Memo To: Attorney General Janet Reno
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Steven Brill’s “Pressgate” article
I spent the weekend, off and on, reading the 24,000-word “Pressgate” article in the maiden issue of Content magazine, written by its editor Steven Brill. On the face of it, the article is persuasive in contending that Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s office has been a source of leaks to various favored reporters -- leaks of sensitive information that was being presented to the Whitewater grand jury. Having been a member of the national press corps for 13 years, 1965-78, and editor/publisher of the MediaGuide for seven years, 1986-92, I know the mechanics and appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of the news media. There is no question in my mind that the news media has performed very poorly on this story from the time Monica Lewinsky surfaced, which is what the Brill article is all about. His article is persuasive, on the face of it, because he has identified myriad instances of major news outlets -- electronic and print -- issuing damning “reports” about the President without identifying sources, or worse, as if the facts had already been established. I stopped commenting on the story almost immediately after it broke, having discovered that I could not tell fact from fiction in the swirl of news, and would simply have to let due process -- and the American people -- do that work for me.
During this period, I tended to take the word of Ken Starr that his office was not leaking material that would poison the atmosphere for President Clinton. I’m sensitive to this kind of motivation by prosecutors, having observed first hand government prosecutors attempting to try a case in the press. I firmly believe that Michael Milken, for example, was unjustly demonized in the news pages of my old newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, by its ace reporter, James B. Stewart, working hand in glove with then U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani, now Mayor of New York City. Ivan Boesky, a real Wall Street crook, persuaded Giuliani to give him a sweetheart deal if he ratted on Milken, and Giuliani obliged, feeding Boesky’s calumny to Stewart who became his “stenographer.” This is the term Brill uses to describe several top-drawer journalists who he says have been passing on Starr leaks in their news accounts, citing only “sources.” None of the allegations against Milken ever were proven and almost all of them that were originally aired by Stewart were shown to be false. Milken became persuaded that the federal government would force him to spend the rest of his life in court until they convicted him of something, so he pleaded guilty to three technical violations of the security laws in the belief he would not have to serve time in prison. This was a miscarriage of justice that could not have taken place without the complicity of the press corps, so I know it can happen.
If it were true that Starr and his deputy, Jackie Bennett, have been playing this kind of game, as Brill contends, I believe you would have no choice but to fire Starr and find a replacement. As much as I would prefer the process to move forward to completion, I find this aspect of the charges against Starr so reprehensible that it would be better for the nation to have you stamp it out here and now, so it cannot take root more than it has. Government prosecutors at every level have to be punished for attempting to use their considerable powers to destroy the lives of citizens by breaking their own rules, legal and ethical. On this, I agree with Anthony Lewis of The New York Times, whose column today points in the same direction.
Having said this, it still is not clear at all to me that Brill’s piece is persuasive, once you get beyond its face. In my mind, the single-most damning fact in the article was a quote from Susan Schmidt of The Washington Post, who Brill counts among Starr’s “stenographers,” in which she acknowledged getting information on Ms. Lewinsky “from sources in Starr’s office.” If this were true, it certainly would be enough to fit the pattern I saw develop with Milken. This morning, though, I learn in Robert Novak’s syndicated column in the NYPost, “Steven Brill Lays an Egg,” that Susan Schmidt wrote Brill as soon as the article appeared, “flatly denying a quote attributed to her saying she ‘heard from sources in Starr’s offices’ information about the Monica Lewinsky case.” “‘I never said that and it is false,’ Schmidt wrote, adding: ‘I did not receive that information from anyone in Starr’s office..... you have defamed me and damaged my reputation.’ Bill responded with a breezy ‘Dear Sue’ letter that, it effect, called her a liar.’”
This puts me back at square one, Madame Attorney General. If Sue Schmidt was not passing on sleazy stuff given her by Starr or his deputy, then Brill can’t persuade me that his innuendo about other “stenographers” has any better basis in fact. One of the reasons I have believed Starr all along is that Bob Novak, a close friend for 20 years, told me several months ago that he could not get anything out of Starr’s office. In his column today, Novak repeats this, stating that he got much more out of the special prosecutor’s office when it was investigating President Nixon and Watergate. The Content suggestion that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were not tapping into the special prosecutor’s office as their prime source against Nixon is laughable. On the cover of Brill’s Content magazine, the “PRESSGATE” headline has a subhead that reads: “In Watergate, reporters checked abuse of power. In the Lewinsky affair, they enabled it by lapping up Ken Starr’s leaks -- which he now admits for the first time.”
I’m sure now that you have decided to investigate all this, Ms. Reno, we will find whether there were such leaks by Ken Starr, which I don’t believe he actually “admitted” as the magazine advertised. All Starr is quoted as saying in the interview with Brill is this: “Well, it is definitely not grand jury information, if you are talking about what witnesses tell FBI agents or us before they testify before the grand jury or about related matters.” This is a pretty foggy statement on which to build a felony case against Starr, especially since Brill did not even have a tape recorder, which means the quote is almost certainly not a precise quote, having been scribbled by Brill on his notepad. I, of course, hope Brill got it wrong and that Starr has not been the fountain of trial-by-press news leaks which the article suggests. If you find Brill’s right, I do hope you replace Starr as soon as possible.