White House Report Attacks Critical Press p.8

By: Debra Gersh Hernandez IN THE GREAT tradition of the ""nattering nabobs of negativism,"" the White House has now presented us with a ""communication stream of conspiracy commerce.""
In a 330-plus page report, compiled by a junior staffer in the White House counsel's office, the administration alleges a ""media food chain,"" whereby individuals and groups with a conservative, anti-Clinton agenda supposedly get their ideas onto the Internet and into conservative publications, eventually making their way to more mainstream press like the New York Times and Washington Post.
The report, which consists mainly of old news clippings, was produced in 1995 in response to media inquiries about Whitewater and the suicide of former White House aide Vincent Foster, according to White House spokesman Mike McCurry.
While not a formal release, McCurry said the report was made available to reporters making inquiries about these topics.
During a briefing with reporters, McCurry said that the White House staff ""provided these materials because we wanted to refute some of the very aggressive charges being made fallaciously against the president, most often on the Internet, coming from a variety of kind of crazy, right-wing sources.""
The report, he said, was developed in order to ""really help journalists understand that they shouldn't be used by those who are really concocting their own conspiracies and their own theories and then peddling them elsewhere.""
Those sources, he said, include the Greensburg, Pa., Tribune-Review, its publisher, Mellon fortune heir Richard Mellon Scaife, and the Western Journalism Center, also funded by Scaife, as well as conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation.
McCurry said the report ""purports to show that the conspiracy theorists who are very active on the subject of Whitewater and other subjects very often plant their stories, plant their information in various places, and then we kind of give you a theory of how things get picked up and translated and moved through what we call the media food chain, or what others have called the media food chain.""
According to the report, ""well-funded right-wing think-tanks and individuals underwrite conservative newsletters and newspapers, such as the Western Journalism Center, the American Spectator, and the Pittsburgh [Greensburg] Tribune-Review.""
""Next, the stories are reported on the Internet, where they are bounced all over the world.
""From the Internet, the stories are bounced into the mainstream media in one of two ways: (1) the story will be picked up by the British tabloids and covered as a major story, from which the right-of-center mainstream media (i.e. the Wall Street Journal, Washington Times and New York Post) will then pick the story up; or (2) the story will be bounced directly from the Internet to the right-of-center mainstream American media,"" the report continued.
""After the mainstream right-of-center American media cover the story, congressional committees will look into the story.
""After Congress looks into the story, the story now has the legitimacy to be covered by the remainder of the American mainstream press as a 'real' story,"" the report said.
McCurry noted that the path of stories about this report ? first in a Wall Street Journal column, then a Washington Times story and then in other papers ? is a good example of this media food chain.

WJC responds
Joseph Farah, the former newspaper editor who heads the Western Journalism Center, criticized the White House for using taxpayer dollars to fund what he described as a politically motivated report.
""Taxpayer money and the White House staff were used to prepare and distribute the report,"" Farah charged. ""The Democratic National Committee was also involved in the preparation, according to the administration.
""This report demonstrates that the White House is maintaining dossiers on private citizens for the political gain of Bill Clinton,"" Farah charged. ""I'd like to know where in the Constitution such executive power is enumerated. Worse yet, the White House is exempt from requests under the Freedom of Information Act, so we may never know the full extend of the intelligence-gathering apparatus being used by this White House to create its enemies' list.""
""Look,"" McCurry said, ""everyone in here knows there's a fair amount of nut-case material that floats around with respect to Whitewater, and some of it, unfortunately and tragically and very, very painfully, has to do with the death of a former White House staffer.""
""And that stuff gets peddled, and sometimes ? in fact, in the summer of 1995, all too often was coming back at us from a lot of news organizations that, frankly, should have known better.
""So we would say, wait a minute, you guys are chasing a story that has very, very suspicious roots and let us document for you how this stuff gets into the news flow, so that we can protect you and protect your readers and protect the American people from bad information,"" McCurry said.
Claiming minimal taxpayer expense ? what he said was the cost of having a junior staffer put a two-and-a-half-page memo on some clips provided by the Democratic National Committee ? McCurry said he believes the action was appropriate.
Not only is it the White House's responsibility to respond to ""false, fallacious, damaging and politically motivated"" attacks against the president, but McCurry also noted using the DNC clipping service was ""perfectly appropriate.""
The DNC, he said, ""is using its research capacity to respond to political attacks on the president.
""Now, it is more appropriate for the DNC research division, paid for by the party's political funding, to do that type of work to respond to political charges to the president than it would have been for the legal counsel's office to do it,"" McCurry continued.
""Now, the legal counsel has every right to have access to that information and to help use that in responding to press inquiries,"" he added.

Inconsistent policy?
When asked how this report can be defended when an earlier report on the media by outgoing Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary was excoriated, McCurry pointed out that while the energy report rated reporters based on their coverage of the department, this one was designed ""to protect people from getting a bunch of bad stories in their papers.""
The following day, when asked during a White House ceremony if he thought there was a ""right-wing cabal in the press"" against him, President Clinton responded simply, ""No.""
Hillary Rodham Clinton, in a C-SPAN interview, reportedly commented on ""a very effective, well-organized advocacy press that is, I think, very up-front in its right-wing, conservative inclinations and makes no apologies.""
Mrs. Clinton further noted that while she had no problem with the conservative media, she saw nothing comparable on the liberal side, ""so that most of what is left in what you might call the middle or the establishment or the mainstream tries to be objective and tries to be thoughtful.""

