of the media's reporting on the Lewinsky matter, the Starr report revealed that much of the “evidence” that had been reported in the media that Clinton had committed serious crimes turned out to be false.

Little is said about Clinton “suborning perjury” or “obstructing justice” in the media these days, because so much of what they reported about those allegations in 1998 turned out to be false information slipped to them by Starr's office. Instead, the media -- like Blitzer during his interview with Davis -- pretends that because Clinton did, in fact, have an inappropriate relationship with Lewinsky, their coverage was vindicated, and Clinton was “guilty” of what he was accused of doing. The media's gloss on their own handling of the story ignores some of the most breathless and damning reporting that took place that year -- reporting that turned out to be wrong. It also ignores the fact that most significant allegations against Clinton turned out to be wrong, as well.

Even more troubling, though, is Blitzer's refusal to even discuss Whitewater and the myriad other discredited allegations against Clinton that so captivated the media's attention for eight years. Though Clinton himself referred to Whitewater, and to the totality of the investigative culture in the media and among Republicans during his two terms in office, and though Blitzer's guest, Davis, tried to steer the conversation towards the broader issue of all of the investigations, Blitzer time and again insisted on focusing only on Lewinsky -- “sleazy details” that draw viewers, but do little to educate them.

Blitzer's refusal to discuss Whitewater perhaps isn't surprising. After pushing the story so hard for so long, the media may be embarrassed that there turned out to be no there there.

As Columbia Journalism Review's Evan Jenkins has noted:

Beyond aberrations of the [former New York Times reporter Jayson] Blair sort are journalistic excesses with far greater consequences for the body politic. Think Wen Ho Lee [a nuclear scientist accused of spying]. Think Travelgate and Filegate and, for my money, think Whitewater itself, and all the frenzied energy the American press expended on them. Those kinds of excesses, too, also happen when truth can't speak forcefully enough to power.