Press Falls for Lie About Clinton, Enron

In a democratic society, successful propaganda generally relies on two elements: the fabrication of a useful, plausible, specific lie, and the deployment of visible professionals who are willing to repeat it until it’s believed. Like any other salesman, the resourceful propagandist must also be prepared to get lucky.

Fearful about the potential political impact of Enron, members of the Republican propaganda corps quickly realized they should argue that both parties were equally corrupted by the energy firm’s money. Simple mathematics belied this assertion, but simple minds might be persuaded anyway. (There is reportedly a videotape from the autumn of 2000 that shows Kenneth Lay dispelling such illusions, explaining patiently to his employees that Republicans deserve bigger contributions because they’re more compliant with his agenda of deregulating markets and reducing corporate taxes.)

What the G.O.P. really needed was a potent symbol of Democratic complicity with Enron; a familiar face to replace the images of the President and the Vice President and all the other administration figures compromised by Kenny Boy; a sturdy scapegoat to carry the weight of their own sins.

It wasn’t too difficult to guess who that might be.

The search for a scapegoat became a revealing exercise in experimental psychology and media manipulation. On Jan. 11, the Drudge Report ran an item purporting to demonstrate that the Clintons, not the Bushes, were the true tools of Enron. Among the highlights was a replay of past infamy: “[Ken] Lay also played golf with President Bill Clinton and slept in the Clinton White House.” (Proprietor Matt Drudge refuses to say where he came upon this allegation, replying only that “Lay’s direct ties to Clinton are well documented.”)

But the Drudge Report couldn’t make this canard fly without a boost from the mainstream. Two days later, the Chicago Tribune ‘s Washington bureau produced a story about Enron’s history of bipartisan favor-shopping in the capital. Seeking balance, the Tribune reporters wrote: “Lay was no stranger to the Clinton White House, playing golf with the president and staying overnight in the Lincoln Bedroom.” All the usual suspects quickly appropriated the Trib ‘s credibility to promote these familiar tropes and themes.

The very next day, Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes promoted this bogus claim on the Fox News Channel’s prime-time broadcast, without contradiction from any of his fellow pundits. Enron wasn’t really a Republican scandal, declared Mr. Barnes, because “Ken Lay not only played golf with Clinton, he spent a night in the Lincoln Bedroom.” Almost simultaneously that evening, Bush campaign consultant Alex Castellanos told viewers of CNN’s Crossfire that “Ken Lay slept in the Lincoln bedroom” with Mr. Clinton as his host.

Heeding their unofficial motto–”monkey see, monkey do”–other journalists quoted the same tale, which reached the pages of The Washington Times , the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette , the Newhouse News Service and other papers.

The tale traveled overseas to Korea, Australia and Britain –where the once-august Times of London virtually reprinted the Moonie paper’s version. Apparently this is what their Washington correspondents are paid to do.

On Feb. 17, Mr. Castellanos repeated the claim on ABC’s This Week (where former Clinton aide Paul Begala had the presence of mind to contradict him). David Bossie, the G.O.P. operative who did so much to promote the phony Whitewater scandal, popped up on Greta van Susteren’s Fox News broadcast to reiterate that “Ken Lay spent the night in Clinton’s Lincoln bedroom.”

By then it had become a durable myth, showing up in letters sent by gullible citizens to newspapers around the nation.

The first reporter to expose this outpouring of deception was Gene Lyons, the Democrat-Gazette columnist (and my co-author). Unfortunately, few outside Little Rock had an opportunity to read his Feb. 13 column. Salon.com, DailyHowler.com and Mediawhoresonline.com all have posted excellent analyses since then. Eventually, thanks to pressure from their astute readers, the Chicago Tribune , The Washington Times and Ms. Van Susteren issued corrections or retractions. (Others, according to Nexis, have not.)

So now might be the time for healthy introspection among those who fostered this falsehood. They might learn something about themselves from the remarkably candid explanation offered by Frank James, the Chicago Tribune reporter who put his paper’s imprimatur on it.

Mr. James denies that he picked anything up from the Drudge Report. Instead, he told me that on a tight deadline he had mentally “transposed” Bill Clinton’s name into his memory of an article he’d read about another President who hosted Mr. Lay in the White House. That President was, of course, the father of the current President.

No psychiatric degree is necessary to identify the process by which an embarrassment to the Bushes is turned into an attack on the Clintons, without so much as a phone call to check the facts by any of the perpetrators. It’s called projection, and it is certain to persist until Enron is only an unpleasant memory.