Did Clinton Questioner Deserve Press Scrutiny?
Ernest R. Sander
Ernest R. Sander is a wire service reporter based inLos Angeles.
Last spring, San Diego businessman Lorne Fleming asked President Clinton a single question about tax policy. With it, he entered an arena populated by politicians and celebrities and surrounded by reporters looking for hints of scandal.
Or did he? Fleming says that an investigation by the San Diego Union-Tribune into his own tax troubles was nothing short of character assassination.
The controversy began after San Diego's KGTV invited Fleming and 44 others to a televised forum with Clinton this past May. "San Diegans just don't have any more money to contribute to the coffers of government," Fleming told the president. "My question is, can you name one country that has ever taxed and spent itself back into prosperity?"
Videotapes of the question and Clinton's response ("I can't, but you can't fairly characterize my program like that") were shown that night on local and national newscasts, and conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh dubbed the self-employed equipment maintenance manager as his "poster boy."
In an editorial two days later, the Union-Tribune praised Fleming for "zoom[ing] in on the central flaw in the administration's economic program."
That same day, however, the Union-Tribune received a call from one of Fleming's five ex-wives, who said she could supply documents that showed her former husband had consistently failed to pay his taxes. Just 48 hours after the paper had lauded Fleming, a front page story by reporter Gerry Braun reported that he hadn't paid taxes that he owed. The article also raised questions about the Canadian-born businessman's status as a U.S. citizen.
"Fleming's open defiance of tax laws is well known among his associates," Braun wrote. A waitress at a tavern where Fleming used to spend time was quoted as saying: "Everybody in here knows that Lorne didn't pay his taxes... He was very open about it. He was very arrogant."
Fleming was outraged. "I have had tax problems in the past but they were taken care of," he says. "The story was unfair and irrelevant."
Many readers agreed, and 145 cancelled their subscriptions in what Editor Gerald Warren calls a "mindless talk show reaction." About 400 readers phoned ombudsman Gina Lubrano or the paper, and many others wrote.
Few had kind words. "I guess I am naive to think that a person should be able to ask a question at a town meeting and not have a reporter use an ex-wife and a barmaid to trash him," said one. Added another, "Nothing you printed was any of your business."
Warren, Lubrano and Braun all say they are unmoved. Braun insists Fleming is "in no way, shape or form a private citizen" because he "was positioning himself as a spokesman for American taxpayers. [Fleming denies that was his intention.] My point is that this guy is not a taxpayer and not a U.S. citizen."
Adds Warren, "It was the most talked about newspaper story the next day. By any stretch of the imagination, that is one of the definitions of the news: Will they talk about it?"
Roger Hedgecock, who championed Fleming's cause on his local radio show, says he fears the "gotcha" media may dissuade people from taking part in public discussions. "If the Union-Tribune rule on Lorne Fleming is the rule in modern journalism, democracy is dead," says Hedgecock, a former mayor of San Diego who resigned under pressure. "Citizens will not participate."
Nonsense, says Braun. The only people who will be wary, he insists, are those involved in "high-level hypocrisy." ###