WASHINGTON — Not a day goes by that I’m not asked by people across
the country — and countless Canadians, too, interestingly enough — why
the Washington press corps never gets to the bottom of the scandals that
have plagued this administration.
Stories break and then just drift away with little or no follow-up,
they complain. In the end, no one is held accountable, and the stench of
Most readers just chalk it up to pro-Democrat bias among the press
corps. To be sure, a lopsided nine out of 10 Washington reporters voted
for Bill Clinton and Al Gore. With a personal stake in their success,
they may have incentive to look the other way when they come across a
But I’ve found it’s more complicated than that. Many mainstream
reporters, usually the younger and hungrier ones, have tried to zero in
on corruption, and some have even followed up on scandal stories broken
in the conservative or alternative press.
It’s not for lack of trying. The problem lies not so much with the
press, but with the dishonest press secretaries the White House has
installed at just about every federal agency to block and bully the
press. (See, for instance, the exclusive transcript of a revealing
interview with Cabinet press secretary below).
Yes, press secretaries are hired in part to spin negative stories.
During scandal coverage, the less information they have to give, the
better. That’s always been standard operating procedure, whether it was
Marlin Fitzwater, James Brady or Jody Powell in the White House hot
But they’re also paid by taxpayers to assist the press in letting the
American people know what’s really going on in their government. So they
have an obligation to tell the truth when reporters push the right
That’s been the game: Ask the right question and more often than not
you can count on getting a truthful answer.
But the Clinton administration has changed the rules.
Now, even if your question is bull’s-eye accurate, you’re not
guaranteed confirmation. More likely, you will get a blanket denial —
even from the president himself: “I did not have sexual relations with
If you follow up with more detailed questions, expect to be
brow-beaten into backing off the story. If you pursue a really damaging
scandal, expect to be bullied, blackballed, frozen out, denied access,
banned or even smeared. Your producer will get an earful and your editor
will be asked to keep you on a shorter leash.
Even when the press teams up and demands information, they are
Witness the current clamoring for the list of dates and times when
Hillary Clinton’s hundreds of guests recently stayed in the Lincoln
Bedroom and at Camp David. The data would test the Senate candidate’s
spin that the sleepovers weren’t a reward for campaign donations — an
illegal quid pro quo — but merely a chance for the first couple to
spend time with friends. If the dates and times don’t match the dates
and times Bill and Hillary were in the White House or at Camp David, it
would put the lie to her explanation.
But the public will never know the truth without the list, and the
White House is basically telling everyone to go to hell.
You’d expect to see such defiance and strong-arm tactics in Moscow
and Beijing, not here. But that’s what reporters have had to deal with
the past eight years.
For a recent example, just listen to my Oct. 24 interview with
Commerce Department Press Secretary Morrie Goodman. It crystallizes for
the public how this regime operates behind the scenes when reporters get
too close to the truth. Here is a transcript of the give-and-take, which
starts with Goodman answering his cell phone:
A: Morrie Goodman.
Q: Hey Morrie, thanks for calling, sorry I missed you. It’s
A: Yeah, hey Paul, what’s up?
Q: Can you check something out? I know you’re out of pocket
today, but —
A: Well, I’m only out of pocket in that I’m on vacation and
not going in.
Q: OK, good, because I’m on deadline, and I’ve got to file
A: What is it?
Q: Secretary Mineta spoke to Alberta Lee, this is Wen Ho Lee’s
A: Spoke to who?
Q: — Alberta Lee, the daughter of Wen Ho Lee.
A: Wen Ho Lee, the guy from — the prisoner? I mean, the —
A: — ex-prisoner, yeah, yeah, yeah. Talked to her daughter?
Q: Yeah, in a meeting in Atlanta, back in July. And I need to
get some kind of explanation as to why he met with her.
A: Uh … what’s the story about?
Q: Exactly that — that he met with Alberta — that a
A: Um, I never heard that he met with her. I didn’t know that.
Q: No one does, I mean, not the public. Some folks told me in security.
A: And what was the date?
Q: It was July 29 at the convention of the Organization for Chinese Americans in Atlanta.
A: July 29 … let’s see … he wasn’t even — he wasn’t Commerce secretary then.
Q: Yeah, he was.
A: He was?
Q: Yeah, Daley left July 15.
A: But he wasn’t confirmed until — God, I don’t have my dates — but I think it took him about three weeks to get confirmed.
Q: He was operating in his capacity as secretary, yeah —
A: He was?
Q: — July 29.
