By: Allan Wolper
Former White House chief counsel charges Washington, D.C.,
reporters with compromising themselves by becoming money
making celebrities on TV talk shows and lecture circuits sp.
THE FORMER COUNSEL to President Bill Clinton says Washington newspaper reporters are compromising themselves by becoming money-making celebrities on the TV talk and lecture circuits.
Bernard Nussbaum alleges, in addition, that those correspondents have sold out their traditional watchdog role to pay for an expensive life style in Washington, D.C.
Nussbaum resigned last April as White House chief counsel after being criticized in Congress and the media for his behavior in the Whitewater controversy.
He made his comments during the question-and-answer session that followed his speech at the annual Columbia Daily Spectator Blue Pencil Lecture in Columbia University’s Low Library.
Nussbaum, who was Daily Spectator editor in chief in 1958, returned to New York City as a senior partner in the law firm of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz.
“There are too many careerists who go to good universities, graduate and get good jobs at newspapers,” Nussbaum said. “Then, they get sent to Washington where they make $80,000. But that is not enough to live in Washington. Then, they learn that if you’re controversial on your beat, you get invited on talk shows, and you can increase your income to $150,000. And those reporters become celebrities. But that still isn’t enough to live inside the Beltway.
“Then, they get invited to make speeches around the country for $5,000 and $10,000,” he continued. “And, now, they’re making $300,000, and that’s enough to live the good life in Washington.”
Nussbaum said journalists who become talk show pundits and lecturers tend to use their media pulpits to indiscriminately attack public officials.
“I am not saying there is something wrong in making money,” he said. “I believe in capitalism. But there is something wrong with journalists on this career track, who want to get somebody, even when there is no reason to get somebody.”
Nussbaum said in an interview after his speech that print journalists lose their objectivity when they deliver opinionated analyses and lectures, but he declined to name any of the journalists he had in mind.
He also lashed out at establishment journalism for taking their news cues from what he saw as irresponsible elements of the media.
“In these days of Hard Copy and the American Spectator, there is no story too bizarre, or thinly researched, that it cannot be piped into our homes each evening,” Nussbaum said. “And our established news outlets, as they compete for a place in the sun in the world of hundreds of cable channels, are increasingly taking their tone and their stories from the fringes of the national media.”
Hard Copy is a nightly, syndicated tabloid television program, and the American Spectator is a conservative publication that has published a series of allegations over White House handling of the Whitewater case.
Nussbaum insisted in his 15-page formal speech that journalism was suffering because of the prosecuting nature of the American press.
He said he wasn’t rattled by media criticism because he learned how to handle it.
“You have to be willing to take the heat,” he said. “Even though sometimes I felt radioactive.”
Nussbaum said that television news coverage of the privates lives of public figures had gotten out of hand.
“Nothing is sacred,” he noted. “Nothing is private. And it’s [television] in your house every night.”
He noted that Westbrook Pegler’s columns a half-century ago attacking President Franklin D. Roosevelt paled in comparison to today’s journalistic pack attacks.
“Television has changed it all,” he said. “Imagine ? one network gave 17 minutes of its time to Whitewater. That’s a lot worse that what Pegler used to do to Roosevelt.”
He quoted a recent Harper’s magazine article critical of the media’s handling of the Whitewater scandal as evidence of his thesis:
“In the post-Watergate, post-everything culture, no reporter wishes to appear insufficiently prosecutorial ? particularly not when the suspects are the president and his wife. By definition, they have to be guilty of something; it may as well be Whitewater.”
Nussbaum defended himself against critics who said he improperly rummaged through papers in Vincent Foster’s office after the presidential deputy counsel committed suicide.
He said he had made a brief inspection on July 20, 1993, of Foster’s office, but didn’t take anything with him.
“On the night of Vince’s death, I and two others spent a very brief period of time in Mr. Foster’s office, looking to see if he had left a suicide note,” Nussbaum said. “We found none and left. I removed nothing, nor to my knowledge did anyone else.”
He criticized an advertisement that ran in the New York Post, alleging he and several colleagues had taken some documents out of Foster’s office. “That charge is, plain and simple, a lie,” Nussbaum said.
The former White House chief lawyer insisted the only papers he removed from Foster’s office were taken less than 48 hours later, in the presence of investigators.
He said those documents were sent to President Clinton’s personal lawyers.
“They included certain files of the president and the first lady, relating to their Whitewater real estate investment,” he said.
But Nussbaum insisted at the same time that he did not know when he took the files what the Whitewater financial records were all about.
“The truth is, that in July 1993, when these files were transferred, I could not have told you what Whitewater was,” Nussbaum insisted.
Nussbaum said, however, that he never believed that the media attacks on him were personal. “It had to do with the media trying to get at the president in the prosecutorial culture that we live in.”
?(“I am not saying there is something wrong in making money,” he said. “I beleive in capitalism. But there is something wrong with journalists on this career track, who want to get somebody, even when there is no reason to ge somebody.”) [Caption]
?( Bernard Nussbaum, former White House chief counsel, now a senior partner in the New York City law firm of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz) [Photo & Caption]
?( Wolper, an associate professor of journalism at the Newark campus of Rutgers University, covers campus journalism for E&P.) [Caption]