Jun
08
2001

White House Responds to Vandalism Charges, Fox Responds to FAIR

A May 21 FAIR Action Alert addressed the stories of White House "vandalism" during the transition in January. According to anonymous Bush administration sources, Clinton staffers had looted Air Force One and vandalized the White House on their way out of office. The rumors exploded after earlier, more light-hearted stories about minor pranks, such as removing the letter W from computer keyboards.

Some news outlets gave the new vandalism stories minimal attention because they were based on little more than rumors, while others went ahead and ran with them. Fox News Channel played the story bigger than almost any other outlet. On January 26 alone, the vandalism was discussed at least 10 times on various Fox shows (including reruns), usually at a fevered pitch.

FAIR urged readers to encourage Fox to explain why it had made dubious rumors a major focus of its transition coverage. Fox received hundreds of concerned email messages from FAIR activists.

Then on Friday June 1, the White House finally wrote down a list specifying the damages for the first time-- despite having told the GAO six weeks earlier that it had "located no such record" (Kansas City Star, 6/5/01). It gave the list to the Washington Post, which ran it on Sunday (6/3/01).

For some, the list proved that the vandalism stories had been accurate after all, and an attack on the critics was in order. On Fox News Sunday, Tony Snow (6/3/01) denounced FAIR's action alert as "a hate e-mail campaign directed at Washington journalists." An unsigned June 4 email from Fox to FAIR activists argued that Fleischer's list "finally detailed a lot of the damage," and "laid out enough of the details to make it clear that the original stories were basically correct."

But the Fleischer list provides little if any corroboration for Fox's reports, and certainly does not vindicate the network's round-the-clock sensationalism. To see why, one needs to review how the vandalism story evolved.

A shaky story

Early on, it became clear that the sensational story was not all it was cracked up to be. The "looting" of Air Force One, which Fox anchor Brit Hume described as a "raid"--in which Clinton personnel had supposedly stolen china, silverware, champagne glasses and bedsheets from the plane--unraveled after two weeks, when a spokesman for Andrews Air Force base said the story was baseless (Kansas City Star, 2/9/01).

The rest of the story has had a more complicated history. Responding to a request from Rep. Bob Barr (R.-Ga.), the General Accounting Office (GAO) and General Services Administration (GSA) reviewed the charges. The GSA, which is in charge of the maintenance of White House offices, sent a letter to Barr saying that "the condition of the real property was consistent with what we would expect to encounter when tenants vacate office space after an extended occupancy" (New York Times, 5/19/01).

According to the GAO's Bernard Ungar, "There was no [White House] record kept of any cords being cut or any damage to computers or copiers--in general there was no proof of anything matching the allegations" (Associated Press, 5/18/01). In short, physical inspections of the buildings did not reveal any obvious damage, and the Bush White House could not document the specific charges that had been made.

Fox's initial reaction was to disown the story. Anchor Tony Snow even offered a partial apology (Fox News Sunday, 5/20/01):

The General Services Administration reported last week that, rumors to the contrary, members of the Clinton administration did not trash the White House or despoil Air Force One, at least according to the evidence available. In response, the ex-president's supporters have besieged pundits like me, folks who rushed to judgment, demanding apologies. OK, I'm sorry.... The ex-president's pals have a legitimate beef.

But less than two weeks later, Fox changed tack. On the Friday, June 1 edition of Special Report with Brit Hume (6/1/01), Hume criticized FAIR by name and argued that the GSA's inspections were insufficient. A report by correspondent Carl Cameron argued that there never was a GAO investigation--"comprehensive or otherwise"--and that the GSA had merely performed "a cursory inspection." In short, Fox said the new developments proved nothing. "As for whether or not there was vandalism, it has not been proven or, for that matter, disproven," Cameron said.

For the record, the GSA had a team of staff inside the White House offices from the moment Bush was sworn in through every step of the transition. When asked by the GAO about the vandalism charges--in what the GAO calls a "preliminary inquiry"--the GSA reported no observations of vandalism.

At this point, the White House released its newly compiled list of damages. Despite Fox's claim that the list renders the story "basically correct," claims of file cabinets glued shut, paintings torn off the walls, and locks jimmied (alleged by anonymous Bush staffers in the Washington Post, 1/26/01; NBC News, 1/25/01) are now missing from the White House's summary of damages, which is based on the mental recollections of one staffer who only got around to writing them down June 1.

As for the relatively minor damages Bush spokesperson Ari Fleischer did list--such as cut wires--when reporters asked if it could have been the work of clumsy maintenance staff, Fleischer indignantly replied that he didn't think the "professionals" who worked for the White House would have made such mistakes. But the GAO's Bernard Ungar was not so hasty (Salon.com, 6/5/01), noting that any damage "might have been the cleanup. That certainly is possible that some of it was not intentional. I just don't know."

That leaves little more than "inoperable keyboards"--i.e., missing W's--and handmade signs poking fun at Bush--what Fleischer calls "graffiti." Those stories were long ago confirmed by Democrats and were never described as "vandalism" or "looting" in the media--including on Fox. To portray them as some kind of retroactive corroboration for the fevered stories about "the trashing of the White House" stretches credulity.

A story that didn't fly

And let's not forget that Brit Hume, along with dozens of others, falsely reported that Air Force One "was stripped bare. The plane's...porcelain, china and silverware and salt and pepper shakers, blankets and pillow cases, nearly all items bearing the presidential seal, were taken by Clinton staffers" (Special Report With Brit Hume, 1/25/01).

That story, an utter fabrication, was first reported in the Washington Times (1/25/01) and sourced to an Air Force steward who--intriguingly--appears to have leaked it on the same day Bush administration officials first leaked their own allegations about White House vandalism (DrudgeReport.com, Rich Galen's Mullings.com--both 1/24/01).

Over the next two weeks, Fleischer and the Bush administration allowed the media to repeat the Air Force One story over and over, almost certainly knowing it was a lie. It was only after Andrews Air Force Base took the wind out of the story that Bush acknowledged nothing had been missing from the plane, saying (2/13/01), "All the allegations that they took stuff off of Air Force One is simply not true."

Despite the rumors, no broken items or other physical evidence have been produced by the White House to back up its list. Nor were any records of repairs provided to the press. Photos that the White House shared with reporters do not back up the claims of vandalism (Salon.com, 6/5/01).

The GAO has now restarted its investigation. This time, the White House is cooperating.

"A drastic lowering of standards"

Fox pundits don't always accept the notion that journalism should rely on rumors. When allegations surfaced concerning Republican Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and marital infidelity, Fox political analyst Fred Barnes was not impressed. Barnes--who had called "the trashing of the White House" a "hot story" four months earlier (1/27/01)--now had this to say (Fox News Channel, 5/14/01):

It used to be you heard a rumor, you checked it out, if it checked out and was true, you might write the story, but if it didn't, you wouldn't write anything.... They report rumors now. That's what journalism does. It reports rumor. It's wrong. It's a drastic lowering of standards to do that.