White House Memo Asserts a Scandal TheoryBy John F. Harris and Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 10 1997; Page A01
The 332-page report documenting an alleged "conspiracy commerce" of scandalous "fringe stories" about President Clinton was compiled by a young White House aide toiling in an obscure corner of the Old Executive Office Building. But there is little doubt it reflected views held strongly in the Oval Office.
The conclusion has long been a favorite of Clinton loyalists: that a cabal of right-wing extremists had figured out how "fantasy can become fact" by advancing rumors about Whitewater and Clinton's personal life through a "media food chain" that starts in ideological journals and ultimately finds its way onto the front pages of mainstream U.S. newspapers. What is striking about the document is that it lays down this suspicion-laden theory about how the media works in cold print, under the imprimatur of the White House.
The White House's acknowledgment of the 1995 memo yesterday after its existence was publicized earlier this week by the Wall Street Journal comes at what could be the opening of a new season of suspicion between the White House and the media, just days before the Supreme Court will hear arguments connected to the sexual harassment lawsuit filed against Clinton by Paula Corbin Jones.
With research provided by the Democratic National Committee, the White House counsel's office produced the report at a time when the Clinton team was alarmed by what it called inaccurate stories about Whitewater, the suicide of White House aide Vincent Foster, and other matters that seemed to be spinning out of their control.
The package, containing hundreds of news clips and Internet postings, purports to show how the Clintons have been tarred by what it calls the "communication stream of conspiracy commerce." Moreover, it alleges "a close connection . . . exists between Republican elected officials and the right wing conspiracy industry."
"We wanted to refute some of the very aggressive charges being made fallaciously against the president, most often on the Internet coming from a variety of kind of crazy, right-wing sources," White House press secretary Michael McCurry said yesterday.
McCurry and other officials involved in the matter said the effort did not demonstrate paranoia on the part of the White House, but an attempt to respond to reporters' questions about the origins of outrageous-sounding stories. "This is an effort . . . to really help journalists understand that they shouldn't be used by those who are really concocting their own conspiracies and their own theories and then peddling them elsewhere."
In the theory set forth in the memo, unverified stories originate with "well funded right wing think tanks" like the Western Journalism Center or American Spectator magazine. Posted on the Internet, they are then picked up in London tabloids or by conservative U.S. papers like the Washington Times and Wall Street Journal. Congress orders inquiries and suddenly the rest of the mainstream media begin covering it as a legitimate story.
While that view has long been expressed by Clinton strategist James Carville and other Clinton advisers, White House officials have said since the election that Clinton is eager to improve what he sees as a sour relationship with the media. But that desire will be put to an early test by coverage of the Jones court case.
Jones, a former Arkansas government employee, claims then-Gov. Clinton invited her during a state conference to a Little Rock hotel room, where he allegedly exposed himself and asked for sex. Clinton, who denies Jones's allegations, is asking the high court to delay her case until he leaves office.
Whatever the merits of Jones's allegations, the case raises a basic constitutional question about whether presidents deserve special protections from civil cases. Yet Clinton believes that some news organizations are eager to use the narrow issue before the court when should the case be tried? as an occasion for airing anew her more sensational charges, according to people familiar with his thinking.
Clinton, officials said, felt this suspicion was confirmed by Newsweek magazine's decision to put the Jones case on this week's cover.
The White House sees the Jones controversy as an illustration of the media cycle described in the "conspiracy commerce" memo.
Jones's existence was first hinted at in 1993 in a story in the conservative American Spectator magazine. Jones said she came forward to tell her story, and later sued Clinton, in part because that article not identifying her but describing a woman named "Paula" was unfair. But when she went public, it was at a news conference organized by conservative Clinton critics.
Many mainstream news organizations, including The Washington Post, were initially reluctant to publish her story but later did. In The Post's case, it was after extensive independent reporting into the disputed facts of the case.
McCurry said the flurry over the memo yesterday was a "Fellini-like" episode proving its conclusions. White House officials said they provided copies to dozens of news organizations in 1995, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and CNN. At the same time a group of Clinton supporters posted it on the Internet.
But only after the Journal editorial page and then the Washington Times printed stories about the memo commissioned by former White House associate counsel Mark Fabiani and written by a young aide named Christopher Lehane this week did it come to dominate a White House briefing.
Two Post reporters cited by the White House as recipients said yesterday they do not remember receiving the memo, although they recall talking with officials about the issues it raised and stories it cited.
Reaction to the report yesterday broke roughly into two camps. Some thought the White House, while perhaps ill-advised in putting its thoughts in memo form, was accurately describing the course that some stories take. Others thought the memo reflected a warped outlook.
"This is paranoia at the highest level of government," said Fred Barnes, an editor at the conservative Weekly Standard magazine and a former White House reporter. "This is a remarkable role reversal. It used to be that the wild conspiracy theories were on the right."
C. Boyden Gray, who was George Bush's White House counsel, called it "kind of goofy" and "a bit sophomoric" but a reflection of the sense of siege every president feels. "I think that happens to many White Houses," he said. "But I don't think any of us would have put that much pen to paper."
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