The press hits rewind on the Clinton scandals

››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

How dreadful was the news coverage last week surrounding the official release of Hillary Clinton's public White House schedule from her eight years as first lady? So bad that I found myself in rare (unprecedented?) agreement with at least two prominent conservative bloggers who noticed the same thing I did: The Beltway press corps is, at times, a national embarrassment.

How dreadful was the news coverage last week surrounding the official release of Hillary Clinton's public White House schedule from her eight years as first lady? So bad that I found myself in rare (unprecedented?) agreement with at least two prominent conservative bloggers who noticed the same thing I did: The Beltway press corps is, at times, a national embarrassment.

The unusual document dump came after professional Clinton snoops at The New York Times filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see the voluminous paperwork. That was followed by a lawsuit from the right-wing Judicial Watch organization, which owes its fame to the Clinton scandals from the 1990s. As Hillary Clinton noted last week, the highly unusual schedule release from the National Archives likely confirms that she is "the most transparent person in public life." (Former vice presidents Al Gore and Dan Quayle, for instance, never released their old White House schedules while running for president.)

After months of relentless media chatter and speculation about what sort of investigative gold might be buried in the Clinton schedules, reporters, in the end, were left with very little to write about. So they did what they always did during the '90s, they fell back on worn-out sex and scandal narratives and pretended it was news.

Surveying the news coverage, conservative blogger Rick Moran posed the same question I had last week, "Do we really need to know where Hillary was when Monica Lewinsky was with her husband? Or where she was when Vince Foster committed suicide? ... And does it deserve this feeding frenzy from the media?"

It's true that the Clinton schedules did become a political issue within the Democratic primary race with questions raised by Sen. Barack Obama's campaign about whether the former first lady's itineraries sustained her claims of White House experience. And in that context, the schedules were certainly newsworthy and should have been reported on in order to inform news consumers. In fact, The Politico deserves credit, since its news story on the topic, written by Kenneth Vogel and Andrew Glass, was the only one I read or saw that focused entirely on the political ramifications of the schedules without wandering into pointless rehashing of previous Clinton scandals.

On the opposite end of the spectrum though, was some awful journalism, including failing efforts from The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal -- the Post's because it was built around the childish notion that the schedules should have revealed more about Clinton's emotions -- her feelings -- during the '90s, and the Journal's for obsessing over what the schedules told us about the death of Vince Foster. (Hint: absolutely nothing.)

But of course what really got journalists excited about the document dump was the fact that it allowed them to talk about White House sex. ABC News, which earned some place in journalism purgatory for its hellacious Clinton impeachment coverage, couldn't wait to dish the dirt in a highly inappropriate way.

This was the breathless lede of the abcnews.com story that came complete with a photo of Lewinsky's semen-stained blue dress: "Hillary Clinton spent the night in the White House on the day her husband had oral sex with Monica Lewinsky, and may have actually been in the White House when it happened."

Ah, oral sex in the White House. Doesn't that make you nostalgic for the Gin Blossoms, Seinfeld, and everything '90s? I have no idea what the news value was of ABC arousing itself in public that way, but apparently 10 years after the fact Americans needed to be informed.

Also, a quick question for ABC's Brian Ross, whose ABC News Investigative Unit hyped the big blow job scoop: How exactly did he get access to "17,481 pages of Sen. Hillary Clinton's schedule as first lady" when virtually every other news organization in the country (CNN, New York Times, Washington Post, Washington Times, Los Angeles Times, etc.) referred to the 11,000 pages that were released by the National Archives? Did Ross really uncover an additional 6,000 pages that no other reporter knew about? Just asking.

