The Pardons & the Press
During the March 1 Congressional hearing on former President Clinton's controversial pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich, three senior Clinton staffers were pressed by Republicans about a White House meeting that took place the night of January 19, during which the Rich pardon was discussed with Clinton. The issue was what former deputy White House counsel Cheryl Mills, now a trustee of the Clinton Library, had said. Republicans were pursuing the theory that people who donated large amounts of money to the Clinton Library might have been given special treatment when it came to pardons. So, Republicans wondered, did Mills argue for a Rich pardon, and did she know that his ex-wife had given $450,000 to the library? (Her attorney later said she was not aware of the contributions.)
Those who didn't tune in to the ten-hour hearing, and instead relied on the New York Times, learned that White House counsel Beth Nolan testified that "Ms. Mills said in the meeting that serious consideration should be given to a contention of Mr. Rich's lawyers that he deserved clemency as a victim of selective prosecution. 'She pushed hard for everyone to think about the issues,' Ms. Nolan said." In a follow-up story the next day, the Times reiterated: "Beth Nolan, who was White House counsel, said Ms. Mills did not say at the meeting whether a pardon should be granted but did urge aides to weigh Mr. Rich's argument that he had been a victim of selective prosecution." The same day's paper included a pardon-related editorial, which stated yet again: "Ms. Nolan testified that Ms. Mills had prodded her former colleagues to consider Mr. Rich's claim that he had been the victim of a selective prosecution."
For Times readers then, the issue was clear: Mills, a Clinton Library trustee, had been an advocate for Rich's pardon just hours before Clinton made his final decision to grant it. The Times was hardly alone in that reading; virtually every major newspaper relayed the same story. According to the hearing's transcripts, Nolan did in fact testify, "I thought that [Mills] was pushing everyone in the room to think hard about the issues." But Nolan said this, too: "[Mills] also had very strong views that normally pardons, or the arguments about selective prosecution, were less available or plausible to rich white people."
So Cheryl Mills, a distinguished African-American attorney, when asked about the Rich issue in the presence of the President, warned him that granting a pardon based on the accusation of selective prosecution might not be "plausible" since the fugitive was a "rich white" guy. In other words, Mills offered up arguments both for and against the pending Rich pardon. For some reason that salient fact, that illuminating portion of Nolan's testimony, went right down the media's memory hole, never making it into the New York Times's coverage or that of any other major media outlet.
Did the pardon controversy, especially the notion that Clinton cut corners with the review process, deserve close press attention? Absolutely. Was the press able, or even interested in, providing any sort of context or balance to the story? Not in the slightest. It took weeks for the media to closely examine recent pardons of note, such as former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger's Iran/contra pardon, granted by President George Bush just weeks before Weinberger was set to stand trial. That would have been the equivalent of Clinton's pardoning Jim McDougal on the eve of a Whitewater trial. It's hard to imagine just how loud and sustained the Beltway outrage would have been over such a move today. Yet at the time, Weinberger's lawyer bragged that his client's controversial pardon had played out as just a "two day" news story.
Which was more peculiar: How long the press flogged the pardon story in full investigative mode, or how little news it was able to scratch together? Despite the press's blanketing the story for five weeks, producing TV talk-show transcripts the size of phone books, it was the National Enquirer that broke one of the two scandalous scoops--that Hillary's brother Hugh Rodham had received $200,000 to help with a successful clemency application. Unable to advance the quid pro quo, pardons-for-cash angle an inch, yet reluctant to let go of the Clinton meal ticket, the political press turned to its old standby: appearance of impropriety. Did Clinton's pardon pass the press's smell test? Suddenly the usually cynical press was struck with a convenient bout of naïveté, bowled over by the notion that money buys access in the nation's capital. That "revelation" became the basis for scores of feeble follow-up pardon reports.
It wasn't just the obvious errors, as when the New York Post reported that Denise Rich had visited the White House "100 times over the past year." (Secret Service logs indicate Rich averaged two visits each year during Clinton's eight years in office.) Or when CNN commentator Susan Page told viewers the New York Observer's editorial suggesting that Hillary Clinton resign from office represented "very harsh words, especially from a publication that supported her." (The Observer endorsed Hillary Clinton's opponent.) More troubling was how much time and energy journalists spent stitching together half-baked stories and then trumpetingthem as scoops. Take the Wall Street Journal's lead political news story on February 27. The breathless tale recounted how then-President Clinton, acting on behalf of TV producer friend Harry Thomason, once phoned CBS chief Leslie Moonves in hopes of smoothing out a $1 million contract squabble between CBS and the company owned by Thomason and his wife, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. The paper conceded the episode had nothing to do with the last-minute pardons but assured readers it was relevant because "Clinton's action shows how, in less formal ways, a president can use his office to favor his friends."
This is news?