FLASHBACK: How TV News Botched Clinton’s 1996 ‘Filegate’ Scandal

Imagine if a Republican administration was caught with the confidential FBI background files of hundreds of past Democratic officeholders stashed in a White House safe. Those were the headlines 28 years ago this week, when the Clinton White House was forced to admit they possessed 338 reports on past Reagan and Bush administration officials (the number was later revised upward to 900).

Despite the obvious appearance of political dirt-digging operation, journalists were content to chalk it up to the “general incompetence” of Clinton’s youthful staff, and instead blasted Republicans for making “ugly” charges in an election year.

The first inkling of “Filegate” came June 5, 1996 when it was disclosed the Clinton White House had sought confidential information on Billy Dale, the former head of the White House travel office, who had been fired seven months earlier. “The document is important because there are allegations that the White House ran a campaign to discredit Dale and other fired employees in order to deflect criticism that the Clintons wanted to give the lucrative travel office business to their own friends,” CBS’s Rita Braver explained that night.

[Four years later, independent counsel Robert Ray concluded Hillary Clinton had, in fact, given false testimony when she denied any role in firing the travel office staff. As then-Fox News reporter David Schuster reported October 18, 2000: “Under oath, Mrs. Clinton flatly denied any role and denied that she had any input, but later a memo surfaced from administration chief David Watkins suggesting Mrs. Clinton wanted the travel staff fired. Watkins said there would be hell to pay if swift action was not taken in conformity with the First Lady’s wishes. A friend of Watkins also alleged that Watkins was told to quote, ‘fire the sons of bitches.’”]

Back to Filegate: In a classic Friday night news dump two days later (June 7, 1996), the White House disclosed they had the files of 338 Reagan and Bush administration officials. Of the three anchors, only NBC’s Tom Brokaw even noted the bombshell, in a brief update on that evening’s Nightly News, and he uncritically relayed the Clinton’s story of it being an innocent mistake: “The White House said pulling the files was a procedural error by a member of the White House security detail, an army employee. However, those confidential files did make it all the way to the White House before this mistake was discovered.”

The next day, Clinton’s Republican opponent, Senator Bob Dole, summoned memories of Watergate, suggesting the secret files amounted to an “enemies list.” But instead of grilling Clinton, the networks painted Dole as the bad guy for doubting the pure motives of a Democratic White House.

“Bob Dole took his hardest swipe yet at President Clinton today,” CBS’s Bob Schieffer frowned on the June 8 Evening News.

“The politics of Campaign ’96 are getting very ugly, very early,” NBC’s Brian William scolded on Nightly News. “Today Bob Dole accused the White House of using the FBI to wage war against its political enemies, and if that sounds like another political scandal, that’s the point.”

On Sunday, Clinton had his White House Chief of Staff, Leon Panetta, face the cameras. Panetta insisted that while it was “a mistake,” the Democratic operatives on his staff did nothing “improper” with the confidential files on their opponents: “It was a mistake, it is an inexcusable mistake. I think apologies are owed to those who were involved here. But let’s understand that nothing improper was done with this information….”

The networks continued to blame Republicans who wouldn’t accept the Democrat’s “apology” at face value and move on. “The Clinton administration apologized today for improperly obtaining confidential FBI files on hundreds of people in 1993, including top Republicans,” CBS’s John Roberts argued on June 9. “But it wasn’t enough for GOP leaders who charge the Clinton administration is keeping a list of enemies….”

On the political talk shows that weekend, multiple liberal panelists amplified the Clinton White House’s excuse that this was an innocent mistake. “Leon Panetta’s explanation is plausible to me only because back then, in 1993, there was mistake after mistake like this. And the reasons usually were incompetence rather than venality,” NPR White House reporter Mara Liasson claimed on CNN’s Late Edition.

The Washington Post’s Juan Williams agreed. “They made a mistake, or this guy who was a military attache whose job it was to try to put this in order made a mistake. When it was found out that he made a mistake, apologies were made,” Williams argued on CNN’s Capital Gang.

On June 14, FBI Director Louis Freeh issued a report blasting the Clinton White House for its “egregious violations of privacy” in hoarding FBI files about Republicans. For the first night since the story broke nine days earlier, ABC, CBS and NBC all led their newscasts with the scathing report.

“The FBI report revealed the White House had gotten 408 files ‘without justification,’ in what it scathingly referred to as ‘egregious violations of privacy,’” CBS’s Bill Plante relayed that night on the Evening News. “FBI Director Louis Freeh blamed the FBI as well as the White House for ‘inadequate protection to privacy interests.’”

But by the next night, the story had virtually disappeared, with just a short reference in a piece by CBS’s Sharyl Attkisson that was mostly an attack on Bob Dole’s ties to tobacco PACs. The next night (Sunday, June 16) none of the three networks even mentioned it.

That weekend, the usual suspects offered more excuses for the Clintons. “I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt right now…I really believe this was a case of general incompetence,” the Los Angeles Times’s Sam Fulwood rationalized on Inside Washington. “I guess the real question is, beyond an opportunity for the Republicans to have hearings and to sort of drag out a Whitewater-type escapade once again, does this really matter?”

A week later, on The McLaughlin Group, Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift assumed her usual stance as a Clinton apologist. “Hate radio and innuendo is going to put Mrs. Clinton at the center of this, and for a party like the Republican Party that has this huge gender gap, targeting the First Lady on every one of these issues is not going to be effective politics,” she argued June 22.

“The administration has adopted an it-was-an-innocent-blunder defense on Filegate, and it makes sense: This White House inspires a presumption of incompetence,” Gloria Borger rationalized in the July 1 edition of U.S. News & World Report.

But some in the media felt their colleagues had dropped the ball. “I cannot believe that there wasn’t more [coverage], CBS News veteran Mike Wallace pronounced on New York City’s Don Imus Show on June 14. “When you get 341 names…it’s so palpably dishonest what they [the White House] did.”

“There’s no question that the press initially blew this story. This should have been all over the front page and all over the networks and it was not,” then-Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz agreed in an appearance on Fox News Sunday June 16. “If hundreds of files had been obtained by Ed Meese in the Reagan administration on Democrats I think this story would have rocketed to the front page a whole lot quicker.

Of course it would have.

You can read more examples from our flashback series, the NewsBusters Time Machine, here.                        

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