Journalists like to describe themselves as “speaking truth to power” — at least when they want to give themselves an excuse to engage in full-throated political activism. But that sense of mission only seems to apply when they want to scream at conservatives; the media elite have little interest in puncturing the self-serving lies of their liberal heroes.
Which brings us to how the networks covered former First Lady Hillary Clinton’s memoir, Living History, twenty years ago this week. In June 2003, Hillary had been in the Senate for two and a half years, and there was little doubt she hungered to be President. But she also had some famously unfinished business from her role in the early days of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which led to her husband’s impeachment five years earlier, in 1998.
In January of 1998, as news broke of Bill Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky, Hillary appeared on NBC’s Today show to claim it was all a fraud and blame conservatives for concocting the story. “The great story here for anybody willing to find it and write about it and explain it is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for President.”
But in August of that year, Bill Clinton confessed the truth of his affair with Lewinsky, opening him to perjury and obstruction charges (since he’d denied the affair under oath when deposed as part of a lawsuit filed by Paula Jones, an Arkansas state worker who said Clinton exposed himself to her in a hotel room in 1991). Bill Clinton’s forced confession meant Hillary’s attempt to blame the Lewinsky story on a “vast right-wing conspiracy” was either evidence of her extreme gullibility, or a cynical lie.
Hillary’s book and subsequent media tour gave her a chance to present a reasonably palatable excuse for her statement, even if it matched neither the existing record nor common sense. The kickoff was to be a prime time Sunday night ABC News special hosted by Barbara Walters on June 8, the day before Living History went on sale. But a few days earlier, a copy was “leaked” to the Associated Press, which on June 3 reported — without any skepticism — that Hillary only learned the truth of Bill’s affair with Lewinsky on August 15, 1998, two days before he had to testify before a grand jury.
“Mrs. Clinton said that up until that August morning when her husband confessed, she believed he was being railroaded and had merely been foolish by paying any attention to Lewinsky. She was incredulous that he would endanger their marriage and family. ‘I was dumbfounded, heartbroken and outraged that I’d believed him at all,’ the AP’s Calvin Woodward wrote.
The timing of the AP story ensured the network morning shows would heavily feature this claim the next morning (June 4). “Hillary Clinton’s new book bombshell,” ABC’s Charlie Gibson trumpeted on Good Morning America. “Bill’s confession made her gulp for air, cry and yell at him: ‘Why did you lie to me?’”
“Mrs. Clinton writes candidly about the moment her husband admitted he’d been unfaithful,” NBC’s Sara James told Today viewers that morning.
“She’s very candid about a very personal matter,” agreed co-host Katie Couric.
On CNN that afternoon, Jonathan Karl told viewers that Hillary had only “unwittingly” blamed conservatives back in January 1998: “Mrs. Clinton believed him, and famously went on national television, unwittingly repeating his lies and denouncing the reports about Lewinsky as the product of a vast right-wing conspiracy.”
As NewsBusters’s Brent Baker noted the next day in the Media Research Center’s CyberAlert newsletter, there was no suggestion in any of this coverage “that she [Hillary] owes an apology for smearing conservatives in her Today show appearance, when at the time everyone knew the Lewinsky story was accurate.”
In the same missive, Baker also pointed out that in all of the morning, evening and cable news coverage, “none suggested that if she really was in the dark for eight months, she must be one of the stupidest people alive.”
According to the AP’s account, Hillary only learned the “truth” from her husband “on the morning of Saturday, August 15, 1998, [when] he woke her up, paced at the bedside, and ‘told me for the first time that the situation was much more serious than he had previously acknowledged.’”
But the night before, on the August 14, 1998 NBC Nightly News, correspondent Andrew Mitchell reported that “close friends say she knew everything from Day One and still went on NBC in January to deny all.” Yet NBC’s own reporting from 1998 didn’t stop NBC’s anchors and correspondents from believing Hillary’s convenient new version five years later.
In fact, when Mitchell herself reported on the book on the June 4, 2003 Nightly News, she never doubted Hillary’s new account. Mitchell’s report instead presented Hillary’s own press secretary, Lisa Caputo, as a confirming source: “She didn’t know,” NBC viewers heard Caputo say. “I mean, I remember that time very well. She had no idea.”
In the days that followed, Barbara Walters talked about her upcoming special on several shows, including ABC’s The View. She saluted Hillary’s courage and described the revelations as heartfelt: “You know how hard it is — it’s one thing to even write something in a book, it’s another thing to have to say it and to have to dig into yourself and discuss your feelings. And she does….There are places she could have fudged it, and she talks about how she felt.”
On the June 5 Late Show with David Letterman, Walter also enthused over Hillary’s public record: “She’s been a very good Senator, and very low key….She’s been a very hard-working junior Senator….I think she’ll be re-elected. I think she’s done a good job.”
When Sunday night came around, Americans tuned in to an hour-long infomercial for Hillary. “You became First Lady like no other First Lady before you. You had your own interests, you got involved in public policy.” Walters gushed. “Did you realize what you were getting into?”
There was no “speaking truth to power,” not even when Hillary claimed about Whitewater, Travelgate, the cattle futures scandal, etc., that “everything that was thrown at me, everything that was said, turned out to be without basis in fact.” Everything?
“I don’t think people realize how strong your faith is,” Walters fawned.
The rest of Hillary’s book tour was more of the same. In her interview with Hillary, Time’s Nancy Gibbs presumed the Clintons were victims: “In the book, you have a lot to say about forgiveness. Have you forgiven Ken Starr?” referring to the independent counsel who investigated the President.
Then on June 12, Gibbs told radio host Don Imus that despite Bill’s confession, Hillary still blamed the vast right-wing conspiracy: “I think she still sees this as a very big, orchestrated, well-funded, powerful entity that she’s doing battle against. That was the impression that I got as I talked to her, that it looms very large for her.”
On NBC’s Today, Katie Couric ran Hillary segments three mornings in a row (on June 9, 10 and 11). By the third morning, she was lobbying Hillary to run for the White House herself: “You have said, Senator Clinton, you will not run for President in 2004. What if your party drafted you?…What if it did?…Would you run for Vice President in 2004?…What about 2008?”
“It’s very flattering that people like you ask me this question,” Hillary told Couric.
Journalists aren’t wrong when they pose difficult questions to conservatives and Republicans. But they act as partisan tools when they fail to hold liberals equally accountable — as they did 20 years ago when they willingly served the ambition of a former First Lady and Democratic Senator with her eye on the White House.
For more examples from our flashback series, which we call the NewsBusters Time Machine, go here.