Anyway, soon lots of news outlets joined in and stressed how the big news was that Hillary was in the White House while her husband fooled around:

  • "Sen. Hillary Clinton was in the White House on multiple occasions when her husband had sexual encounters with Monica Lewinsky, according to newly released documents." -- CNN.com
  • "Hillary Rodham Clinton was home in the White House on a half dozen days when her husband had sexual encounters there with intern Monica Lewinsky." -- Associated Press
  • "A shameless President Bill Clinton had secret Oval Office sex eight times with Monica Lewinsky when his wife was under the same roof, Hillary Clinton's private records reveal." -- New York Daily News

Here's the thing, though: We already knew that. The media's big scoop last week about Hillary's whereabouts during the Lewinsky episodes has been public knowledge for nearly a decade, thanks to independent counsel Kenneth Starr. Or did you really think that during his relentless, $70 million investigation into the president's sex life that Starr and his team of obsessive vice cops never answered the simple question regarding Hillary's whereabouts during the trysts?

The Washington Post's Peter Baker let the truth slip out while appearing on MSNBC and discussing the fact that Hillary Clinton "was in the building" when Lewinsky fooled around with her husband. Noted Baker, "That's not entirely new [information], we sort of knew that, but it sort of reinforces what we learned at the time the Starr Report came out in 1998."

In other words, the scoop last week had been hiding in plain sight for nearly a decade.

More dumb and dumber? Read the following nugget from The New York Times' coverage and then decide whether to laugh or cry. It came as the Times tried to squeeze some nonexistent excitement out of the schedule release by tying it to the Lewinsky story:

On Wednesday, Jan. 21, 1998, the day the Lewinsky scandal exploded into public view, Mrs. Clinton held meetings and discussions between 7:25 a.m. and 7:50 a.m. with people whose names are redacted from her schedule.

So, on the day the Lewinsky scandal broke, the first lady met with somebody that morning for 25 minutes. The Times had no idea who she met with or what was discussed, yet the meeting deserved mention 10 years later because it represented "a small window into Mrs. Clinton's activities after revelations of the Monica Lewinsky affair in early 1998."

I suppose the emphasis should be placed on "small."

Truth is, we actually know that the 25-minute meeting the Times highlighted had nothing to do with the Lewinsky scandal because, as the National Archives made clear, the schedules released only reflected the first lady's public meetings, which meant any face-to-face that had to do with Clinton's personal affairs -- including various scandals and legal problems -- was omitted.

Of course, that didn't stop reporters from pretending to be surprised that non-public meetings were missing from the released schedules. At Newsweek, that's what former Starr ally Michael Isikoff, along with Mark Hosenball, did, noting that all kinds of scandal-related meetings were not part of the public schedules released. As part of their "web exclusive," the duo -- bringing back that beloved Clinton-era narrative where any innocuous fact can be wrapped in ominous overtones -- reported that "anybody looking through Hillary Clinton's newly released White House records for clues as to how she handled this personal crisis will find ... absolutely nothing." Of course, both reporters knew those meetings were never going to be included, but they acted shocked just the same. (Ross at ABC played up the same nonsense.)

Note that Isikoff and Hosenball also complained that for the month of August 1998, there is no reference in the first lady's public itinerary regarding the fact that Al Qaeda forces bombed two U.S. Embassies in Africa. I kid you not.

The Post and the Journal win for worst coverage

Some in the press also appeared to have been expecting Clinton's personal diaries, not her public schedules, to be released. Acting the most confused was Libby Copeland at The Washington Post, who wrote up an entire report about how the schedules didn't reveal anything about Clinton's emotions. The documents were "all mechanics and no feeling."

Copeland wrote that "any insights here into the presidential candidate's interior life ... are between the typewritten lines and the reader's imagination." We know what Clinton "did on any particular day," Copeland complained, "but not what she felt," not what "she thought about."

Honestly, what kind of fool turns to a government-issued public schedule to try to divine "insights" into somebody's "interior life," into how they "felt" or what they "thought about"?

Copeland, who works for the largest newspaper in the nation's capital, which prides itself on its political sophistication and understanding of how the federal government truly operates, was apparently bewildered at what the schedule showed. Naïve beyond her years, Copeland was amazed that the first lady's schedule was stuffed with details about local weather forecasts and notations about time zone differences, as well as phonetic spellings for important people with tricky last names who Clinton was scheduled to meet.

All of this was a revelation for Copeland and the Post.

