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Prosecutor Kenneth Starr has come under fire. (Reuters)

Press Puts Starr in the Hot Seat

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 4, 1998; Page D01

The press is suddenly giving the third degree to what headline writers call "the Starr Chamber."

A Time cover story on independent counsel Kenneth Starr says: "You don't have to be a conspiracy buff to have trouble with how the Whitewater investigation ended up focused on the president's pants. . . . Starr's own methods are not always easy to stomach."

New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis questions whether Starr, in one instance, is guilty of "an alarming abuse of power."

"Who is Ken Starr, and why are people saying so many nasty things about him?" asks ABC's Ted Koppel.

Starr has drawn brief bursts of negative publicity during his three-year Whitewater investigation. Now, of course, his pursuit of sex and perjury allegations involving President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky has put him at the center of a national maelstrom. But it is only in the week since Hillary Rodham Clinton assailed him as politically motivated that Starr has really come under fierce scrutiny.

Walter Isaacson, Time's managing editor, describes the pendulum swing this way: "Now that we've been titillated by the sex, let's look at what the case is."

Stuart Taylor, a legal writer for National Journal and Newsweek, says the press has its priorities straight. "When this thing broke, the focus was properly on what did the president do, not what did Starr do," he says. "The question of did the prosecutor play dirty to get the evidence was secondary."

One reason Starr has received relatively gentle treatment until now, some journalists and administration officials say, is that reporters depend on his office for crucial leaks. Prosecutors, they say, are not above putting out selected tidbits to make their case seem stronger or put pressure on potential witnesses. In one instance, Starr was described as providing "background assistance" for a New York Times Magazine cover story.

"The press is the referee, but they're also playing the game, and they're not going to call the foul," says White House adviser Paul Begala. If Starr's office is leaking, he says, it is "a flagrant violation of federal rules of procedure."

Lars-Erik Nelson, a New York Daily News columnist, says the press has been "gullible" in passing on charges apparently leaked by Starr's office. "What troubles me is stories that begin 'Independent counsel Ken Starr is investigating allegations that . . . ,' and you can fill in the blanks with any kind of slander you want."

One veteran Whitewater reporter scoffed at such criticism, saying he's examined every previous Starr client and legal brief. "I've investigated him as thoroughly as I've investigated the Clintons," says this reporter, who declined to be identified because he is still covering the probe.

"Nobody seems to be giving him a pass," Isaacson says. "You can ask the question of a lot of the players in this: Who's leaking and do they get more favorable coverage from it?"

The former judge and Reagan administration official has come under media fire on occasion. Critics have questioned Starr's representation of the tobacco industry, his willingness to write a legal brief for Paula Jones, his decision to speak at the Rev. Pat Robertson's university, his tactic of keeping Whitewater felon Susan McDougal in jail for refusing to testify, and his initial acceptance of a post at Pepperdine University partially funded by conservative financier Richard Mellon Scaife.

Last June, in a precursor to the current controversy, The Washington Post reported that Starr's investigators had questioned Arkansas state troopers about their knowledge of any extramarital affairs that Clinton might have had while governor. The report caused a brief furor over Starr's methods, but much of the media ignored it.

Even before Hillary Clinton publicly assailed Starr, White House aides were quietly encouraging reporters to scrutinize the prosecutor's tactics. James Carville, the president's friend and 1992 campaign strategist, practically shouted it from the rooftops, even creating an organization and Web site to coordinate the assault on Starr.

The media have since turned up the volume. Los Angeles Times columnist Robert Scheer yesterday accused Starr of a "witch hunt" and "crusade to destroy Clinton." McDougal, the president's former business partner, has gotten into the act from behind bars, telling "Dateline NBC" that "Kenneth Starr has become Jerry Springer."

Starr is at something of a disadvantage in any war of words with the White House, since a prosecutor can't say much about an ongoing criminal investigation. "He is completely outmatched by the White House bully boys and attack machine," says John Fund, a Wall Street Journal editorial writer. "Starr has made a tactical error in not having a PR strategy." All Starr would say yesterday is that "we are trying to get to the truth of what would be, if proven, serious charges."

Not all the recent Starr profiles have been negative. The Washington Times led off a front-page piece by calling him "a deeply religious man who tries to spend part of each day alone with God." Newsweek reports that "colleagues say Starr is visibly uncomfortable with the more prurient aspects of the Lewinsky case."

But much of the coverage has raised critical questions, such as last week's front-page Washington Post story headlined "The Prosecutor: Following Leads or Digging Dirt?"

Taylor contends that Starr's tactics -- such as secretly wiring Lewinsky's friend and then threatening the former White House intern with indictment -- are standard prosecutorial practice. "I've written that Starr was the wrong person to do this investigation because of his Republican political ties," he says, "but the recent criticisms of him are overblown."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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