A: I don’t think so. I don’t think he was, but let me find out. I don’t think he was.
Q: OK …
A: No, I was there. I mean, if Daley’s last day was the 15th, I know it took him about three weeks to get confirmed. So I don’t think he was Commerce secretary at the time. But I’ll call you back. I’m in my car. I don’t have any notes in front of me.
Q: Hold on … I got a hold of the transcript to the speech he gave there and he was talking about —
A: Let me ask you a question: Why do you have it in for Mineta?
Q: I have it in for Mineta? This is the only story I’ve ever done on Mineta.
A: Oh, really? Didn’t you do another story? Oh, I’m thinking of someone else.
Q: Yeah, sorry. Don’t shoot the messenger, Morrie, I’m just doing my job. I remember the last time I called you about the
pornography in the office of
security and you flat-out, blanket denied it.
A: Well, it wasn’t por — it, it, it wasn’t. There was no down — you didn’t want to believe — see that’s the problem, though, Paul, is that I try to tell you something and you didn’t like what I was telling you and didn’t want to believe it. The fact of the matter was, which is the reason why the Washington Post didn’t — and the Washington Times didn’t even do the story —
Q: Yeah, the Washington Times did do something.
A: — I’m sorry, the Washington Post. I don’t consider the Washington Times mainstream. I consider them pretty on the edge.
Q: Oh, now, you can’t pick and choose.
A: Oh, yes we can, and we do, we absolutely do.
Q: So the Washington Post is completely, 100 percent objective?
A: I think they’re pretty much objective, yeah — compared to the Washington Times? Where the hell have you been?
Q: The Washington Post doesn’t have a political agenda? They don’t favor a Democratic administration over a Republican administration?
A: I don’t think so.
Q: Oh, now —
A: But the Washington Times —
Q: — I don’t know how intellectually honest that is, but OK.
A: — anyway, you know what I think we’re going to do?
Q: I’m sorry, you didn’t finish on the pornography thing.
A: The pornography thing was — the bottom line was this guy and his wife were e-mailing each other dirty messages. There was no downloading of any porno — of, of, of any, of any X-rated materials like downloading from the Net. They were just having a personal deal where they were e-mailing dirty stuff back and forth to each other … which is against the rules of the, of the, uh, uh, you know, the use of the Int — the use of computers. And I think what you were trying to say, or somebody was trying to say — and again, without notes in front of me, it’s tough for me to talk — but somebody was trying to say that he was actually downloading pornographic material, uh, from the Internet. You know, like you sign up to some sites to see some naked ladies and stuff. Uh, when in actual fact, all he was doing was — well, not all he was doing — but what he was doing, which was against the rules, was doing e-mails back and forth to each other.
And that’s what I told the Washington Post, and they said, “Oh, is that what it was? Never mind.”
Q: But the question I asked you is whether or not — are we talking about the same guy, Mike Seely?
A: Uhhh, yeah, the guy you called me about.
Q: Yeah, because I didn’t care about the other two people who evidently were having some kind of affair or relationship. I could care less about office politics. But if you’re misusing government resources, the taxpayers need to know about that — that’s my job. And there was a guy by the name of Mike Seely, who — actually there was a pretty extensive investigation of the fellow and he was suspended.
And I asked you if he was suspended and you said, “No.”
A: He wasn’t at the time.
Q: He was. He was out on suspension.
A: He was out on paid leave.
Q: He hadn’t been suspended then?
A: He, he, uh, uh, as I recall, and again I’m driving in my car and I don’t have my notes, but as I recall at the time that we talked, he had not been — I, I, didn’t — are you insinuating that I told you a mistruth? If you did, I mean, if you do —
Q: I would hope you didn’t.
A: — Paul, Paul —
Q: I hope you didn’t.
A: — for future reference between you and me, which is between you and the Commerce Department, because I’m your only source at the Commerce Department now — but for future, I will never lie to anybody. I may hang up on you and decide not to talk to you. Or I may tell you from now on FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) me in writing because I’m not going to accept your phone calls, but I’ll never lie to you or anybody else. I think that’s horrible if somebody would do that, and I wouldn’t do it. I mean, I was —
Q: Yeah, because —
A: — I was a journalist for 17 years, Paul —
Q: — yeah, because it’s your job. You’re a public information officer.
A: — that’s correct —
Q: — you work for the taxpayers —
A: — that’s good. You’re absolutely right. And I think what we’re going to do to keep this on a professional level — and I’ll tell you, on a personal level, off the record, I think your stories that you’ve written stink, and I think you’ve got a agenda that is far beyond, uh, uh, objective reporting —
Q: My only agenda is to get out the truth.
