Columns » Ernest Dumas

The 'world's best paper'

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President Clinton settled a few scores with media folks in his book "My Life," although a few barbs in a fat autobiography years later is not quite tit for tat for the damage done his presidency in the heat of the Whitewater investigations. Howard Kurtz, who writes a media column for the Washington Post, reported this week that a few of the media targets are answering Clinton's charges. But those with the most to answer for, such as the editors of the Post and the New York Times, are lying doggo. You haven't and won't hear from them. "A little bit of McCarthyism," Wesley Pruden Jr., editor of the Washington Times, called Clinton's references to him. Clinton had pointed out in the book that Pruden's daddy, Rev. Wesley Pruden Sr., had been chaplain of the white citizens' council at Little Rock and "an ally of Jim Johnson in their lost crusade against civil rights for blacks." Pruden's paper, financed by Rev. Sun Myung Moon, was a favorite conduit for leaks and rumors about the Clintons from independent counsel Kenneth Starr and his staff. Wes Pruden Jr. grew up in Little Rock and worked briefly for the Arkansas Gazette in the 1950s before migrating to newspapers eastward. "There's certainly a strong implication that I don't like blacks because my father didn't like blacks," Pruden said. He said he and his paper weren't racist. Pruden had published a long article by Jim Johnson linking Clinton and his wife to federal District Judge Henry Woods, who was trying a bankruptcy fraud case involving Gov. Jim Guy Tucker that grew out of Starr's Whitewater investigation. A panel at the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals headed by a friend of Jesse Helms tossed Judge Woods off the case partly owing to Johnson's article in Pruden's paper, which Starr sent them. The case had nothing even remotely to do with the Clintons. Seven years later, after Starr's office finally revealed the specific law that he accused Tucker of conspiring to violate, the Justice Department and the IRS said that the law didn't exist. It had been repealed well before the bankruptcy. Clinton lit into Rush Limbaugh. He recalled that Limbaugh went on the air in 1993 with the news that Deputy White House Counsel Vince Foster of Little Rock had been murdered in an apartment owned by Hillary. Another time Limbaugh said journalists and others in the Whitewater investigation had been beaten and harassed at Little Rock and that "some have died." Limbaugh takes umbrage at Clinton's criticism. He didn't report those things as facts, he now says, but merely passed along to his national audience rumors that he had heard. He didn't personally vouch for the accuracy of the stuff, see, so it was all right to put them on the air and say that they were examples of Clinton's villainy. But who could be shocked at journalistic perfidy by Rush Limbaugh and the Washington Times? Clinton said he expected that but "what I couldn't believe was that the New York Times, the Washington Post, and others in the media I had always respected and trusted" were gulled by some of the same contemptible sources. As if on cue, the same week that the book appeared the New York Times repeated for the umpteenth time the hoariest of the Whitewater myths, one of its own making. In a review of the film "The Hunting of the President," the writer dug back into the Times' files and inserted a single piece of background. He wrote that Jim and Susan McDougal were convicted of illegally obtaining a $300,000 loan, "about $50,000 of which wound up paying for Whitewater expenses, according to prosecutors." In all the Whitewater prosecutions, that little phrase is the only thing linking the Clintons to any misdeed. It was not true but it reverberated through the years. Thanks to Gilbert Cranberg, former editorial page editor of the Des Moines Register, we know something about how it happened. He tracked it down. An Associated Press story on the day of critical testimony in the trial of the McDougals was published in the New York Times after a little editing by someone at the Times. It was altered to read that Starr's men had rested their case "after presenting testimony that money from an allegedly fraudulent loan went to benefit the Whitewater development [partly owned by the Clintons]." It added that "jurors heard an FBI agent testify that nearly $50,000 of the $300,000 loan was used to cover Whitewater expenses." The amended part of the AP story reported details of the testimony about how the $50,000 got into the Clintons' account, but none of it was true. There had been no such testimony, although Starr's men had tipped reporters, apparently including the Times, that there would be. The "details" in the Times were provably false. The lie, uncorrected, spread through the media and became the basis for columns, editorials, a PBS documentary and speeches. Starr himself would cite the Times' account of the testimony. Now the Times attributes it to "prosecutors." And that was from the world's best newspaper.

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