Accuracy in Media

A year ago, The New York Times reported in a front-page story that Bill and Hillary Clinton had lied when they denied that they knew that their close friend Webster Hubbell was in serious legal trouble when he resigned his post as associate attorney general. After his resignation, Hubbell negotiated with Ken Starr’s office about whether he would stand trial or plead guilty to stealing a large sum of money from his former law firm. Starr was interested in getting Hubbell to tell him all he knew about Whitewater and related Clinton scandals.

Since Hubbell knew a lot about those scandals, he was in a position to bargain with both Starr and the Clintons. He could offer Starr information in return for a light sentence. He could offer the Clintons his silence in return for compensation for the time he would have to spend in jail. Hubbell did not give Starr the cooperation he expected. His silence proved to be golden. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were bestowed on him by fat-cat donors to the Democratic Party. The payments were ostensibly for work that he was going to do, but little work was done.

This appeared to be hush money arranged by close associates of the President. The Clintons said they had no reason to buy Hubbell’s silence, because they didn’t even know Hubbell was in serious trouble when he resigned. On May 5, 1997, The New York Times reported that they had demanded Hubbell’s resignation in March 1994 after they were warned by two lawyers that Hubbell faced criminal charges. The Times smelled hush money and obstruction of justice. Times columnist Abe Rosenthal reminded readers that was what forced President Nixon’s resignation. Other news media largely ignored the story.

Dan Burton, chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, was the only politician to comment on this story at that time, implying during a TV appearance that the payments to Hubbell were hush money. Little more was heard of this until April 23, when Burton revealed that his committee had discovered that the payments to Hubbell had totaled over $700,000. That is $200,000 more than had previously been reported. The Washington Post carried this story under a six-column headline that read, “Hubbell Got $700,000 for Little or No Work, House Probe Shows.”

Burton’s committee had subpoenaed the records of 18 companies and individuals that had given Hubbell money. They found that his “consulting contracts” would have paid him more than $850,000 if many donors had not stopped their payments when Hubbell pleaded guilty in December 1994. The New York Times, which broke the hush-money story a year earlier, didn’t report this.

The Times covered the committee hearing where Chairman Burton revealed the new hush-money total. But its story, like the coverage by most papers and the network newscasts, focused on the wrangling of the Democratic minority. They bitterly attacked Dan Burton for having called President Clinton a “scumbag” a week before. What description would they apply to a president who pays hush money? Crook? That’s what they called Richard Nixon.

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