A: — that’s my personal op-p-opinion. I think you’re just like some of the, some of the rags that write about this administration, and parts of it, and you wouldn’t do a good story about this administration if somebody paid you a million bucks. That’s my opinion, so we’ll —
Q: Au contraire. Go back and look at the body of my work. I’ve done a number of positive stories — all the way back to the Arkansas economic record in 1992, when I went to Little Rock and met with all of Clinton’s economic officials. So don’t tell me that. You obviously haven’t looked at the full body of my work. … I’m only interested in getting out the truth, and the guy was suspended just as I was told. You misled me, maybe — intentionally or unintentionally. I hope it was unintentionally.
A: Had to be unintentionally, I had no intention —
Q: Did you tell the Washington Post reporter that the guy was suspended when he asked?
A: Uh, don’t recall whether he even asked me. He asked me what the guy was in trouble for. What the guy — he was on, he was on paid leave. He was not suspended at first.
Q: Well, why was he on paid leave then, Morrie?
A: Uh, pending an investigation into, into downloading — uh, allegedly downloading nasty messages to his wife.
Q: OK, did you tell the Washington Post reporter that?
Q: You did?
A: In those word, in those words exactly.
Q: Who was the reporter?
A: You know I don’t have it here. I have it in my office. I don’t know. But I’ll — anyway —
Q: Because that’s — that’s pretty serious; that’s pretty serious, wouldn’t you say?
A: Uhhh, what is?
Q: I mean, AP, AP did a long story on HUD — the HUD officials doing the same thing. You wouldn’t say AP is against the administration, would you?
A: I don’t know what story you’re referring to.
Q: Housing and Urban Development — they had a number of officials in the inspector general’s office who were doing the same thing, and they were suspended.
A: Were they downloading dirty material from the Internet?
Q: I believe — and they were e-mailing it, yes, using government computers.
A: Yeah, I, I think these were personal messages from a guy to his wife that were dirty, which, which, uh, uh, which is not what you were asking about — anyway, let’s do this —
Q: Let’s get back on the Mineta thing.
A: — let me just end this entire thing by saying that anything you need, that you want from us, I would appreciate it if you would put it in writing as a FOIA request. And that, that’s how we’re going to do business.
Q: Well, I’m going to report that then, because you can’t single me out and, and exclude me like that from getting questions answered —
A: I’m, I’m asking you to do a FOIA request on any kind of information that —
Q: — no I won’t, because I work on deadline on some of these stories. I won’t agree to that.
A: (Hangs up.)
Unfortunately, the Commerce Department has been a target-rich environment for scandal stories during this administration. And these weren’t the first stories I’d done on the department, nor the first time an administration flack tried to dress me down for writing them.
In 1997, I reported that former White House aide Alexis Herman had worked with Commerce officials in arranging trade junkets for fat-cat Democrat donors. I quoted an aide to the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown who said he dealt with Herman on trip details and recalled her attending pre-trip meetings in which Clinton and Gore gave the donors big send-offs.
The story was important because the Senate was voting to confirm Herman as Labor secretary, and she had testified that she hadn’t been involved in the controversial trade missions.
The day the story ran in Investor’s Business Daily, I got an angry call from Joe Lockhart, who was the deputy White House press secretary at the time. He spent a good 10 minutes badgering me about the “tone” of the story.
Q: Is there anything in the story that’s factually inaccurate?
A: I don’t like the implication the story makes that Ms. Herman is lying.
Q: Can I talk to her in a phone interview?
A: Not until the confirmation is done. It’s an unwritten rule.
Uh-huh, sure it is, Joe.
Last year, Lockhart banned me from attending White House functions after my
dust-up with Clinton at a South Lawn
picnic. I simply asked him tough questions that needed to be asked about his role in Chinagate and why the Justice Department in effect blocked four career FBI agents from following leads back to Clinton.
Citizen cyberjournalist Matt Drudge tattled on Lockhart for banning me. Reporters asked him about it at a press conference. Before answering, Lockhart lectured them on the “virtues or lack thereof” of using Drudge as a news source. He nonetheless confirmed the story, as he’s had to do with countless other Drudge stories.
After I broke the story of
White House staffers downloading
porn in August, Lockhart’s replacement, Jake Siewart, scolded me for making “an issue of everything we’ve done here.”
Unfortunately, that hasn’t been hard to do. But what has been hard is getting straight answers out of official spokesmen for the president and his Cabinet members.