Today's journalism scandal involving liberal media members of the invitation-only "Journolist" listserv discussing ways to help 2008 presidential candidate Barack Obama or discredit his press critics is far more organized than the Clinton era "vast right-wing media conspiracy," according to former Clinton aides.
While the two media conspiracies have been compared since the listserv E-mails started appearing on the Daily Caller website, former Clinton aides say that there is one major difference between the two. Unlike the current scandal, reporters with conservative media back in the 1990s were competitive and didn't share story ideas.
What's more, the Journolist affair threatens to further undermine media credibility, especially with Republican organizations who tell us that they are reconsidering their relationship with reporters and news organizations on the Journolist listserv that was taken down when it became public.
"Do I think that there are potential issues with that if you get people trying to take particular positions and organize them because that ultimately undermines the objectivity of the media and the sense of independence, yeah," says former Clinton aide Chris Lehane.
He matters because it was Lehane who drew up the "The Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce," that became known as the road map to the "vast right-wing media conspiracy" that former first lady Hillary Clinton referred to on the Today Show in 1998 after the Lewinsky affair was revealed. "The great story here for anybody willing to find it and write about it and explain it is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president," she said at the time.
Lehane's project was actually focused on the conspiracy theories about the death of former Clinton lawyer Vince Foster, but took on a different life after Clinton's statement. Still, his 331-page document portrayed something far different than the current affair. Under the Clinton conspiracy, fringe media would publish sensational stories that would then get picked up on the Internet. From there, center-right mainstream media would pick up the stories, sometimes leading to GOP congressional hearings that the mainstream press would have to report.
"Do I think there were certain news organizations that clearly were coming from an ideological perspective, yeah. But that's a lot different than a spoken wheel conspiracy involving multiple news organizations, involving multiple reporters," says Lehane when asked to compare the media conspiracy theories. His conspiracy, he added, was "different than a situation where you basically have multiple news organizations from mainstream outlets that seem to be at some level coordinating their activity."
According to reports about Journolist, center-left media members, mostly columnists, sometimes discussed stories in pack journalism fashion. Today's Daily Caller details how some plotted to discredit Sarah Palin.
Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz writes: "But there is no getting around the fact that some of these messages, culled from the members-only discussion group Journolist, are embarrassing. They show liberal commentators appearing to cooperate in an effort to hammer out the shrewdest talking points against the Republicans--including, in one case, a suggestion for accusing random conservatives of being racist."
At the time of the Clinton media conspiracy it would have been a firing offense to talk about story coordination with anybody else, mostly because of the more competitive nature at the time.
Former Clinton spokesman Michael McCurry agrees. "There was more competition in the press during the 1990s because not everything was instantaneously available online. So reporters worked to keep good stories to themselves and did not share ideas. Now, everything is blasted out on the Internet so there is at least the appearance of collaboration. I think that's the real source of difference," he said. "I don't think you and [Fox]...and Deborah Orin [formerly of the New York Post] got together in a back room with [House Clinton antagonist Rep.] Dan Burton's staff to cook up the attack line of the day," he added.
But he doesn't think it's happening today either, despite the stories about Journolist. "I don't think the new media equivalent of that happens either," said McCurry.
Lehane suggests it's more a sign of the times, when journalism is less competitive and the newer generation of reporters is more apt to share information. "Part of it is generational difference. Those folks come out of the Facebook generation," he said. "People tend to be sharing and collaborating," he said.
He compared it to the recent blockbuster basketball deal of LeBron James teaming up with rivals Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh for the Miami Heat.
"That would never happen in the old days because those guys are all so competitive that they couldn't actually imagine working with each other," said Lehane. "It's similar I thing in news organizations. There's a different atmosphere now. People do collaborate and interact in ways that we just didn't see in those times."