- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Now that ABC News has the list of phone numbers given to them by the “Washington Madam,” the question is: Whose names will they publicize if they find out there are public figures whose phone numbers are among those they have?

Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, the names include Karl Rove and Ted Kennedy. Are both names equally likely to be revealed? If only one name is revealed, do you have any serious doubt which the liberal media will reveal?

That is the problem with Washington scandals. In fact, the very definition of a “scandal” by the media differs radically, according to who is involved. That is a bigger scandal than any particular scandal the media report.

Before the Washington Madam surfaced, the big scandal in town was the Bush administration’s firing of eight U.S. attorneys. But it was not a scandal, as far as the media were concerned, when Bill Clinton fired every single U.S. attorney in the country. Everybody knew then — but all seem to have forgotten now — that all U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president. He can fire any of them or all of them, at any time, for any reason or for no reason.

In the case of Bill Clinton, U.S. attorneys back in Arkansas had been investing corruption in his administration as governor before he became president. Firing all of them covered the fact he was getting rid of those investigating him. But that was no scandal, as far as the media were concerned.

It was treated as a scandal in the media when Newt Gingrich received a large advance from a publisher while speaker of the House. It was no scandal when each of the Clintons received larger publishers’ advances. For conservatives, the media standard is not “innocent until proven guilty” but “the appearance of impropriety.”

When Sen. Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, received $1 million from a questionable real estate deal involving property he no longer owned but whose owner had received favorable treatment from the government, that was apparently not even an appearance of impropriety as far as most of the media were concerned.

We have heard a lot of outrage expressed because, under the Patriot Act, the government can find out what books you have checked out of a public library. That is considered a scandalous invasion of privacy.

But it was not considered a scandal when hundreds of confidential FBI files on Republicans were turned over to the Clinton White House, in violation of the law. Just an honest mistake, according to the Clintons — and the media bought it.

One reason FBI files on individuals are kept confidential is that anybody anywhere can make any unsubstantiated charge about anybody to the FBI. People can anonymously accuse anyone of being anything from a petty thief to a pedophile. Can you imagine the value to a politician of having hundreds of such files on his enemies?

Just knowing you have such political dynamite in your possession can have a chilling effect on your opponents and corrupt the whole political process. Who knows whether the impeachment vote in the Senate might have gone the other way if some senators did not have to worry that Bill Clinton might take them down with him if they forced him out of office?

As for the FBI discovering whether you checked out a cookbook or an X-rated novel from your local library, does anyone seriously believe they have the time, manpower or motivation to look into the reading habits of 300 million Americans, when they have all they can do to try to keep up with the terrorists?

It was a scandal when shock jock Don Imus made a typical cheap shock jock remark about black girls on a college basketball team. But it is no scandal when black “leaders” like Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson make racist remarks. Yet who has more influence — most of it bad — on race relations in this country? Outrage at Mr. Imus by the media who give Mr Sharpton and Mr. Jackson a free pass is a little much. But that is not a scandal, since the media determine what is and is not a scandal.

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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