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6 February 1999

Smile-a-while: Attack cat

Synopsis: Wednesday night, Sean Hannity promoted the (shaky) claim that Clinton sicced Morris on Monica.

Commentary by Sean Hannity
Hannity and Colmes, Fox News Channel, 2/3/99

On Friday, we mentioned that the Fox News Channel is extremely big on being “fair and balanced” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, part II, 2/5/99). We know that’s true because they say they’re fair-and-balanced every time that you turn them on. For example, at the half-hour break of Hannity & Colmes Wednesday night, news reader Joy DeMandan came on with some headlines, at the end of which she made this announcement:

DEMANDAN: Those are your fair and balanced headlines. I’ll be back with more news at the top of the hour.

Surprisingly, the previous item had concerned a five-foot lizard that had invaded some family’s Florida home. And she was right--as many times as we’ve reviewed the DeMandan tape, we’ve seen no hint of any agenda in her remarks on the porch-dwelling troll.

But Hannity and Colmes clearly seems to have an inventive approach to balance. The idea seems to be: you book two guests on the show, with differing views, and just let everybody talk all at once. Whenever we watch the action-packed show, we assign one analyst to each host and guest; then we reconstruct what’s been said later on. You’d have to be Sybil to watch by yourself, with so many voices coming at you at once.

This past Wednesday night, you can imagine the fun, with guests Eleanor Clift and Ann Coulter. Eleanor knows how to get under Sean’s skin, and Ann annoys everyone else. Still reeling from the howlers they’d already heard on The O’Reilly Factor and Special Report, the analysts groaned when Sean made a charge (conversation has been digitally reconstructed):

COLMES: Eleanor, nothing new has come out of these three depositions, have they [sic]?

Clift’s reply could be heard through the din:

CLIFT: Well, I mean Vernon Jordan was refreshed about a breakfast he had with Miss Lewinsky, and maybe that adds a pebble to the case of circumstantial evidence--

Jumping in, Hannity offered what he thought was new:

HANNITY: And the president said--he [Jordan] said the president told him to help Monica get a job--

Sarcasm dripping, Hannity was saying this was a new revelation by the job boss Jordan. It was the very same howler that had been at the heart of Bill O’Reilly’s wild perjury rant.

But Hannity’s reprise of O’Reilly’s canard was not what we were there for. The analysts had suggested we review the segment where Hannity described claims by Dick Morris. Eleanor Clift said that, as a matter of fact, there had been no sustained White House press attacks on Miss Monica. Hannity jumped in with the following remark about claims made by ex-Clinton aide Morris:

HANNITY: I don’t want to go over old ground here but I’m just going to repeat: Dick Morris has stated that he was given the OK to go out and attack her [Lewinsky]...

Hannity had said it earlier in the program:

HANNITY: There’s two other things. The president on two occasions--to Betty Currie and to Sidney Blumenthal--claimed that Monica made the sexual demands on him; and Dick Morris said that he was given permission by the president himself to trash Monica.

The analysts, reeling from the evening’s two howlers, insisted that Hannity was committing a third. We flipped to page 2,923 of Kenneth Starr’s engrossing “Supplemental Materials,” and settled in to judge their claim.

Indeed, the notion that Clinton sicced Morris on Mo does prove a bit hard to sustain. In his sole grand jury appearance, on August 18, 1998, Morris described his own statement to Clinton, on January 21, that he planned to hold a press conference the next day. He planned to contradict a part of the Tripp phone tapes in which Lewinsky made a false statement about Morris:

MORRIS: And I told him that I was planning to hold a press conference the next day, Friday morning, releasing this fact and blasting Monica Lewinsky “out of the water.” “Nobody’s going to believe this and this will destroy her credibility on everything else she’s saying.”

The idea for the “blasting” was clearly The Cat’s. Morris continued apace:

MORRIS: And he said, “You’d better be careful. Don’t be too hard on her because there’s some slight chance that she might not be cooperating with Starr and we don’t want to alienate her by anything that we’re going to put out.”
     And I said, “Oh, okay. Well--”
     And he said, “Don’t do anything until we talk in the morning.” [Our emphasis]

By the time that Morris and Clinton spoke again the next morning, Morris and his wife had decided not to proceed. But before he could tell Clinton about the decision, Clinton told him not to hold the press conference:

MORRIS: And before I could tell him I was not going to have the press conference, he said...“Listen. My people don’t think it would be a good idea for you to have that press conference because we’re not at all sure that Lewinsky is going to cooperate with Starr, we think there’s some chance that she won’t, and we don’t want to alienate her.” [Our emphasis]

Morris testified he had no subsequent contact with Clinton right up to the point of his grand jury testimony.

Clinton is hardly portrayed as a hero here, although one can’t know if he described his real thinking to Morris. But, to be perfectly fair and balanced about it, it is clearly false to say that Morris had said “he was given the OK to go out and trash Monica.” Quite the opposite--Morris had described the plan to Clinton, and Clinton had told him not to do it. Discussion of character can proceed from there, but Hannity’s basic account of this matter is false.

Hannity has now had four full months to familiarize himself with the record. We ourselves have spent many evenings at headquarters, thumbing Starr’s multi-volume report. And, while Hannity’s error clearly does not rise to the level of the egregious howlers of Special Report and O’Reilly, it typifies the lazy pseudo-reporting that has characterized so much of this tiresome affair. Hannity’s account makes the story more exciting, but keeps his viewers from accurate knowledge. It is part of a process of dumbing-down of the story that can be seen on all sides, on all the news channels, pretty much every night of the week.

Well, the analysts moped when he took them aside and explained that this wasn’t a full-blown howler. But it really is kind of sad, we thought. Compared to the slanders we saw earlier on Fox, lazy paraphrase starts to seem like a mercy.

They report, we deride: Joy DeMandan, on that Florida reptile:

DEMANDAN: A mini-godzilla is keeping a Florida family on edge. The five-foot lizard has invaded their house. But so far they’ve only been able to catch it on videotape. It’s evaded all their traps and they never know where it’s lurking or when it will turn up. Those are your fair and balanced headlines. I’ll be back with more news at the top of the hour.

As we’ve said, we do think her reporting is perfectly fair. And by the way, it’s hard to find balanced lizard reporting on some of the cable channels. For example, on the Discovery Channel, it seems like the law: five-foot lizards can do absolutely no wrong.