NEW CLINTON WATCHDOG PROMISES MORE BITE

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The appointment of Eugene Roberts as The New York Times' new managing editor is President Clinton's worst nightmare.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal the other day, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. berated the Times for advocating that news organizations should put greater resources into covering the Whitewater investment scheme of the Clintons. Mr. Schlesinger's thesis was that media overkill on Whitewater "may damage the press and the political opposition as much as it damages the Clinton administration."

The irony is that the Times, in spite of the fact that it received three Pulitzer Prizes last week for other projects, has been very timid about Whitewater. The newspaper did break the story on Hillary's $100,000 payday investing in cattle futures, but it was slow to follow up. Other papers were quick to analyze the trading vouchers released by the White House; the Times delayed its scrutiny of Mrs. Clinton's improbable string of good luck and then buried the story on an inside page. It did similarly when it was disclosed the Clintons failed to pay taxes on capital gains.

Mr. Roberts will change all that. The Times has been reluctant to pursue a story about a husband and wife team it effusively supports on its editorial page. Mr. Roberts won't come to the Times with any of that cautiousness; a good story is a good story-and there's a lot left to dig up.

"We're going to jump on news whenever it occurs and try to make this newspaper as good as we possibly can. It's no more complicated than that," the former Philadelphia Inquirer editor told Crain's New York Business.

And what the Times does, so do newspapers across the country. Reporters and editors have been wringing their hands about the possibility they've been overplaying the Clintons' misadventures. But when the Times, under Mr. Roberts' prodding, begins to pursue every angle into the far reaches of Arkansas and beyond on the front page, other members of the Fourth Estate will become even more emboldened.

In fact, newspaper editors across the country are gearing up to launch their own investigations in anticipation of the new regime at the Times. Even the Times' own reporters are walking with more of a swagger, after walking on politically correct eggs for so long.

The bottom line is that Whitewater isn't about to go away; quite the contrary.

And yet, in his WSJ article, Mr. Schlesinger contends that the Clintons shouldn't be held accountable for things that happened many years ago. "The Whitewater doctrine is an astonishing historical innovation. If it had been applied to previous presidents-to Lyndon Johnson, for example-think what a field day special prosecutors would have had digging up political and financial dirt in Texas!" I think the real difference is that Lyndon Johnson was smart enough to cover his tracks. Bill Clinton doesn't seem to have bothered, and it's that arrogance that will provide plenty of fodder for inquiring newspaper reporters.

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