Task force tomfoolery

Posted: Feb 04, 2002 12:00 AM
This Enron guilt-by-association media jihad needs to stop. Suddenly, it seems that everyone who took money or spoke with someone at Enron should just line up at the federal penitentiary. To the media's collective delight, the General Accounting Office plans to sue Vice President Dick Cheney for refusing to release a complete list of everyone his energy task force met with and everything that they said. Cheney has boldly resisted, insisting that the GAO does not have the right to put every White House meeting into the fish bowl for Democrats and the media to plan their fish fry. CBS is already doing polls reporting that 58 percent of the public thinks the Bush administration is "hiding something." At the White House briefing, CBS reporter John Roberts is pressing spokesman Ari Fleischer to surrender now or suffer more pain. If Enron's not hurting you, he asked, "What explains, then, these poll findings, which are pretty consistent, that a large percentage of the American people feel the administration is hiding something that it did wrong?" Maybe, just maybe, it's because the press is insinuating this every day. Of course, the White House is by definition "hiding something" -- until it lets John Roberts and his network pals sit in on every meeting, listen to every phone call and read every memo. By that definition, so, too, is everyone in the media "hiding something" every day. Conscientious conservatives can remember back to the last struggle over whether task force proceedings should be made public: Hillary Clinton's health care task force. Some would suggest it's now blowing up in their faces. But that's a very incomplete picture. First, unlike Vice President Cheney, Hillary Clinton was not a government employee, and the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) requires every panel that includes non-government employees to have open meetings. Second, while Cheney's task force was a small group of government types that did not include Enron, Hillary's task force was a sprawling crowd of more than 500 people, including a pile of non-government employees from liberal foundations and even big insurance companies. But the most important distinction in this brouhaha is this: Most of the media didn't find a whiff of news in the struggle over Hillary's task force -- ever. In January 1993, the Washington Times first reported Hillary's FACA problem. This could have and should have been rich in irony -- Hillary Clinton, the Watergate crusader, utterly ignoring a post-Watergate reform. Rep. Bill Clinger demanded that the closed meetings stop. But the entire major media, print and broadcast couldn't be bothered. There was almost universal disinterest. The next month, the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons sued, which spurred a story in The New York Times, The Washington Post and one from ABC's Brit Hume. That caused journalists to rush to Hillary's defense, on principle. "I'm all for secrecy," volunteered Newsweek bigfoot Evan Thomas. "For one thing, that's the only way they are going to get it done." In March, Judge Royce Lamberth ruled the task force did violate the FACA. Finally, the other networks noticed -- for a few seconds. Time even called it a "victory" for the Clintons. The scandal continued, however. Weeks later, the Washington Times revealed many task force members Clinton claimed as federal employees were not. When the Clintonites released a list of 511 names, the Times noted the list "did not meet the (General Accounting Office) request for dates of employment, salaries and detailed backgrounds." The network reaction to the GAO then? Absolutely nothing. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton was still having her toenails polished by the press. In a famously fawning May 1993 cover story, Time's Margaret Carlson relegated the task force to one paragraph out of 40, and left it utterly out of her interview with the First Lady, saving that space for questions about whether Hillary set up her employees on dates. Carlson claimed her magazine had looked at the controversy in several ways. But it never had. She suggested it was all politics: "I think people look around for a way to challenge something and they find a statute that might help them. It's not as clear for journalistic purposes as you might think ... By the time you explain what this is, you've used up 30 lines." So Carlson instead used those lines to show how Hillary cooks a mean omelet. The Clinton task force story got juicier. Since the Clinton White House lied when it claimed there were no private-sector members of the task force, Judge Lamberth demanded in late 1997 that the task force reimburse the AAPS by $285,000 for its misleading testimony (a judgment overturned in 1999). But the entire major media, with few exceptions, couldn't have cared less. And now they ask if Cheney's been hiding something!