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22 November 1998

Read on: Van Natta (almost) gets it right

Synopsis: The New York Times came a little bit closer to getting it right on Whitewater.

Democrats Challenge Starr on Delayed Exoneration
Don Van Natta, Jr., The New York Times, 11/20/98

While the Washington Post and USA Today were embellishing Mr. Starr’s Whitewater statement, the New York Times almost got the thing right. Here’s how Don Van Natta described what Starr had said on the subject of Whitewater:

VAN NATTA (first paragraph): Kenneth W. Starr today provided the public with a wide-ranging portrait of his four-year, $40 million investigation, announcing that he had not found any evidence of impeachable conduct by President Clinton on the Whitewater land deal... [Our emphasis]

There! See how easy it is to make an accurate statement, without embellishment, spin or slander? Van Natta conveys the nugget of what Starr said: he hasn’t found any evidence of impeachable conduct. And he doesn’t follow Starr into self-serving suggestions that there really was a lot of evidence, wink wink, but he just decided not to refer it. Van Natta conveys the obvious news: Starr found no impeachable conduct.

Unfortunately, even Van Natta wandered astray a bit later on in his story:

VAN NATTA: But after intense debate within his office, Mr. Starr said, he decided not to send the Whitewater referral to the House of Representatives. He concluded that he could not be certain of the truthfulness of two major witnesses, both of whom accused the President of criminal wrongdoing but were convicted felons. [Our emphasis]

At least Van Natta describes the problems with McDougal and Hale in fairly blunt language. But what of his claim that Starr did not send the referral to Congress because “he could not be certain” of their truthfulness? There is nothing in the statute under which Starr works that requires him to be “certain” in making a referral. If Starr worked under this “certainty” standard, he was failing to observe his statutory charge, and Van Natta should mention that fact.

Darn it! In presenting this formulation, Van Natta implies that Starr had a strong case against Clinton, but one that fell somewhere short of certainty. But that is not the standard of proof under which the devout jurist worked. If Starr had a case against Clinton approaching certainty, he’d have been required to send it to the Congress. As Squitieri and Thompson did more egregiously, Van Natta furthers Starr’s self-serving spin. Starr threw out the spin to smear target Clinton. Van Natta here gulps the bait down.