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American Journalism Review
No Problem  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   October 1996

No Problem   

Liberal magazines have all but ignored eithical controversies engulfing the Clintons.

By Ken Silverstein
Ken Silverstein is coeditor of the Washington-based political newsletter Counter Punch and coauthor of the new book, "Washington Babylon."     

AN ABUSE OF POWER IS an abuse of power whether committed by Republicans or Democrats.... Whitewater and Travelgate are a litmus test for liberals of their commitment to honesty in government. Do they have one standard, or two?"

These lines appeared in an article by Doug Ireland published last February 19 in The Nation magazine and are an inspiring call for intellectual and political independence. Yet The Nation was a curious venue for the article to appear, because the litmus test offered up by Ireland is one that it and the rest of the liberal press--and here I mean the openly liberal press, including Mother Jones and The Washington Monthly--have failed.

This may sound like the onset of a tirade from Rush Limbaugh, but my own politics are squarely on the left (I've written for two of the above magazines). However, I've been disappointed to see liberal publications providing coverage that is heavily slanted in favor of President Bill Clinton and the Democrats, especially as the November election nears. Instead of adhering to the single standard Ireland demanded, the liberal press has pandered to its readers by serving up heaping portions of GOP sacrificial lamb while largely ignoring everything from the Clinton administration's ethical standards to the Democratic Party's reliance on corporate campaign money.

GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole gets slammed in The Nation for accepting gambling industry money, but Clinton's championing of campaign finance reform while raising record sums of money for his reelection bid merits scant mention by the liberal magazines. The Nation accuses Elizabeth Dole of playing politics during her tenure at the Red Cross by, for example, giving "frequent speeches about her born-again Christian commitment" to help shore up her husband's "standing with the Christian Right." Meanwhile, the liberal magazines have brushed aside scandals involving Hillary Rodham Clinton, with The Nation labeling Travelgate a "petty affair" and a Mother Jones article referring to Mrs. Clinton's infamous commodity trades as "a minor embarrassment."

To some degree, it's understandable that liberal magazines would go easier on Democrats than Republicans. Certainly, the Wall Street Journal editorial page and the National Review, for example, have been far tougher on Clinton than Dole. But The Nation, Mother Jones and The Washington Monthly portray themselves as independent watchdogs and routinely criticize the mainstream press for its conservative bias. The editors at the magazines defend their coverage, saying they've been plenty critical of Clinton, especially in editorials and columns.

Criticizing Clinton in editorials and columns is fine, but it doesn't explain why these magazines have so rarely unleashed their investigative resources on the president and Democratic targets, as they spare no effort at turning up dirt on the GOP. With Clinton's administration having been investigated by four independent counsels, a record for any presidency, such a posture seems all the more hypocritical.

IN ANALYZING COVERAGE, I SURVEYED The Nation, a weekly, from January through August of 1996. Because the other two magazines publish 10 times a year (the Monthly) and six times a year (Mother Jones), I reviewed the other two over a longer time period, from April of 1995 through August of 1996.

The Nation has relentlessly targeted Dole, publishing at least six articles that scrutinized his record. Several of these stories had no apparent purpose other than to seek to damage the GOP candidate's image. The Nation's August 12/19 cover story, for example, charged that the GOP and Dole had inflated the Republican candidate's record during World War II, when he suffered combat injuries that left his right arm useless. Author Robert Ellis used five pages to explain why Dole shouldn't really be considered a hero because, for example, "dragging a wounded (or dead) comrade into one's shell hole [as Dole once did] was a common occurrence in the heat of battle."

