Steven Brill to last week’s “Strange Bedfellow” column on Brill’s Content.
Last week, the Wall Street Journal editorial page accused Salon of shilling for President Clinton. Please pay close attention as I try to explain the charge. Salon has run a series of articles alleging that right-wing philanthropist Richard Mellon Scaife paid off David Hale, a Whitewater witness. According to the Journal, the real motivation for these stories is partisan. How so? One of Salon’s investors is Adobe Ventures. A partner in Adobe Ventures is William Hambrecht. Hambrecht hosted a fund-raiser for Clinton this year and has given several hundred thousand dollars to the Democratic Party. In addition, the editorial notes that board members of Adobe Systems, the software company that is the other partner in Adobe Ventures, have contributed $130,000 to Democratic candidates over the past several years. The editors of the Journal think this background discredits Salon’s accusations against Scaife. What’s more, the editorial suggests that Brill’s Content neglected to point out this bias in a story about Salon because Clinton gave Steven Brill a plug in his speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
Anybody still with me? This editorial is noteworthy not just as a gleaning from Flytrap’s baroque phase, but as an example of cascading allegations of bad faith that now envelop the Clinton scandals. If you follow this stuff closely–not something I necessarily advise–what you have been hearing for the past several weeks is mostly a volley of charges and countercharges about bias, partisanship, and conflict of interest. Everyone who has anything to say about Monica Lewinsky, Whitewater, or the China connection, on either side of the issue, has by now been accused not just of being wrong, not just of being unfair, but also of essentially acting as a lackey for either Kenneth Starr or Bill Clinton.
The notion that actors in this drama are motivated by loyalty to the president or his party is merely implausible in most cases. The notion that anyone is moved to the point of bias by emotional ties to the person of Starr or the Office of the Independent Counsel is simply bizarre. Yet in Salon this week is a column by Joe Conason, one of those reporters frequently accused of fronting for Clinton by folks on the right. Conason, echoing Brill, argues that the Washington Post and the New York Times have been “taking dictation from the independent counsel.” Conason says this bias doesn’t come only from the press’s hunger for a big story. “At both papers,” Conason writes, “there exists a feeling of indebtedness to Starr, who helped the Times and the Post escape libel judgments in the not-so-distant past.”
In a fight saturated with spin, you might call this sort of accusation “topspin.” It is an attempt to trump the other side’s facts and arguments by smearing them as a shill for the man behind the curtain. Under the rules of the game, if you can connect the teller to an interested party, you don’t have to credit the tale. This mode of discourse has thoroughly poisoned the atmosphere in which the scandal is discussed. Of course, to say that a charge is disagreeable doesn’t mean it’s unjustified. A toxic atmosphere can result from the release of poison gas. In this case, however, the casual accusations that various journalists are cutouts for the principal combatants are largely baseless.
T his type of accusation is reminiscent of the 1930s, the days when fronting, fellow traveling, and agitprop were genuine phenomena in American politics. But we now live in the least ideological period in recent memory. Perhaps the ingestion of too much corporate PR has made us all suspicious. Or perhaps an omnipresent air of “investigation” breeds paranoia. But for whatever reason, the view that members of the media have a special propensity for corruption has grown in intensity since Clinton ran for president in 1992.
Since the Lewinsky scandal broke, and in particular since Brill happened upon the scene, this culture of mistrust has gone radioactive. In his own much-discussed article about press coverage of the scandal, Brill injected topspin by accusing various reporters of being “lapdogs” for Starr. The conservative Weekly Standard promptly hit back with a cover story that didn’t just argue that Brill was overstating his case but also accused him of being “Clinton’s lapdog” and a “White House mouthpiece.” This is a vicious cycle. You accuse me of bad faith, so I accuse you back.
Let’s return to the Journal’s article about Salon. What’s missing from it is any sense of how journalists think–something you might think editorial writers at a large metropolitan daily would have. If you ask why Salon would publish a story accusing Scaife of tampering with a Whitewater witness, you could come up with a number of plausible reasons. The chief one would probably be that journalists at Salon believed the story was true, important, and interesting. A bit more cynically, you might mention that these same editors and writers hoped the scoop would bring them attention. Another reason would be that the story suits their political views. The Salonistas pretty clearly think Scaife and Starr are bad men. They might be right or wrong, but this motive would not make their articles inherently corrupt or dishonest. (The ideologically fevered writers of the Wall Street Journal editorials ought to be able to grasp this point.)
You could list lots of other reasons why Salon would print such a story before reaching the financial interests or ideological biases of some of its investors. Most newspapers have elaborate church-state segregation to prevent even the suggestion of influence from the corporate side. Smaller magazines sometimes do and sometimes don’t. Some (such as the New Republic and the National Review) openly reflect the views of their owners. Others (such as Slate) do not. But even in those cases where magazines speak openly for the owner’s point of view, it’s not fair to assume that a third party with whom the owner sympathizes calls the shots. What this kind of assumption misses is that journalists are journalists. They take their independence seriously, and–to be less noble about it–they love trouble. When there’s a conflict between a great story and some other factor, the great story almost always carries the day. For example, the Starr-lovin’ Matt Drudge showed no compunction about blowing up the independent counsel’s Lewinsky investigation by posting gossip about it on the Web. I’m sure that if Salon got its mitts on the Linda Tripp tapes, it would post them on the Web and take credit for the scoop, even if they served to further humiliate Clinton and vindicate Starr.
In this instance, the charge of bad faith is even more absurd. To make its case about Salon, the Journal ignores the fact that Adobe board members, like those of most big corporations, give money to both parties. I think neglecting to mention this shows that the Journal’s editorial page lacks intellectual integrity. But I don’t think that even the Journal’s editors, who come as close to being propagandists as anyone in the mass media, should be accused of trying to run interference for Starr. Like their counterparts on the left, they seem fully capable of reducing a reasoned argument to a war of insults for reasons of their own.