The Pardons & the Press
So where did the 800-pound figure come from--the one erroneously cited by Meet the Press's Tim Russert (three weeks in a row), the New York Post's Steve Dunleavy, the New York Times's Gail Collins, Time's Margaret Carlson, Fox News Channel's Paula Zahn, ABC's George Will and John Stossel, and many others? The answer is the Los Angeles Times. On February 11 the paper did the first large piece on the Vignali case, detailing how much money his father had spent in recent years on campaign contributions, as well as the number of local luminaries who supported Vignali's request, including Los Angeles's Roger Cardinal Mahony, Congressman Xavier Becerra and LA County Sheriff Lee Baca. At the time, the paper accurately reported that Vignali had been involved in a "drug ring that transported more than 800 pounds of cocaine from California to Minnesota." Note that the 800 pounds were not all his. It was a subtle distinction quickly ignored by the press.
Should Clinton have granted clemency to Vignali? That's certainly debatable. Did Hugh Rodham's excessive fee raise serious questions? Absolutely. But does that give the press permission to simply mold the story to its liking, repeating colorful information that's not true? Then again, which story sounds more interesting: Bill Clinton pardons a drug kingpin who was busted for shipping 800 pounds' worth of cocaine from Los Angeles to Minneapolis, or Bill Clinton commutes to six years the fifteen-year sentence of a first-time drug offender convicted of shipping between eleven and thirty pounds of cocaine from Los Angeles to Minneapolis?
At times the pardon press charade seemed detached from reality. Not surprisingly, a majority of Americans told pollsters (a) there was too much Clinton press coverage, and (b) pardon investigations should stop. Even President Bush suggested it was "time to move on" beyond the controversy. But the Beltway press wanted a signal from one of its own that this time had come. The flag came from Newsweek's Mike Isikoff, who, following the March 1 hearing, quoted an aide to Representative Dan Burton conceding that the pardon investigation was "a dead end."
Unfortunately, somebody forgot to tell the Wall Street Journal. Following up on its dubious CBS/Thomason "scoop," the Journal ran an extraordinary piece on March 7: "Clinton Pardon Firestorm Raises Questions About Nearly Everyone Involved in Process." The paper tried to prove that point by focusing on John McCormick, a former Boston cop convicted of corruption in the 1980s for "accepting hundreds of dollars worth of gratuities." (Note the severity of the crime.) McCormick served more than a year in prison and in 1998 applied for a pardon through the Justice Department. Interviewed by the FBI, McCormick's sentencing judge said he approved of the pardon request since McCormick had "done his time" and had been a small player in the corruption investigation. So what, according to the Journal, was shady about the pardon? Turns out McCormick's pro bono pardon attorney is a powerful Democrat who's donated money to the Clintons. He also "acknowledges sending" the pardon application to Clinton's close aide Bruce Lindsey, as well as "phoning a deputy White House counsel to follow up" one year later. Are you following the skulduggery here? More suspicious, at least according to the Journal, was the fact--or the "connection," as the paper put it--that McCormick now works for the Boston Red Sox, "whose onetime political consultant John Sasso is a Democrat insider who had ties to the Clinton Administration." So what exactly did FOB Sasso do on behalf of McCormick's pardon request? Twelve paragraphs later readers learn the answer: nothing. He didn't call Clinton, he didn't write a letter to Lindsey, he never lifted a finger--in fact he was completely irrelevant to McCormick's pardon application.
Clinton critics suggest the pardon scandal represented a predictable exit for a President who thumbed his nose at the rule of law for so many years. Yet if there was anything depressingly familiar it was the press pile-on, which seemed to embody everything that's gone wrong with political journalism over the past eight years. Not content to wait for criminal investigations to play themselves out, and more interested in playing an oddly personal game of gotcha, the press, in its pardon coverage, reflected an era when narrative became king--and if certain facts had to be omitted to keep a conspiratorial story line afloat, than so be it. When every what-if, Clinton-quid-pro-quo story was embraced rather than questioned critically. When being dead wrong on scandal stories was excused, even rewarded, as the price paid for aggressive work. And when the "appearance of impropriety" became a lazy crutch used to prop up stories that oozed entertainment value but offered very little in the way of news.
Was it any surprise that while those newsroom changes were unfolding, television news ratings decreased, daily newspaper readership shrank and pollsters discovered that journalists were among the least trusted professionals in the country? The insular and arrogant Beltway news business is broken because too often it refuses to let the facts get in the way of a good story.