This month, Ken Starr has been begging for driveway interviews again, first by indicting Julie Hiatt Steele and then by calling Monica Lewinsky back to Washington. With such a triumphant return, you'd expect to hear cascades of praise from the conservative press, but instead, all but a few brave souls act like the cat's got their tongue. Meanwhile, in the weeks since Starr indicted Steele, the liberal press has lavished her with sympathy cards and offers to beat up her tormentor.
Steele is the woman who corroborated Kathleen Willey's account of a sexual advance by Bill Clinton, and then changed her story. Apparently in hopes that she would go back to the first story, Starr's office has hauled her before the grand jury twice, investigated her adoption of a Romanian child, and now charged her with obstruction of justice and making false statements.
For the liberal take on Steele's indictment, just read the headlines: STARR BULLIES ANOTHER WOMAN (a Daily News column by Lars-Erik Nelson), THE VENDETTA CONTINUES (a Salon column by Joe Conason), THE KNOCK ON THE DOOR (a New York Times column by Anthony Lewis). Depending on the pundit, Starr's decision to indict was "mystifying," "abusive," or "gratuitous."
Given the left-wing convergence on this issue, it seems a little odd that we don't hear a barbershop quartet singing for Starr on the right. Instead, utter silence from the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, The Washington Times, and The Weekly Standard. What gives? Has the right-wing conspiracy suddenly taken a vow of omerta?
Last week, two conservatives broke their silence. Speaking of the Steele indictment on National Public Radio, Morton Kondracke said it was as if Ken Starr had been walking through a battlefield of wounded people and decided to shoot one of them.
Then came a telling admission by former Bush press secretary Marlin Fitzwater. Appearing on a panel hosted by Larry King on January 19, the day Steele pleaded "absolutely not guilty," Fitzwater called the Steele indictment "outrageous," adding, "You can't help but watch that and say, 'What in the world is this all about?' "
Former Clinton Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers was also on that panel, and Fitzwater addressed his next comment to her. He said that if he had been able to advise Myers in 1992, when she started at the White House, he would have said, "Be afraid of independent counsels. Be afraid. That law does this kind of thing to people."
Starr obviously loves playing the bully, but his decision to make Lewinsky jump through congressional hoops was another misstep that will help separate the honest pundits from the hypocrites in the days to come.
And don't be so sure that more conservatives don't know it. Already, on Monday morning, conservative mouthpiece Kevin Phillips was on NPR, calling the Monica maneuver a "wrong move" that had put the Republicans "behind the eight ball, for now."
Ahead of the Times
Is it a coincidence, or did The New York Times Magazine just blatantly rip off a Nation cover from four months ago? (See photos, below.)
On January 17, the honchos at the Times magazine were feeling pretty good about themselves, having published an excellent think piece by Jacob Weisberg on Bill Clinton's legacy, complete with an intentionally blurry photo of Clinton on the cover.
The cover image works as a kind of visual pun: Just as a president's legacy becomes more clear when viewed from a distance, so, too, a blurry photo achieves more resolution the farther back you stand from it. It's a cool idea. Too bad it isn't original.
In fact, as The Washington Post reported Monday, The Nation used the exact same image on the cover of its September 714, 1998, issue, to illustrate a package of articles addressing . . . Bill Clinton's legacy. Granted, the Nation image is not as compelling, because it's on newsprint with type plastered across it. And yet, one can't help but notice the resemblance.
"Imitation is the highest form of flattery," says Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel, who sees the twin covers as evidence that "The Nation is always ahead of the curve." Vanden Heuvel spotted the Times cover on January 16, and e-mailed Scott Stowell, who does the art direction and design of all Nation covers.
When Stowell saw the cover, he couldn't believe it. Just as he did last summer, the Times had taken the official White House shot of Clinton the same one Conan O'Brien uses in his mock interviews and put a blur on it.
What looks like a rip-off is, in fact, a "total coincidence," according to Times magazine editor Adam Moss, who says he first saw the Nation cover last week. 'I'm sorry about it, because I really liked this cover and I still like it. I congratulate The Nation on having had the idea first."
"Great minds think alike," agrees Janet Froelich, art director of the Times magazine. Froelich explains that, in looking for a different way to treat a very familiar face, designer Jennifer Gilman put the grinning Clinton in Photoshop and pushed two buttons to create the blurred image. Froelich says that when they saw the Nation cover last week, she was "stunned" and Gilman "devastated." "We would never, ever lift someone else's idea," she insists.
Stowell, who briefly freelanced for the Times magazine and now runs the Open design studio, is willing to accept Froelich's explanation. "I never believed that I was ripped off," he says. "But I was really surprised that no one in editorial was reading The Nation."
Whore No More
You can call Steve Brill arrogant, pompous, and "profoundly solipsistic," as the New York Observer did in a recent editorial, but don't call him closed-minded. After a phone call from Press Clips in early December questioning the influence of tobacco advertising on editorial content, the editor in chief of Brill's Content decided to revise his magazine's conflict of interest policy.
"That's a result of the conversation you and I had," Brill told Press Clips recently.
The magazine's policy is stated at the front of the book, under the heading WHAT WE STAND FOR. The old policy read, in part: "The content of anything that sells itself as journalism . . . should not be motivated . . . by the desire to curry favor with an advertiser or to advance a particular political interest unless those motives are clearly disclosed."
In the December issue, Brill ran six pages of tobacco ads along with an article that took the tobacco industry's position on secondhand smoke, a decision that led Press Clips to question his conflict of interest policy. The way the policy was origi- nally worded, it sounded like Brill thinks it's permissible to run an article that is favorable to an advertiser, as long as he informs the reader that his intention is to curry favor with the advertiser.
"That would be ridiculous," Brill said at the time. "It would be like saying, 'You should know I'm a whore.' " He recalls now that after speaking to Press Clips, he discussed the policy with a few people on staff and decided to clarify the wording. "It left the impression that I was saying that conflicts are okay, as long as you disclose them."
The new policy reads the same, except that the last phrase, "unless those motives are clearly disclosed," has been dropped. And that's a good move, according to Marshall Loeb, editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. "Before, it sounded like a loophole," says Loeb. "Now it's less equivocal and gives you less room to move around in. I would say it's an improvement."
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