That was a helluva hoo-hah Ken Starr set off when he summoned Clinton spinmeister Sidney Blumenthal before the grand jury last week. From the media's spluttering dudgeon, an innocent bystander would have thought Blumenthal was the reincarnation of William Allen White, not the assistant to the president for propaganda and conspiracy theories.
"Starr's increasing abuse of prosecutorial power and his paranoid rambling about the White House trying to bury him under 'an avalanche of lies,'" screeched the New York Daily News in a typically over-the-top editorial, "unmask him as a direct descendant of the late, disgraced Senator Joe McCarthy — a power-crazed anti-American posing as a patriot."
President Clinton with his longtime confidante, Sid Blumenthal.
Subpoenaing Blumenthal was clearly a PR blunder; it smacked of desperation and created a distraction Starr's office didn't need. But "a direct descendant of . . . Joe McCarthy"? Get a grip. Prosecutors summon potential witnesses before grand juries every day. Even the first lady has testified before one. What makes Blumenthal too holy to query? The fact that he whispers sweet nothings in many reporters' and columnists' ears?
Defamation is illegal; likewise obstruction of justice. Somebody has been shopping a number of scurrilous stories about Starr and his staff around Washington lately, "including," writes Jerry Seper in The Washington Times, "suggestions that Starr was involved in an extramarital affair; that a member of his staff is a homosexual but has not publicly acknowledged it; and that some members of the Starr team have been involved romantically with members of the media." Could these rumors be coming from the White House? From the White House that has been paying a private detective to rake muck on Paula Jones and other Clinton foes? From the White House that once employed sleazoids to pore over the FBI files of more than 900 Republicans?
Perhaps Blumenthal knows about the anti-Starr dirt machine and perhaps he doesn't, but it is hardly an outrage to take his testimony. What is an outrage is painting Blumenthal as some First Amendment hero, a martyr to the cause of fearless, untrammeled journalism.
It's a pose, needless to say, in which Blumenthal revels. "I never imagined," he declared grandly, "that in America I would be hauled before a federal grand jury to answer questions about my conversations with members of the media."
What a load of mulch.
To begin with, it isn't the source who promises to keep the journalist's identity confidential, it's the other way around. Starr hasn't hauled in reporters and demanded to know where they are getting their information. He has questioned a White House employee about an apparent campaign to disrupt the work of the special counsel's office. It may have been politically clumsy, but it was no threat to freedom of the press.
Sid Blumenthal, Lion of the First Amendment? Somebody ought to ask Susan Schmidt about that. A reporter who has broken numerous Whitewater stories in The Washington Post, Schmidt was the target of a White House attack piece ordered up by Hillary Clinton and masterminded by Blumenthal. They intended to use the document to discredit Schmidt and pressure the Post into softening its coverage. Meanwhile, writes the Baltimore Sun's Carl Cannon, other investigative journalists "keep hearing that they are on a Blumenthal 'enemies' list." Call your office, Mr. Nixon.
Targeting "unfriendly" journalists is an old story with Blumenthal. Even before joining the White House payroll, he helped squash stories critical of the Clintons. When he was at The New Yorker, to mention just one example, he reportedly tried to sabotage his colleague Peter Boyer's account of the White House Travel Office scandal. According to Boyer, Blumenthal warned the Clintons' close friends Linda and Harry Thomason — who were implicated in the case — that he was anti-Clinton and planning a smear. Blumenthal was actually barred from The New Yorker's Washington office, so untrustworthy was he deemed.
Meanwhile, compare Blumenthal's oh-so-pious denunciation of Ken Starr with his own vengeful treatment of Matt Drudge, the lone-ranger Internet reporter.
Last summer, Drudge reported on his Web site that Republicans were spreading rumors of a hushed-up "spousal abuse past" in the Blumenthal household. He also reported that the White House vehemently denied any such thing.
The rumor turned out to be false. Drudge retracted the story and immediately apologized.
So. How did Sid Blumenthal, the reporter's hero, respond? With an ode to the First Amendment? By calling for a retraction? Not hardly. Blumenthal demanded sources! The same Blumenthal who now waxes wroth at being asked about his conversations with journalists demanded last summer that Drudge name names. Either Drudge identifies his informants, said Blumenthal, or he'll face a $ 30 million lawsuit — enough to shut him down forever.
Through his lawyers, Blumenthal likens Starr to "the Gestapo" for asking about his contacts with reporters. Simultaneously, he hopes to destroy Matt Drudge, a reporter who wouldn't reveal his contacts.
Lion of the First Amendment? Reeking hypocrite is more like it.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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