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13 December 1998

Smile-a-while II: Post scripts

Synopsis: At the Post, Mike Espy’s acquittal was much bigger news than the end of the Whitewater story.

Espy Acquitted in Gifts Case
Bill Miller, The Washington Post, 12/3/98 (page one)

Espy Case Heightens Criticism of Independent Counsel Law
John Mintz and Bill Miller, The Washington Post, 12/4/98

A Harsh Verdict for Espy’s Prosecutors
Bill Miller, The Washington Post, 12/5/98 (page one)

Starr Wouldn’t Go With Lone Witness for Whitewater Referral
Marilyn W. Thompson, The Washington Post, 11/20/98

The Post’s Bill Miller got quite a workout following the recent Mike Espy acquittal, as the paper explored the implications of the verdict in a series of major stories (two of them on page one).

We thought the stories were well-conceived, and appropriate in the wake of the Espy trial. The verdict raised serious questions about the workings--and the future--of the independent counsel law.

But we couldn’t help chuckling when we compared Espy’s coverage to Vile Clinton’s treatment a few weeks before, when Ken Starr told the Judiciary Committee that the Whitewater probe was now over.

The Post then contented itself with one overview article, published on page A33. Here’s Marilyn Thompson’s grudging first paragraph about the end of a six-year story:

THOMPSON: Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr said yesterday that his office had strong reason to believe President Clinton lied under oath in testimony stemming from the Whitewater land deal, but decided last year not to file an impeachment report relying exclusively on the truthfulness of Clinton’s former business partner James W. McDougal.

As we pointed out in our original treatment of Thompson’s piece, Starr was under statutory obligation to report to the Congress if he did have “strong evidence” that Clinton had lied. Despite his spin before the House, Starr’s failure to refer was a plain admission that he did not have “strong evidence” of wrong-doing. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/22/98, for our full review of this hapless article.)

But, whatever the merits of Thompson’s piece, it is remarkable to compare the coverage given these two tales of acquittal and exoneration. For, though the Espy verdict was a significant story, it plainly pales in significance when placed beside the end of the Whitewater story.

Whitewater was the defining story of Clinton scandal coverage of the past six years. The framework within which impeachment now proceeds was set by the Whitewater story.

One would think that the end of so serious a story would call for serious media inquiry. One would think the media would want to ask serious questions about how the story began, and came to naught.

Indeed, when Gene Lyons published Fools for Scandal in 1996, he raised serious questions about the original reporting out of which the Whitewater inquiry grew. One might imagine that a serious press corps would want to address Lyons’ detailed critique of that reporting.

But in Fools for Scandal, Lyons did the unthinkable--a journalist, he aggressively indicted the press. And if there’s one thing this celebrity press corps will not do, it will not critique its own reporting. Lyons’ evisceration of the original, “invented” Whitewater reporting has never been seriously examined to this day. The press does feel free to explore Espy’s case, where there is no allegation of media wrongdoing.

So we couldn’t help chuckling as the Washington Post shed its crocodile tears over poor wronged Mike Espy. The Post’s reporting on Espy was fully appropriate. But we continue to scan the mainstream press for a serious review of the Whitewater story. The decade’s defining story has died. The press corps--deeply involved in that tale--does not yet appear to have noticed.

Smile-a-while festival continues apace: A tabloid talker has changed his mind about sex. See tomorrow’s DAILY HOWLER.