Last Monday, ABC spiked an exclusive interview with a source - let's call him Shallow Throat - who claimed a staffer at Al Gore's campaign headquarters bragged about a mole inside of Bush headquarters.
For those of you too young to remember, this was exactly what Watergate was about - breaking the law to gain information about the other political party.
What did he know and when did he know it? These were the questions journalists asked of President Nixon during Watergate. But the watchdogs of the press tend to turn into lapdogs if pursuit of a story might prove embarrassing to Democrats.
The New York Times suppressed two exclusive stories that reflected poorly on Al Gore and Hillary Clinton.
The first concerned Mr. Gore's efforts to obtain campaign contributions from trial lawyers in anticipation of President Clinton's veto of a tort reform bill. Notations on a call list prepared by a staffer for the Democratic National Committee suggested a quid pro quo, which, if true, could make Mr. Gore's conduct a felony. The second had to do with Mrs. Clinton rewarding donors to her Senate campaign with overnight stays at the White House and Camp David.
Though the Times had no room for either of these stories until after other news outlets got onto them, it did put on the front page a story about an editing error in a Bush television commercial. For one frame - a fraction of a second - the word “rats” appeared in a Bush ad critical of Mr. Gore's health-care plan. It was evidently the tag end of the word “bureaucrats,” which was scrolling across the screen.
A reasonable person would have regarded this as a goof. But not New York Times reporter Richard Berke. His story accused GOP adman Alex Castellanos of deliberately attempting to subliminally influence voters.
That that there was no evidence Mr. Castellanos deliberately put the rodent reference into his commercial to make a subliminal point didn't prevent the television networks from playing it up. ABC devoted more than four minutes to “rats” on World News Tonight.
The day Mr. Gore was to deliver his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, The Associated Press reported Special Prosecutor Robert Ray had empanelled a grand jury to consider whether or not to bring criminal charges against President Clinton. CBS' Dan Rather smelled a rat.
Then Richard Cudahy, a federal judge appointed by Jimmy Carter, spoiled the fun by coming forward. He had made the disclosure inadvertently to Associated Press reporter Pete Yost. That Mr. Yost knew the truth didn't prevent him from filing a story stating that the “White House reacted angrily to the news” and allowing the spokesman to suggest that the Office of the Independent Counsel had leaked the story. Only Mr. Cudahy's honesty put an end to the media-generated smear.
The Center for Media and Public Affairs reports that since Sept. 4, 55 per cent of the comments about Mr. Gore on the evening newscasts on ABC, CBS, and NBC have been positive, while only 35 per cent of the comments about Mr. Bush have been positive.
A 1992 Roper poll surveying Washington bureau chiefs and correspondents found that nearly 90 percent of them voted for Clinton in 1992. But Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz dismissed charges of bias because his fellow journalists say they're not biased. This is like getting a clean bill of health from Janet Reno.