Mother Jones has produced cover stories on every bogey man in the GOP arsenal: Newt Gingrich, the National Rifle Association, the Religious Right, Rush Limbaugh, Phil Gramm and the tobacco industry. The tobacco issue was a double whammy, as the magazine portrayed Bob Dole on the cover dressed as the Marlboro Man. The Washington Monthly has also demonstrated more zeal in bashing the GOP than the equally vulnerable Democrats, though it has been less heavy-handed than the other liberal magazines. Last May it ran a report on how Arthur Coia, head of the Laborers' International Union, has reaped benefits by making hefty political donations to the Democrats. This was the only major story any of the three magazines published during the survey period that focused exclusively on one of Clinton's financial supporters.

Even more striking than what the liberal magazines have reported is what they haven't. All three have steadfastly refused to cover Whitewater, even as that scandal gained more attention in the mainstream press and after a jury in Little Rock convicted some of Clinton's associates last May.

The Washington Monthly ran no major articles about Whitewater, but it did publish a lengthy article about the cozy relationship between Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina and Judge David Sentelle, who headed the three-judge panel that appointed Kenneth Starr as independent counsel. It also ran a cover story on "the Whitewater scandal machine" and the success of the Clintons' enemies in "creating" a scandal. Mother Jones ignored Whitewater as well, while publishing an article on "Republican Whitewaters," such as Rep. Henry Hyde's involvement with Clyde Federal Savings & Loan.

The Nation has thoroughly covered Whitewater, with five articles on the scandal. But all of these skirted the allegations involving the Clintons and instead attacked independent counsel Starr for, among other things, being a Republican and allegedly persecuting the Clintons for political reasons. Of course, questions about Starr have nothing to do with the propriety of the Clintons' behavior. Yet The Nation has washed its hands of Whitewater by saying that "any report Starr hopelessly tarnished."

The Nation did run one tough piece on Whitewater: the Ireland article cited earlier. According to an inside source, Ireland, a regular Nation contributor, was initially commissioned to write a two-part series on Whitewater and other assorted scandals swirling about the Clintons. Editor Katrina vanden Heuvel agreed to run a single 3,000-word story but, according to insiders, she laid down rigid restrictions: The piece was to be neutral in tone, contain no snide references to the Clintons and was to stick to a simple recapitulation of the charges.

When Ireland delivered his article, vanden Heuvel says she wanted to kill it. An in-house battle ensued and Ireland's story was finally published, but only after it had been reduced to one page, about one-quarter of its original size.

Vanden Heuvel says she did not give Ireland any special restrictions, just that the article be carefully reported. When the article came in vanden Heuvel says she decided it didn't merit the length that Ireland originally proposed.

The Travelgate affair, in which Billy Dale and six other White House travel office employees were fired by the Clinton administration, has also been largely ignored by the liberal press. Though there have been a number of new developments in the case, including growing evidence of Hillary Clinton's direct role in the firings, The Washington Monthly and Mother Jones have had little or nothing to say about it. The Nation dismissed Travelgate in a brief item on February 12, saying, "So let's assume that Hillary personally eighty-sixed seven travel office employees.... AT&T fired 44,000 and nobody said a word."

In fact, AT&T's mass layoffs caused a huge uproar, with many major publications running prominent stories on corporate downsizing in its aftermath. More important, if one accepts the line of defense offered by The Nation, then one could also argue, with equal irrelevance, that Travelgate is worthy of little commentary because it pales in comparison to the Nazi extermination of the Jews.

In a lengthier dispatch on January 29, Washington Editor David Corn called Travelgate a "petty matter." He summed up the story: "Hillary and other Clintonites viewed the travel office suspiciously, as full of Reagan/Bush holdovers who had functioned practically as campaign staffers. Then Hillary heard from [her friend Harry] Thomason that the travel office was refusing competitive bids and that there were rumors of financial funny business. She demanded that Chief of Staff Thomas Mack McLarty, deputy counsel Vince Foster and [White House official David] Watkins take care of it--immediately.

"So far, nothing untoward, though perhaps a bit harsh."

