While finance and technology are rapidly reshaping our media, undermining printed words and exalting digital screens, the nation's major newspapers continue to exercise enormous political influence. Their news reports and editorial opinions still shape the ideas and themes behind every night's television coverage.

            But the great power of the dailies isn't always used wisely, especially because "liberal" newspapers have so often proved easy prey for right-wing manipulation, as they were during the Clinton era and most of the Bush era.

            Unfortunately, we can expect such manipulations to be repeated -- as The New York Times illustrated on page 1 of its Feb. 19 edition, with an article headlined "As Clinton Runs, Some Old Foes Stay on Sideline."

            According to that report, the snarling perpetrators of what Hillary Clinton so famously called "this vast right-wing conspiracy" have been housebroken.

            Christopher Ruddy, a journalist who now edits the conservative Web site -- and earned a certain reputation by insinuating that the Clintons were responsible for the death of their friend and counsel, Vince Foster -- told the paper that both he and his patron, Richard Mellon Scaife, have since "had a rethinking" about Hillary and Bill.

            "Clinton wasn't such a bad president," said Ruddy. "In fact, he was a pretty good president in a lot of ways, and Dick [Scaife] feels that way today." Although the Pittsburgh billionaire didn't comment directly, Mr. Ruddy went on to compliment Sen. Clinton for moderating her ideology and image.

            Leave aside for a moment the patent insincerity of Ruddy's remarks (obvious to anyone who examines his Clinton-bashing Newsmax Web site). More plausible and yet more astonishing was this: "Mr. Scaife, reclusive heir to the Mellon banking fortune, spent more than $2 million investigating and publicizing accusations about the supposed involvement of Mrs. Clinton and former President Bill Clinton in corrupt land deals, sexual affairs, drug running and murder."

            Certainly Scaife invested millions to portray the Clintons as crooks and worse. He spent plenty of that money to publicize the "supposed involvement" of the Clintons in "corrupt land deals."

            But so did The Times, which more than any other news organization bears responsibility for the phony Whitewater scandal and the runaway independent-counsel probe that led to President Clinton's impeachment. And now, on its front page, in a single sentence, the paper of record effectively disowned hundreds and perhaps thousands of articles, editorials and columns that once framed the trivial, unprofitable and long-dead Whitewater investment as a matter of immediate public concern.

            In The Times, their guilty involvement was treated as something established, not "supposed." Eight years and tens of millions of dollars later, the independent counsel grudgingly conceded that he had found no criminal wrongdoing in Whitewater by the Clintons. That was the same conclusion reached years earlier in a nonpartisan investigation by the Resolution Trust Corporation (to which The Times gave scant attention).

            With the assistance of The Times' editors, not to mention their zealous counterparts at The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, the right-wing network financed by Scaife succeeded in crippling the Clinton White House and nearly bringing it down.

            Only when impeachment loomed did The Times nervously back away from the consequences of its stupid crusade. To this day, the paper's editors have never admitted they were wrong about Whitewater. They have confessed serious error on many things, from the Wen Ho Lee affair to the hyping of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, but Whitewater remains a sacred cow.

            All this ancient history matters now because, like everyone else, America's newspaper editors are prone to repeat the errors they forget. To read, where former Clinton consultant Dick Morris holds forth incessantly on the grave peril posed by Hillary, is to understand that the right will attack her as vigorously as ever should she win the Democratic nomination next year.

            Already, Mr. Morris and assorted other characters from the old Clinton drama are preparing films and books to re-enact their vendetta, and Scaife and Ruddy can be relied upon to promote those efforts, as they have consistently done for the past several years. No doubt the "Swiftboaters" who so scurrilously and profitably smeared Sen. John Kerry's war record in 2004 will join the fun.

            The question is whether America's leading newspapers can overcome their aversion to being labeled liberal and expose smears from either side of the spectrum without amplifying them. With Sen. Clinton leading the polls, an honest reassessment of mainstream journalism during the Clinton years is overdue.

            Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer ( To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at COPYRIGHT 2007 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.