Thomas Sowell

Now that ABC News has the list of phone numbers given to them by the "Washington Madam," the question is: Whose names will they publicize if they find out that there are public figures whose phone numbers are among those they have?

Let us suppose, just for the sake of argument, that these names include Karl Rove and Ted Kennedy. Are both names equally likely to be revealed?

And, if only one of these names is revealed, do you have any serious doubt which one the liberal media will reveal?

That is the problem with Washington scandals. In fact, the very definition of a "scandal" by the media differs radically, according to who is involved. That is a bigger scandal than any particular scandal the media report.

Before the Washington Madam surfaced, the big scandal in town was the Bush administration's firing of eight U.S. Attorneys. But it was not a scandal, as far as the media were concerned, when Bill Clinton fired every single U.S. Attorney in the country.

Everybody knew then -- but seem to have forgotten now -- that all U.S. Attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president. He can fire any of them or all of them, at any time, for any reason or for no reason.

In the case of Bill Clinton, U.S. Attorneys back in Arkansas had been investing corruption in his administration as governor before he became president. Firing all of them covered the fact that he was getting rid of those who were investigating him.

But that was no scandal, as far as the media were concerned.

It was treated as a scandal in the media when Newt Gingrich received a large advance from a publisher while he was Speaker of the House. But it was no scandal when each of the Clintons received larger advances from publishers.

For conservatives, the media standard is not "innocent until proven guilty" but "the appearance of impropriety."

When Senator Harry Reid received a million dollars from a questionable real estate deal involving property that he no longer owned, but whose owner had gotten favorable treatment from the government, that was apparently not even an appearance of impropriety as far as most of the media were concerned.

We have heard a lot of outrage being expressed because, under the Patriot Act, the government can find out what books you have checked out of a public library. That is considered a scandalous invasion of privacy.

But it was not considered a scandal when hundreds of confidential FBI files on Republicans were turned over to the Clinton White House, in violation of the law. Just an honest mistake, according to the Clintons -- and the media bought it.

One of the reasons FBI files on individuals are kept confidential is that anybody anywhere can make any unsubstantiated charge about anybody to the FBI.

People can anonymously accuse you of being anything from a petty thief to a pedophile. Can you imagine how valuable it is to a politician to have hundreds of such files on his enemies?

Just the knowledge that you have such political dynamite in your possession can have a chilling effect on your opponents and corrupt the whole political process.

Who knows whether the impeachment vote in the Senate might have gone the other way if some Senators did not have to worry that Clinton might take them down with him if they forced him out of office?

As for the FBI discovering whether you checked out a cookbook or an X-rated novel from your local library, does anyone seriously believe that they have the time, the manpower or the motivation to look into the reading habits of 300 million Americans, when they have all they can do to try to keep up with the terrorists?

It was a scandal when shock jock Don Imus made a typical shock jock kind of cheap remark about black girls on a college basketball team. But it is no scandal when black "leaders" like Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson make racist remarks.

Yet who has more influence -- most of it bad -- on race relations in this country? Outrage at Imus by people in the media who give Sharpton and Jackson a free pass is a little much.

But that is not a scandal, since the media are who determine what is and is not a scandal.


Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

Creators Syndicate