How Rules Change
    by Gene Lyons

Funny, but the last time CBS’ "60 Minutes" broadcast an unsubstantiated,
ultimately discredited story embarrassing to the president of the United
States, there was no investigation and nobody got fired. Well, let me
amend that. Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr investigated star witness
Kathleen Willey’s allegations against Bill Clinton to a fare-thee-well
before concluding what any halfway skeptical reporter would have
suspected from the first: that she was an unreliable, self-dramatizing
person with a habit of embroidering her own history. Even that great
American, Linda Tripp, told Starr’s investigators that Willey, whose
1998 interview accusing Clinton of "groping" her in the Oval Office
turned the pretty Richmond widow into a celebrity, was closer to being a
presidential stalker. That Willey was not exactly an innocent flower
would have been clear to anybody who’d run a simple Nexis search, as my
partner Joe Conason and I did the morning after her dramatic one-on-one
interview with CBS’ Ed Bradley. The Richmond Times-Dispatch had printed
many stories about her late husband Ed Willey Jr. ’s alleged
embezzlement, his suicide and the complicated web of lawsuits in which
she had become enmeshed. Those stories featured competing versions of
the truth and numerous intriguing subplots.

In short, Willey was at least as shaky a source as Bill Burkett, the
retired Texas Air National Guard officer who leaked the now infamous
memos to "60 Minutes" supposedly documenting President Bush’s
dereliction of duty in 1972. Even if it took Starr two immunity grants
and a failed criminal prosecution to admit (in a final report) that Willey
was a bad witness, CBS should have been leery of her from the start.

So why didn’t "60 Minutes" pay the price for its credulousness about
Willey? Well, the answer sure ain’t "liberal media bias." Even after
prosecutors concluded that Willey had lied under oath, TV talk shows
kept booking her to trash Clinton. She’d become a star.

That’s also true of the infamous Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Careful
reporting by The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times
and Chicago Tribune documented that their attacks on Sen. John Kerry’s
Vietnam record were provably false in every important respect. Yet they
kept showing up on TV.

Embarrass somebody named Bush, however, and the rules suddenly become
very stringent. A former Republican attorney general is hired to conduct
an investigation.

Which is not to say the four dismissed CBS employees involved in "The
Case of the Dicey Documents" didn’t get exactly what they deserved. They
did. Had anchorman Dan Rather not decided to retire, he might have been
shown the door as well, although his worst sin appears to have been
unwarranted trust in star producer Mary Mapes, whose zeal for a story
that turned out to be too good to be true drove her down the road to ruin.

Worse, the report says Mapes’ account of CBS’ decision-making as it
rushed to get the ill-fated program on the air was inconsistent in crucial
respects with everybody else’s. That’s intolerable. "If your mother says
she loves you," runs a journalistic proverb, "check it out." Me, I prefer
the unofficial motto of my native New Jersey: "Oh, yeah, who says?"

Amazingly, the CBS team reporting on the president’s lost year in the
National Guard—and do let’s recall that the suspect memos made a neat
fit with other signs that Bush took a powder—never talked to the
purported source of the documents even after Burkett changed his story
about who it was. That’s incredible.

Or would be, that is, had Conason and I not documented even worse
transgressions in our book, "The Hunting of the President." During the
infamous Whitewater scandals, reporters pursuing Clinton credited the
"revelations" of paid sources; edited audio tapes and video clips to
make innocent remarks appear suspect; routinely hid exculpatory evidence
(my favorite was a Washington Post article neglecting to mention that
Clinton never endorsed a supposedly suspicious check); intervened with
the Justice Department on behalf of an embezzler under indictment;
actively assisted prosecutors trying to flip witnesses against the
president; hyped stories about nonexistent FBI testimony alleging that
the Clintons got $50,000 from a crooked loan; and even gathered
information from sources and turned it over to Starr’s prosecutors.

Those should have been firing offenses, too. But that was then; this is
now. That was Clinton; this is Bush Last week, columnist and TV pundit
Armstrong Williams got caught violating the most basic rule of all: He
took $240,000 from the White House for touting its education reforms.
There was a signed contract; he fulfilled it. Even Pravda did things more
subtly. According to David Corn in The Nation, Armstrong told him that
everybody does it. If so, the coming months could prove very enlightening.

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