WSJ responds
A Wall Street Journal editorial about the report, however, noted that, ""At one level, the White House report is simply silly, starting with the infelicitous title, Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce.
""White House spin doctors are indignant because none of the journalists they planted it with thought it was news until conservative journalists pointed out how ridiculous it is,"" the Journal opined.
""Its silliness aside,"" the Journal editorial continued, ""the 'food chain' report has to be seen as the nastiness it is. It's part of a generally successful Clinton effort to provoke criticism of members of the press who are reporting the Clinton scandals.
""Its implication is that because some rumors are extreme, all of the scandal stories are discredited,"" the editorial continued. ""In fact, "" the Journal charged, ""the press has erred relatively seldom in spreading unfounded rumor.""


In his daily column, Washington Times editor in chief Wesley Pruden noted that McCurry was ""particularly hard on this newspaper, which has been particularly aggressive, but meticulously fair, in reporting on various Clinton capers.""
"He finds us guilty of running stories from other publications [true], declining to put the bylines of our own reporters on other people's stories [also true], and of printing stuff that people actually want to read [yes, we do that] and that other newspapers print their own versions of what they learn from reading out newspaper [count on it]; Pruden wrote.
"It's also true that, like other newspapers, we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to supplement our own reporting with the services of the Associated Press, Reuters, United Press International, Scripps Howard [which provided access to material from dozens of newspapers throughout the United States], the London Telegraph and dozen syndicates,"" Pruden continued.
"We often print the stories they send us, and this is why there's more real news in the Washington Times than in any other newspaper in town.
'When we print these stories we buy from other newspapers, we always properly credit the source,"" he added. ""We think it's a nice thing to do, and besides, we would hear from their lawyers if we didn't.""
Pruden went on to note that there is ""a temptation to treat this latest White House attempt to manage the news as an embarrasiingly inadvertent joke, the loony tunes of yokels going on and on about something they don't know anything about.""
"But there's something sinister about a White House enemies list,"" he wrote. ""It smacks of trying to chill the reporting about the president, particularly a president who expects a hard winter and a rough spring, as [special prosecutro] Ken Starr's grand jury wraps up its work.""
The Washington Times editorial page that day expanded on the enemies list theme with an editorial headlined, ""William Jefferson Nixon.""
"It now seems the two men [Nixon and Clinton] have far more in common than anyone realized, including an enemies list-and not just an enemies list in the case of Mr. Clinton, but a rigorous, detailed, heavily documented, annotated Grand Theory of a consipracy to get the president, "" the Times editorial stated.
But former Nixon and Eisenhower staffer Stephen Hess, Brookings Institution government studies program senior fellow, who has written numerous books about the presidency and about the press, said the incident is ""not at all"" Nixonian.
"They're not out to get journalists,"" he remarked. This report was born of ""somebody's frustration and a young person's ignorance ""about how the media operate.
The report, Hess noted, ""does reflect, to some degree, a misunderstanding abou the press. You could gather clips and shuffle them in any order to show"" what you want. ""There's nothing wrong with trying to manipulate the press,"" he added. ""It's up to journalists to determine what is true and what is not true.""
Further, what the report describes is ""so minute in what the press does in any week, on any day, or in any month, to build it into a conspiracy is almost ludicrous,"" Hess said. ""What the president does have a right to complain about is the degree that the press becomes antiincumbent,"" he continued , noting that this phenomenon is not ideological.
"Over time, journalists make their mark sticking it to you. If you're the pincushion, after awhile you start to feel it,"" Hell pointed out.
Nevertheless, Hess said Journalists did have some right to feel incensed over the report, which he said ""does call into question their work ethic and integrity.""
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press executive director Jane E. Kirtley also noted the irony in the report.
"The irony is, we have it as fact that the White House has very effective spin doctors to put their own slant on the story. It's not as though they're ignroant of the way the media works,"" she said.
Farah said he was ""flattered"" that his western Journalism Center was claimed by the White House to be at the top of the ""media food chain.""
"This report is vindication of our work-especially with regard to the death of Vincent Foster,"" Farah said.
?(Claiming minimal taxpayer expense ? what he said was the cost of having a junior staffer put a two-and-a-half-page memo on some clips provided by the Democratic National Committee ? White House press secretary Mike McCurry said he believes the action was appropriate) [Caption & Photo]

?(""There's nothing wrong with trying to manipulate the press. It's up to journalists to determine what is true and what is not true."") [Caption]
?(? Stephen Hess, Brookings Institution government studies program senior fellow) [Caption & Photo]

February 15, 1997 n Editor & Publisher #

DATE: Sat 01-Mar-1997
PUBLICATION: Editor & Publisher
CATEGORY: Corrections
AUTHOR: Editorial Staff


corrections photo washington times wesley pruden stephen hell brookings institution


Corrections p. 7

A PHOTO OF Washington (D.C.) Times editor in chief Wesley Pruden was mixed up with a quote from Brookings Institution fellow Stephen Hess (E&P, Feb 15, p. 9). The man pictured was, in fact, Pruden.


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