Post readers, though, many of whom have extensive backgrounds in government, were less amazed and quickly ridiculed Copeland's article at washingtonpost.com:

  • "What pea-brains expected to find ANYTHING in a schedule other than time, date, person? A SCHEDULE IS DESIGNED TO TELL US JUST THAT!"
  • "Does Copeland think [a schedule] should read like a sixteen year old girl's diary? There is something deeply troubling about the Washington Post and its reporters."
  • "This is a ridiculous article. Are you seriously complaining that the schedule of the first lady of the United States is too detailed?"
  • "I am shocked that the Post writes as if it has never seen a Washington politician's schedule before."

Lastly, there was the Journal's dreadful Vince Foster reporting. He's the former senior Clinton aide and longtime Arkansas friend who committed suicide in 1993 just after joining the Clinton administration. The saga became a focal point of wild, right-wing conspiracies, with conjecture coming from the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal, as well as Rush Limbaugh, who once told listeners that Foster may have been murdered in an apartment owned by Hillary Clinton.

Independent counsel Ken Starr spent three years and millions of dollars investigating Foster's death, only to confirm what local law enforcement officials understood almost immediately: Foster had killed himself. (I'm guessing Foster's suicide note proved to be a telling clue.) Again, the former first lady's released schedules provided absolutely no new information about the Foster suicide.

But that didn't stop the Journal from devoting an entire blog post to dissecting Clinton's whereabouts at the time of Foster's death. The dispatch truly was jaw-dropping and disgraceful. It even drew the scorn of conservative blogger Ed Morrissey, who wrote, "I searched in vain for anything newsworthy in this post, but found absolutely nothing. Why write this post at all?"

The piece was written by Elizabeth Holmes and headlined, "Clinton's Calendar and Vince Foster." Holmes justified the scrutiny by suggesting, "Hillary Clinton's schedule sheds light on are her activities before, during and after major events in her husband's presidential tenure." According to Holmes, Foster's death was a "major event" from Clinton's tenure, which seems like a stretch to me, considering the extraordinary and often historic episodes that transpired during Clinton's eight years in office. Meaning, for journalists and Clinton-haters, yes, I suppose Foster's death was a major event. But if you asked 100 random Americans to list the five most important events from Clinton's two terms, I doubt five or more would mention the sad tale of Vince Foster from the first months of the Clinton presidency.

But more importantly, as Morrissey noted, the obvious (and honorable) thing to do would have been for the Journal to stress how the new White House information confirmed, yet again, that there was no connection between Clinton and the Foster death, and maybe even stress how the so-called scandal simply highlighted the irrational and often toxic atmosphere that dominated D.C. during the Clinton years.

Instead, Holmes played dumb, first by giving credence to the suggestion that "many conspiracy theories persist suggesting [Foster] was murdered." From there Holmes diligently detailed "the last time" Clinton "officially" met with Foster ("from 11 a.m. until noon"), where she slept the night before the suicide ("a hotel in Santa Barbara"), and where she was the fateful moment of the suicide ("Clinton would have been in the air at that time.").

And how about this touch: "Foster was reportedly found dead at a park in around 6 p.m. local time" [emphasis added]. "Reportedly"? We're talking about perhaps the most investigated suicide in the history of Washington, D.C., yet Holmes left readers with the impression that questions remain unanswered about the most basic facts regarding Foster's death, like when his body was found.

I remain in heated agreement with the conservative Morrissey:

The Wall Street Journal should know better than this. It panders to nutcases and then fails to deliver on the promise of its headline and lede. I await with bated breath the non-story regarding the non-connection between Hillary's schedules and the overdose death of River Phoenix.

The release of Clinton's White House schedules hit the rewind button in lots of newsrooms last week as reporters jumped at the chance to revisit the good ole days. I suppose that was to be expected. Yet for those who paid close attention to the press during the partisan battles of the '90s and bemoaned the Fourth Estate's collective performance, watching last week's Keystone Kops routine surrounding the relatively simple story of the first lady's schedules being released confirmed a disturbing truth: The political press corps, in terms of standards and professionalism, is probably in worse shape today than it was 10 years ago.

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