The Pardons & the Press

The Pardons & the Press

The reporting was scandalous, too.


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?

Regardless, careful readers couldn’t help notice that the Journal was trying mightily to hold the soggy story together. For instance, when did the central phone call (i.e., the entire premise of the story) from Clinton to Moonves take place? Readers were simply told the incident happened “several months” before Clinton left office. But does anyone honestly believe the story’s reporters and editors didn’t know the exact date of the phone call in question? Or were they simply trying to fudge it for the sake of maintaining a story line they could pass off as current? Well, the next day those reading the New York Times found out the date of the call: last summer. Additionally, the paper reported, “The deal with the Thomasons was already about 95 percent complete before the call from Mr. Clinton.” (Moonves later insisted Clinton’s call played no role in the dispute.) And what about that seven-figure fee CBS paid out after Clinton butted in? In its follow-up story, the Journal made an adjustment, reporting that the amount was suddenly fuzzy–“in the neighborhood of $1 million.” Actually, according to the Washington Post, the fee was closer to $250,000. In other words, readers were right to be skeptical of the original Journal story; there was no there there.

On March 1, the New York Times gave prominent page-one play to its own pardon entree: Clinton’s other brother-in-law, Tony Rodham, had lobbied successfully for a pardon on behalf of husband-and-wife business partners who had been convicted of bank fraud nineteen years before and placed on probation. But now the press was suspicious because prosecutors had objected to the pardon and a Clinton family member had become involved. (Rodham received no payment for his efforts.) Forget that the pardon itself was issued nearly a year ago and that at the time nobody cared. The story’s real red flag came when the Times leaned heavily on Clinton’s having granted the pardon even though “the White House was told that the case was among the most serious bank fraud cases ever prosecuted in Alabama.” That begged the question: If so, why did the couple receive probation and why were they never fined a single dollar? More important, why weren’t Times reporters more skeptical of such an exaggerated claim?

The New York Daily News trumpeted its own scoop: A local Clinton Library fundraiser had helped secure a pardon. Or as the News put it, “Another New Bill of Sale; Fund-Raiser Pushed Prez to Pardon Perjurer.” Here, the person pardoned was former New York City limo king William Fugazy, who pleaded guilty to one count of perjury in connection with his personal bankruptcy case. He was sentenced to two years’ probation in 1997. The Clinton donor was New York supermarket mogul John Catsimatidis, who lobbied for Fugazy’s pardon, which Clinton granted without Justice Department approval. It turns out that Justice objected only because applicants are supposed to wait five years before seeking a pardon. So what did Catsimatidis actually do on behalf of Fugazy? Did the money man buttonhole the former President and threaten to cut off future funds? Did he promise more donations if Fugazy got off easy? No. According to the Daily News, Catsimatidis wrote a letter to Clinton’s Chief of Staff John Podesta. Period. And Catsimatidis was not alone. Representative Charles Rangel, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, former White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum and the late John Cardinal O’Connor all wrote letters on behalf of Fugazy and his pardon application.

Time pretended it had hit the pardon jackpot in February with, “Bill, How Low Can You Go?; Apparently, it may be a bottomless pit. Time‘s Elaine Shannon and Viveca Novak investigated the pardon of Harvey Weinig and mined some gems.” Set aside the odd, self-congratulatory headline and notice the phrase “the pardon of Harvey Weinig.” In fact, Weinig was never pardoned by Clinton; his sentence was commuted. (Pardons wipe the slate clean; commutations cut sentences short but often leave stipulations, like parole guidelines, intact.) It’s a small distinction, but when Time can’t even get the most simple facts right in its headline, there’s trouble brewing. The basic facts are that prosecutors objected to Weinig’s clemency application (do they ever approve?), so his lawyer took the case directly to senior aides at the White House, where a Weinig in-law once worked as an aide, and won a grant of clemency. Clinton cut Weinig’s drug-related sentence in half to time served, or six years. That’s the story. That’s the “bottomless pit.” Those are the “gems” that Time investigators “mined.” (Mined? Nobody involved in the story ever denied a single thing.)

To be fair, Time wasn’t the only publication whose crack staff had trouble distinguishing between sweeping presidential pardons and more limited commutations. On February 24, the Washington Post ran a page-one piece, “4 Pardons Probed for Ties to N.Y. Senate Bid,” about four Hasidic men from New Square, New York, who were convicted of embezzling millions of dollars. It turns out that New Square leaders lobbied for full pardons but did not get them. Instead, Clinton commuted the four men’s sentences; they will remain in jail for another year and must still pay millions in restitution.

And then there is convicted drug dealer Carlos Vignali, who was sentenced to fifteen years. Like the Hasidim, he was routinely referred to in the press as a pardon recipient, even though he received a commutation and must still undergo supervised drug-testing. But far more interesting is the notion that Vignali was convicted of distributing 800 pounds of cocaine. That nugget, which was repeated by virtually every major news operation in the country, lent a sinister air to Clinton’s action, particularly when it was revealed that Clinton’s brother-in-law Hugh Rodham won a six-figure success fee after Vignali’s clemency appeal went through.

For anyone interested in the facts, Vignali was one part of a thirty-person, LA-to-Minneapolis drug ring; prosecutors claimed the ring over many years had distributed nearly half a ton of cocaine. The trial judge, though, ruled that Vignali was not “an organizer, leader or manager” and made a specific finding that Vignali was responsible for at least five kilograms and no more than fifteen (between eleven and thirty pounds), worth roughly $20,000. He was sentenced to fifteen years. (Does any journalist with even a passing knowledge of drug sentencing think someone who pleads not guilty to distributing 800 pounds of cocaine and is found guilty at trial would be sentenced to just fifteen years in prison?)

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.

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