Globe was right: no White House vandalism
By Jack Thomas, 5/28/2001
NOT LONG after George W. Bush was sworn in as president, many were aghast to read in newspapers and hear on television that in the final days of the Clinton administration, employees had trashed the White House. Democrats were embarrassed, and Republicans, stroking their wallets, gloated that they knew all along the Clintons were hillbillies.
The story began as a gossip item in The Washington Post that the letter ''W,'' Bush's middle initial, had been removed from keyboards, and within days it had mushroomed to a scandal reported prominently on TV and the front page of the Post.
The details were startling: Walls had been desecrated with obscene graffiti, file cabinets glued shut, telephone wires cut, presidential seals steamed off doors and pornography left on fax machines. So extensive was the damage that a communications worker was said to have been reduced to tears and a national magazine hinted that the White House was spending $10,000 a day to repair phone systems damaged by departing Democrats.
Talk-show hosts from the nutty right, like Jay Severin in Boston and his audience of dumb and dumbest, all congratulated themselves on having been proved right that the Clintons were trailer-park trash.
And what of the Globe?
At a time when Bush aides were privately promoting the story, Anne E. Kornblut of the Globe's Washington Bureau was filing stories that were skeptical.
For example, at a briefing Jan. 25, Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer deceptively encouraged reporters' suspicions while refusing to confirm or deny reports of damage. The next day, in a 620-word account, Kornblut wrote: ''No public evidence exists that Clinton and Gore staff members vandalized the White House or Old Executive Office Building.''
For that statement, she was denounced by some for political bias and for not reporting in greater detail what one reader said was further evidence that under Clinton, America had seen the greatest moral decay since the founding of the nation. ''Kornblut either knows the truth and she wrote a blatantly dishonest, biased story,'' wrote Lee Vincent of Groton, Conn., ''or she is incompetent or inexcusably clueless about a widely known set of facts.''
Now, three months later, buried in the national briefs column in the Globe a few days ago was an AP story four sentences long that said an investigation by the General Accounting Office found no evidence of vandalism, no evidence of wires slashed, no evidence of equipment damaged, and no evidence or anything to match the allegations.
Knowing how difficult it is to write against the current and risk the wrath of readers, not to mention the censure of editors, I called Kornblut to congratulate her for having covered the story with temperance and, above all, for having gotten it right.
''Just basic reporting,'' she said. ''What made me suspicious was the fact that the White House wouldn't give specific examples and wouldn't say, on the record, that this happened here or that happened there. I made phone calls to people who told me it just wasn't true. Also, there were no pictures, and they never seemed to be able to say on the record, in public or at a press conference, here is what happened.''
Such independence takes courage, especially at the White House, which is notorious for pack journalism.
''For a young reporter at the White House, it's tough,'' says John A. Farrell, the Globe's Washington news editor. ''Everybody else is writing this juicy story and readers are complaining that you're going easy on Clinton. But the way the story broke, it fit a pattern Anne had seen covering the Bush campaign and I'd seen covering the White House during Watergate. It was a good story, and we wanted to write it, but what was the basis? And our bureau chief, David Shribman, told us if it's not there, don't write it and don't worry about the pressure.''
In an excellent report at Salon.com, Kerry Lauerman and Alicia Montgomery surveyed coverage since the GAO report that exonerated the Clinton administration and found that, with the exception of Fox News, none of the media outlets that had hyped the phony story had moved aggressively to correct the error.
''To its credit, Fox acknowledged on the day the GAO report became public that there had been little evidence to support its vandalism claims,'' wrote Lauerman and Montgomery. ''Later Fox News's Tony Snow went further, apologizing to former Clinton staffers for his error. `OK, I'm sorry,' Snow said on air. `The ex-president's pals have a legitimate beef.'''
And so, once again, after relying on unnamed sources, the press looks foolish, a lapse to which none of us is immune. In covering the Dartmouth murders a few months ago, the Globe relied on unnamed sources for information. It proved false, and the newspaper published an apology on page one.
Newspapers ought to be judged, says Shribman, by the stories we do and also by the stories we don't do.
Undoubtedly we'll hear and read apologies from all those media outlets deceived by the Bush administration, from all the reporters and columnists, from all the TV anchors, correspondents, commentators, and from all nutty talk show hosts. But when?
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This story ran on page A19 of the Boston Globe on 5/28/2001.