I respect the work of the liberal media watchdogs of Media Matters. I appreciate that its website has occasionally linked to my personal blog. Max Blumenthal, a staffmember at Media Matters, has written for The Nation and is a fellow blogger of mine (who isn’t?) at HuffingtonPost.com.
I am a friend of Michael Isikoff, who has been catching much flak for his 10-sentence Koran-in-a-john Newsweek item (cowritten with John Barry, another Newsweeker I know and like) that led to deadly rioting in Afghanistan.
Thus, I am saddened to see Media Matters piling on Isikoff in a selective manner. The MMers have a right to criticize Isikoff’s performance in this episode and to draw whatever conclusions they wish to regarding Isikoff’s and Newsweek‘s reporting practices. But their primary beef is that the mainstream media, while covering the Newsweek controversy, has not focused on Isikoff’s “checkered journalistic record.” What particularly ticks off the good folks at Media Matters–which was founded by David Brock, the right-wing journalist who defected from the conservative movement–is that Isikoff was a “leading reporter on the so-called ‘Clinton scandals’ in the 1990s, including the Paula Jones, Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky cases.”
Media Matters’ critique of Isikoff draws heavily from Sidney Blumenthal’s The Clinton Wars. (Sidney is Max’s justifiably proud father.) In that book, Sidney notes, “Isikoff never hesitated in plunging himself excitedly into a wilderness of sex rumors.” Using The Clinton Wars as its key source, Media Matter observes, “Isikoff’s leading role in reporting sex stories relied heavily on his relationships with [Linda] Tripp and [Lucianne] Goldberg, who provided leads, testimony, and tapes of secretly recorded conversations. However, Tripp’s and Goldberg’s actions were motivated by their personal interests: specifically, animosity toward Clinton and financial windfall.”
I have little desire to paddle about in the muck of those days. At the time, there was much debate on whether reporters should pursue stories on the personal lives of officials and politicians. (And journalists working all sorts of stories–sex-related or not–often have to deal with sources with ulterior motives. I’ve exposed one or two conservatives via such sources.) I have always had mixed feelings about in-the-bedroom stories. I was the first reporter to confirm the allegation that Representative Henry Hyde, the Republican chairman of the House judiciary committee and a chief foe of Bill Clinton, had been in an extramarital affair decades earlier. But the editors at The Nation chose not to publish that story. Salon had no such reluctance and exposed Hyde’s affair without me. When Brock was a journalist of the right he skewered Anita Hill, who had accused Judge Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, as “a little nutty and a little slutty.” (No hard feelings. Brock has apologized and made amends for that.) In the 1990s, I also followed up tips that Newt Gingrich, then the House Speaker leading the pro-family values Republicans, was cheating on his wife with a congressional aide. I never was able to confirm the leads and published nothing. But, as we know now, the whispers were true. Would The Nation had published that story? I don’t know. But Gail Sheehy in Vanity Fair slyly wrote about the relationship without nailing down the story.
Did Isikoff go too far in his pursuit of Clinton’s sexual shenanigans? Media Matters list what it deems to be mistakes committed by Isikoff in that period. Ultimately, the Monica Lewinsky story–which Isikoff was set to break before Matt Drudge, in a way, scooped him–turned out to be all-too true and sordid, while the harassment charge Paula Jones hurled at Clinton (with the help of secret conservative allies) was never proven. Historians and participants can continue to debate the details of all that unpleasantness and the legitimacy of the accompanying journalism.
Don’t forget about DAVID CORN’s BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on triumphalism and the fall-out from the Iraq elections, and the phony and troubling excuses for Bush’s bike ride.
My point is that the MM slam on Isikoff is one-sided. His “checkered” past includes work that liberal media-watchers might consider rather positive. He broke the story of how Alberto Gonzalez, when he was Texas Governor George W. Bush’s chief counsel in 1996, connived to get Bush out of a jury duty so that Bush would not have to acknowledge he had once been arrested for drunk driving. (Today Gonzalez is the nation’s attorney general.) Isikoff also was a lead debunker of the allegation that Vice President Dick Cheney tossed about before the invasion of Iraq concerning a supposed meeting between Mohamed Atta, the 9/11 ringleader, and an Iraqi intelligence official in Prague. (Isikoff accurately reported that the CIA and FBI had found nothing to this charge.) Last year, after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, Isikoff unearthed the first Justice Department memos showing that the Bush administration had stripped Geneva Convention protections from the prisoners at Guantanamo. He and Mark Hosenball–who together write Newsweek’s “Terror Watch” column–recently disclosed that Haliburton had cut a hush-hush deal in Iran and that former GOP presidential candidate Jack Kemp had been questioned by federal investigators about his ties to a businessman under investigation in the oil-for-food scandal. Last year, they detailed how CBS–in the wake of the Dan Rather fiasco–had censored a 60 Minutes segment on the forged documents purporting to show Iraqi efforts to obtain uranium in Niger.
At the start of his administration, President George H.W. Bush delivered a major speech on the drug war in which he exclaimed that crack was even being sold across the street from the White House, and he held up a vial of crack that supposedly had been confiscated during this arrest. Isikoff revealed that this arrest had been a setup, that drug agents had lured a dealer to the spot in order to obtain ammo for Bush’s speech. In 2000, Isikoff broke the news that the Bush presidential campaign was giving tracking numbers to its fundraisers so the campaign could monitor how much each industry was contributing to Bush.
There’s a technical term in journalism for this sort of reporting: good stuff. Isikoff has been around a long time. I’m not going to defend what he did during the Monica madness. (He wrote a book on all that.) Nor am I going to make excuses for what happened with the Koran item. But there is much more to his career than these two chapters. He has produced a good share of standout journalism.
Admittedly I have a bias in favor of a friend. Still, here’s a modest suggestion to Media Matters (and I do hope my friends there consider this constructive criticism): don’t use this occasion to revive the old battles of the Clinton days; Isikoff is not the enemy. Instead, consider this slice of Elisabeth Bumiller’s piece in today’sThe New York Times:
Republicans close to the White House said that although President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were genuinely angered by the Newsweek article, West Wing officials were also exploiting it in an effort to put a check on the press.
“There’s no expectation that they’re going to bring down Newsweek, but there is a feeling that there is no check on what you guys do,” said one outside Bush adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to be identified as talking about possible motives of the White House.
“In the course of any administration,” he continued, “you have three or four opportunities, at most, with a high-profile press mistake. And if you’re going to make a point – and no White House is ever going to love the way it’s covered – you have to highlight those places where there is a screw-up.”
So the White House is eagerly waging war on the media. (By the way, as another Media Matters report says, “top U.S. military officials contended that other factors led to the violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”) I and other never-forget war skeptics have noted previously that the Bush gang got a lot more wrong than Newsweek did with the story of a Koran in a toilet. The Bushies peddled the phony tale that Iraq posed a WMD threat, and they have not apologized for that or retracted the war. Worse, the White House, the Pentagon, the Republicans in Congress are enthusiastically taking advantage of Newsweek‘s mistakes to weaken a mainstream media that already does not challenge the administration sufficiently. (After all, where’s all the media fuss about the infamous Downing Street memo that provided further evidence Bush misled the public on the way to war?) True, the Newsweek screw-up has handed the administration and its comrades a delicious opportunity. But those who yearn for an assertive and independent media ought to fret more about the ongoing campaign to exploit this matter than Isikoff’s past, checkered or otherwise.
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