This Week

Issue: "Gagged by Tolerance," March 22, 1997

The numbers racket

Although the committee room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building was packed with reporters, one story didn't make it out of the room when a joint Senate and House committee took up the issue of partial-birth abortions March 11. During that hearing, pro-life members of Congress indicted the press by showing portions of a PBS documentary that criticized reporters for "parroting the line of the abortion lobby" two years ago, when they "reported" the false story that as few as 500 partial-birth abortions are performed each year. The myth put forth by pro-abortion lobbyists such as Ron Fitzsimmons was taken as fact by many journalists, until one reporter in New Jersey thought to verify it. When she contacted abortionists in her state, she found that at least 1,500 partial-birth abortions had taken place in New Jersey alone that year. Later, the Washington Post and other newspapers admitted what they'd reported was false. "It took more than 14 months for the facts to emerge," Newsweek's Jonathan Alter said in the documentary. "For news organizations to allow months to pass before they try to go out and do their own independent assessment of the facts, was a real problem. They let themselves substitute political reporting, what was going on on the Hill, which was just a lot of unreliable advocates shouting at each other. That drove out the real reporting about how many of these abortions were taking place, and where and at what time in a woman's pregnancy." Also in that PBS documentary, Forbes MediaCritic Online editor Terry Eastland added, "In the case of this particular story, reporters tended to accept as true the assertions of the abortion-rights side, despite evidence calling into question their claims." The hearing was otherwise a repeat of hearings held two years ago. The difference this time was that the pro-abortion side was on the defensive. Kate Michelman of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League and Renee Chelian of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers said numbers--and therefore lies about those numbers--don't matter. "Whether the number is five, five hundred, or five thousand a year, each one of these numbers represents the real life of an individual woman," said Ms. Michelman. And the real life of an individual baby, female or male. The House votes first on the matter, then the Senate. A finished bill is expected to be ready for the president by Easter. Mr. Clinton has again vowed to veto it.

He said, she said

Journalists last week provided much of the fodder for Senate questioning of CIA director-designate Anthony Lake. "It's always nice to get the morning paper these days so we have new stories to follow up with more questions," said Senate Intelligence Committee member Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.). He wasn't kidding. On March 10, officials at the White House and FBI spent the day dueling over the previous day's Washington Post report that revealed a 1996 FBI briefing of National Security Council staffers about possible Chinese government influence of congressional and presidential elections. The two officials kept the information to themselves. Mr. Lake, then head of the NSC, was responsible for the conduct of the staffers. In Senate testimony, he insisted he was kept in the dark about the FBI briefing, as was Mr. Clinton. Mr. Lake conceded that he and the president should have been informed on "a matter of extraordinary importance such as that," but defended his staff's silence: "They had to make a decision based on the information they had and on any strictures put on them." Whether there were any "strictures" was at the core of the dispute. FBI officials said the briefing information was indeed restricted, but to White House personnel with appropriate security clearances; that, the FBI maintains, should never have been taken to mean the president and national security adviser should be kept out of the loop. Presidential spokesman Mike McCurry appeared before the White House press corps three times March 10 on the matter; once, he claimed an FBI statement was "in error." That evening he backed off, and the next day Attorney General Janet Reno claimed it was all just a misunderstanding. As to his fitness for handling the government's intelligence-gathering agency in light of the bungled operations at the NSC, Mr. Lake said he is capable of providing "unvarnished and unprejudiced" information to the president and policymakers.

Is the tide turning?

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An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll March 13 found public attitudes toward President Clinton are changing. Three-quarters of respondents said they had "major concerns" about foreign influence in the Democratic Party. Fifty-three percent said they believed contributions influenced policymaking, despite Mr. Clinton's insistence they did not. "The China connection is what bothers most people," said Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who with Republican Robert Teeter conducted the poll. President Clinton's approval rating dropped slightly, but it remains above 50 percent. But the poll came before further scandalous revelations last week: Newly released White House documents, turned over to congressional investigators March 10 under threat of subpoena, show a deliberate attempt by presidential aides to use a government computer database to "recreate the general campaign structure." A November 1994 memorandum from aide Marsha Scott to deputy chiefs of staff Harold Ickes and Erskine Bowles (now chief of staff) said the computer could help "identify by March 1, 1995, key financial and political folks who will work with us in '96." Rep. David McIntosh (R-Ind.), who is heading the congressional probe, said the memo "shows the intention to misuse government resources was there from the beginning." The Democratic National Committee, meanwhile, agreed March 12 to return $107,000 to the Cheyenne-Arapaho Indians of Oklahoma. Tribal officials had hoped the contributions would buy them the president's support for a return of oil- and natural gas-rich lands. The morning of a scheduled luncheon with Mr. Clinton, a DNC fundraiser hit up the Indians for a $100,000 check. Tribal leaders say they would rather have the land than the money returned, but said one: "If they persist in offering the tribes their money back, we will have no choice but to accept it." The $107,000 came from a tribal welfare fund that helps needy families with home heating bills. The home heat is rising around Vice President Gore as well. The Knoxville (Tenn.) News-Sentinel quoted one-time Senate aides to Mr. Gore saying that their former boss made at least two dozen presidential fundraising calls from his Senate office; the calls came in the spring of 1987, when Mr. Gore was running for president. Federal law prohibits members of Congress from using their offices to raise campaign money.

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