Albion Monitor /Commentary
[Editor's note: See also Study Finds Media Overplays Clinton Scandal, Liberal Image and Counting Lewinskys for more on media treatment of Clinton's personal issues.]

Press Pursues Clinton's Private, Not Public, Deception

by Jeff Cohen

As long as Clinton furthered pro-establishment, pro-corporate policies -- involving jobs, poverty, even life and death -- Washington journalists didn't seem overly concerned about the President's public honesty; indeed, the pattern of selective zeal debunks the stale myth of the "liberal media"
Let's hear it for the zealous journalists of the Washington press corps. In recent weeks, they've become fierce watchdogs in pursuit of President Clinton's evasions about his private life.

But hold the applause. Because for years, when Clinton served up evasions and distortions on important public policy matters, these same journalists often performed more like docile lapdogs.

Which raises the question: Shouldn't reporters be more aggressive in pursuing dishonesty in Clinton's "public" life than in his "private" life?

Let's review just a few of Clinton's public actions or claims that were less than forthright -- and the media reaction, if any.

  • Campaign Reform: One of Clinton's campaign pledges in 1992 was to enact election finance reform. In his first inaugural address, he promised to "reform our politics so that power and privilege no longer shout down the voice of the people." In his 1993 State of the Union, he called on Congress to "pass a real campaign finance reform bill this year."

    But in the two years that Clinton and the Democrats controlled Congress, the President didn't lift a finger for reform. Few journalists probed whether Clinton had misled voters.

  • Invest In America: During the 1992 campaign, Clinton crisscrossed the country promising new jobs through major investment in cities and infrastructure. "It's time to put the American people first, to invest and grow this economy," he repeated. "You cannot get there just by balancing the budget." After the election, Clinton deftly abandoned these pledges by claiming, "Gee, I didn't know the deficit was so big."

    Had Clinton been dishonest? Few mainstream reporters seemed to care enough to investigate. And pundits -- rather than deploring apparent duplicity -- praised Clinton for being realistic.

  • NAFTA: Clinton's claims about the North American Free Trade Agreement -- both before and after passage -- were marked by distortion and exaggeration. He vowed 200,000 new American jobs per year. He promised a $2 -- $3 billion clean-up fund to deal with polluting factories on the Mexican border (only about 1 percent of the money has materialized). To win needed votes in Congress, the President brazenly dispensed favors and pork.

    Unlike the current media barrage challenging Clinton's evasive comments about his private life, the President's pro-NAFTA double-talking and double-dealing won approval from powerful journalists -- applause for being a strong leader who, cheered the New York Times, "bought victory remarkably cheaply."

On public issue after public issue, President Clinton has long displayed a knack for official prevarication. Recall how he justified his 1993 bombing of Baghdad -- which killed innocent civilians -- as "retaliation" for a dubious Iraqi government plot to murder George Bush. Washington journalists didn't question the honesty of the claim.

Recall how Clinton signed a welfare bill after the White House had suppressed an internal study showing the measure would push countless children into poverty -- and after the official behind the study was told by the White House to cease such analyses. The cover-up of research affecting millions of Americans didn't prompt any news specials on network TV.

As long as Clinton's evasions furthered pro-establishment, pro-corporate policies -- involving jobs, poverty, even life and death -- Washington journalists didn't seem overly concerned about the President's public honesty. They've been far more ferocious lately in exposing whether he lied about his private affairs.

Indeed, the pattern of selective zeal debunks the stale myth of the "liberal media." When Clinton pushed budget, welfare and trade programs favorable to business interests, the Washington press corps was relatively placid. Just as it was when Clinton appointed establishment insiders like Lloyd Bentsen and Les Aspin to his cabinet.

By contrast, remember the clamor from top journalists and pundits the few times Clinton backed -- even half-heartedly -- liberal policies (like gays in the military) or appointees (like civil rights lawyer Lani Guinier).

The White House sex scandal and its coverage may be tawdry, but some good can come of it if millions of Americans start asking new questions about the national news media -- not just their ethics, but their biases.

Jeff Cohen is the director of FAIR, the New York-based media watch organization --- and co-author (with Norman Solomon) of Wizards of Media Oz: Behind the Curtain of Mainstream News.

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Albion Monitor March 9, 1998 (

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