Billy Dale (like his six fired colleagues) was no Bush/Reagan holdover, but a non-political career employee who began working in the travel office during the Kennedy administration. Harry Thomason was a partner in TRM, an Arkansas-based aviation consulting firm, and was hoping to use his White House connections to take over the travel office. He and his wife, Linda, were close friends of the Clintons and helped them raise millions of dollars in campaign contributions. The prime reason for the dismissals was to install the Clintons' cronies. Then, to justify this behavior, the administration set the FBI and the IRS on the unfortunate victims, with Dale--who was later acquitted by a federal jury in less than two hours--having to spend his entire life savings to defend himself.

A "petty matter"? Corn says it was "when you compare Travelgate to Iran-contra, Watergate or even the blissful ignorance of the S&L crisis in the Reagan-Bush administrations. It's fundamentally an internal personnel matter in which there was a mild case of FBI abuse."

The liberal magazines have also brushed aside Filegate, in which the White House illegally obtained FBI files on nearly 1,000 private citizens who had left government service.

Once again, it's easy to imagine the abuse the liberal magazines would have heaped upon Ronald Reagan if this assault on civil liberties had taken place on his watch. But Mother Jones and The Washington Monthly have thus far demonstrated little interest in exploring the affair. The Nation has run only a four-paragraph editorial, critical in tone but saying that the list of files that Clinton's aides had picked for examination--which included a large number of prominent Republicans as well as Travelgate victim Billy Dale--had perhaps been only a harmless "bureaucratic creation."

The liberal press' double standard has also been displayed in other areas of political coverage. Eager to portray Dole as a tool of special interests, the magazines have eagerly reported on his favors to campaign contributors, especially the tobacco industry.

In its "Dole as Marlboro Man" issue, Mother Jones had separate stories on how Dole, Republicans in Congress and GOP governors were aiding the tobacco barons. The Nation ran two cover stories on tobacco within two months, with a box accompanying the latter hailing the Clinton administration for seeking "to subject the industry to rational regulation" and noting that the tobacco lords had increased donations to the GOP and cut contributions to the Democrats "to the bone."

In fact, Clinton and the Democrats are just as beholden to corporate cash as the Republicans, with both parties expecting to raise $120 million this year. The Democrats paid for their convention in Chicago with contributions from, among others, Ameritech, Anheuser- Busch, Coca-Cola, Motorola, Paine Webber, AT&T, Archer-Daniels-Midland and Lockheed Martin--the latter three of whom also helped cover the cost of the GOP's convention in San Diego. Tobacco companies still give plenty of money to the Democrats (though less than they do to the GOP). But the Democrats' links to corporate money draw far less attention from the liberal press.

Representatives at the three magazines surveyed defend their coverage. Vanden Heuvel maintains that the magazine has often criticized Clinton in editorials and that "on balance, we've been fair, independent and critical." She points out that several of the The Nation's columnists have regularly attacked the president and pointed to a number of articles on third-party efforts, such as Ralph Nader's campaign on the Green Party ticket.

Jay Harris, publisher of Mother Jones, says that "if you count lines you may have a fair point," but that his magazine has "no loyalty to the Democratic Party. The '94 revolution made the Republicans a more interesting target." Harris added that Newt Gingrich received special attention because he's "leading a revolution to turn back 30 years of progressive advances."

Charles Peters, editor in chief of The Washington Monthly, says his magazine is "basically liberal and Democratic but we try very hard to say where our guys are going wrong." He also said that Clinton and the Democrats have "received an awful lot of critical attention" in his "Tilting at Windmills" column and in the gossipy "Who's Who" section.

Back in August 1995, vanden Heuvel and Nation Publisher and Editor Victor Navasky sent a memo to columnist Alexander Cockburn, the magazine's only regular anti-Clinton voice (and with whom I edit the political newsletter CounterPunch), warning, "We are unenthusiastic about devoting any serious space (even when arguably deserved) to bashing our allies on the liberal left."

Opting for the lesser of two evils is an understandable if lamentable option in the ballot box, but it's not a sound way to practice journalism.



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