The White House announced that George W. Bush would march to Wall Street and call for a hard line on corporate crooks. The president's critics in the news media responded typically by following the Clintonite Democrats and manufacturing a lose-lose scenario.
The first order of business was to attack Bush as out of touch with everyday Americans, with polls asking if the president is "more interested in protecting the interest of ordinary Americans, or is he more interested in protecting the interests of large corporations?" Do you remember any polls in Democrat administrations where a similar question was asked? Oh, but taxpayers and the federal government are never opposites in the liberal mind. Loaded poll questions like this not only set up news stories over how "public opinion" worries that Bush is a corporate suckup, they also suggest that the interests of ordinary Americans and large corporations are automatically and very ideologically at odds. By that theory then, a complete collapse of the stock market and a wave of large corporation failures is in the interest of ordinary Americans.
To further soil President Bush as a corrupt corporate lackey, the media dredged up old questions about the SEC and old sales of stock in Harken Energy, where Bush served as a director. The Democrats clearly handed the media an attack packet, and it was off to the races for the press. One day after the first media whispers, NBC's Brian Williams clucked: "Right in the middle of this wave of corporate accounting scandals, the White House today insisted there is a very simple explanation for why President Bush ran afoul of federal law."
Ran afoul of what federal law? In fact, the Securities and Exchange Commission never charged Bush with any wrongdoing. Nobody at Harken Energy went to jail like they were a mini-Enron. It just sounds like a good subject for the media to use their power to insist a Republican is "dogged by questions," because, well, the media have the power to do the dogging.
After viewers responded unfavorably to their Harken reruns, CNN's Aaron Brown got defensive: "Consistency counts, and my gut says if the president were Clinton, this decade-old story would be hyped to death all over the radio, through at least half the Congress, probably around more than a few water coolers, and maybe, just maybe, the Justice Department."
He's right that consistency counts. He's also right that a Clinton financial scandal would be hyped on talk radio, and the Republican half of Congress. But that says nothing about the response the so-called "objective" news media, especially television. Their record on reporting Clinton financial scandals is very much on display.
Let's not let Brown rewrite history. In real history, network television despised Whitewater, dismissed it quickly in the 1992 campaign, and ignored it for a year and a half until it resurfaced in late 1993. Television only covered it to the degree that a special prosecutor and congressional investigators made it impossible to ignore, and the media's tone was regularly dismissive. Maybe Aaron Brown's gut should meet Bruce Morton's mouth. In 1994, Morton claimed (also on CNN) that "the trouble with Whitewater may be that there is less there there: no crime, as far as is known, no broken promise to the voters either."
Even in 1996, when President Clinton's Whitewater business partners, James and Susan McDougal, were tried and convicted of multiple felonies, the networks were bored. NBC, so quick to restart the Harken questions, did not report a single story from the McDougals' trial until it was over. We can turn Brown's question around on him: If a president can have his business partners convicted of multiple felonies and the networks ignore it, insisting it has no connection to the president, how on earth is it "consistency" to hop on the Carville bandwagon on Harken Energy at the first opportunity?
If NBC covered the Harken story the way it covered Whitewater, who would be Harken's Susan McDougal? After she was convicted and put in that orange prison jumpsuit, Bryant Gumbel asked the patently loaded questions on "Today," such as: "Have you any doubt that Kenneth Starr and his deputies are pursuing an agenda that is purely political?" Then NBC's "Dateline" did a whole segment where Susan and her mother compared Starr to the Nazis. Will President Bush or any Harken executives -- who ruin the comparison because they haven't been to jail -- ever witness that kind of crook-coddling favoritism?
By all means, let's have a media that are consistent, that act as a watchdog against corporate and government corruption. But consistency has never been one of their strong points when scandals can be put to political use. One side has been "dogged," and the other side has been hugged.