(Click here to read a response from Fox.)
During the White House transition in January, one story proved irresistible to many conservative pundits: Departing Clinton staffers had gone on a wild rampage and "trashed" or "vandalized" the White House, even looting Air Force One. Allegations of the Clinton aides' reckless destruction of public property swept through the media. For some, the story symbolized the difference between a morally compromised Clinton presidency and a more dignified, honorable Bush administration.
An official government investigation, however, reveals one major problem with these stories: They apparently never happened. According to statements from the General Services Administration that were reported on May 17, little if anything out of the ordinary occurred during the transition, and "the condition of the real property was consistent with what we would expect to encounter when tenants vacate office space after an extended occupancy."
Ironically, the investigation came in response to a request from Rep. Bob Barr (R.-Ga.), and many conservatives who had assumed that the wild rumors would be confirmed by an official inquiry. That wasn't the case. (The "looting" of Air Force One had also been denied months ago by officials at Andrews Air Force base--Kansas City Star, 2/9/01.)
Leading the cry against the trashing of the White House was the Fox News Channel. Virtually every major Fox personality reported it as fact, often expressing their own personal outrage. Guests on the channel chimed in, condemning the Clintons and their staffers. Consider the following reports:
--Sean Hannity (1/26/01): "Look, we've had these reports, very disturbing reports -- and I have actually spoken to people that have confirmed a lot of the reports -- about the trashing of the White House. Pornographic materials left in the printers. They cut the phone lines. Lewd and crude messages on phone machines. Stripping of anything that was not bolted down on Air Force One. $200,000 in furniture taken out."
--Fred Barnes (1/27/01): "Now, you know what else helped Bush have such a good week? It was the contrast with the Clintons' sleazy departure from the White House, which is a hot story in itself.... You had the trashing of the White House itself. We don't know how much, but the typewriters, the voicemail, the graffiti on the walls and so on, reflecting, I think, a real bitterness that they should not have reflected, at least in that."
--Bill O'Reilly (1/26/01): "I mean, the price tag right now is about $200,000, so that's a felony right there."
--Oliver North, radio host (1/26/01, "Hannity & Colmes"): "There's an awful lot about this whole administration that never looked right to many of us. And of course, their closing act in this whole thing, which was basically trashing the White House, you know, pillaging what was available on Air Force One.... We should expect from white trash what they did at the White House."
--Tom Schatz, Citizens Against Government Waste ("O'Reilly Factor," 1/26/01): "They turned it into Animal House."
--Paula Zahn (1/26/01): "All right, but this is the White House, for God's sakes. We're not talking about people living in a fraternity."
--Sean Hannity on the Clintons (2/6/01): "I'd be more willing to cut them some slack and say it was an honest mistake and they weren't involved in the moving if Air Force One wasn't stripped, if they didn't trash the White House, if they didn't set up this -- the equivalent of a bridal registry, if he wasn't taking advantage of the taxpayers."
--Tony Snow (1/28/01): "When I first heard about reported vandalism by disgruntled Clinton-Gore staffers, I got a little bit steamed. I've got a certain affection for the White House, due in no small part to my own service there during the first Bush administration. So, inspired by my experience and fond memories, I dashed off an angry newspaper column about the incident. But then the Bush team did something very wise. It did nothing, and that was the right choice. Sometimes you have to look past little idiocies and outbursts, understanding that life's just too short to fret over such things."
"A little bit steamed" is putting it mildly: As the Kansas City Star reported (5/17/01), one of Snow's syndicated newspaper columns was nearly a case study in dishonest reporting. Snow wrote that the White House "was a wreck" and that Air Force One "looked as if it had been stripped by a skilled band of thieves -- or perhaps wrecked by a trailer park twister."
Fox's Edge With Paula Zahn (5/18/01) covered the GSA investigation, though no mention was made concerning Fox's role in the story. The same was true for Special Report With Brit Hume, which aired a brief report on the GSA's findings (5/18/01). Guest anchor Tony Snow could not have been less specific in his opening comments: "Remember those accusations in the media that outgoing Clinton administration staffers trashed the White House when they left? Well, now the General Services Administration says the stories weren't true."
His subsequent "correction" on Fox News Sunday (5/20/01) also avoided responsibility:
Snow somehow is under the impression that his statement on January 28--about how "you have to look past little idiocies"--was a "correction," though he did not actually correct any of the information he had reported at all.
ACTION: Please contact Fox News Channel and encourage them to conduct a self-examination of why anonymous reports backed with no evidence became a major focus of their transition coverage.
Fox New Channel
1211 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10036
--O'Reilly Factor: firstname.lastname@example.org
--Hannity & Colmes: email@example.com
--The Edge with Paula Zahn: firstname.lastname@example.org
--Fox News Sunday: email@example.com
--Special Report with Brit Hume: firstname.lastname@example.org
As always, please remember that your comments are taken more seriously if you maintain a polite tone.