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 thats true because they say theyre 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. Ill 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 familys Florida home. And she was right--as many times as weve reviewed the DeMandan tape, weve 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 whats been said later on. Youd 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 Seans skin, and Ann annoys everyone else. Still reeling from the howlers theyd already heard on The OReilly 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]?
Clifts 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 OReillys wild perjury rant.
But Hannitys reprise of OReillys 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 dont want to go over old ground here but Im 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: Theres 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 evenings two howlers, insisted that Hannity was committing a third. We flipped to page 2,923 of Kenneth Starrs 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. Nobodys going to believe this and this will destroy her credibility on everything else shes saying.
The idea for the blasting was clearly The Cats. Morris continued apace:
MORRIS: And he said, Youd better be careful. Dont be too hard on her because theres some slight chance that she might not be cooperating with Starr and we dont want to alienate her by anything that were going to put out.
And I said, Oh, okay. Well--
And he said, Dont 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 dont think it would be a good idea for you to have that press conference because were not at all sure that Lewinsky is going to cooperate with Starr, we think theres some chance that she wont, and we dont 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 cant 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 Hannitys 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 Starrs multi-volume report. And, while Hannitys error clearly does not rise to the level of the egregious howlers of Special Report and OReilly, it typifies the lazy pseudo-reporting that has characterized so much of this tiresome affair. Hannitys 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 wasnt 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 theyve only been able to catch it on videotape. Its evaded all their traps and they never know where its lurking or when it will turn up. Those are your fair and balanced headlines. Ill be back with more news at the top of the hour.
As weve said, we do think her reporting is perfectly fair. And by the way, its 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.