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7 February 2001

Our current howler: It isn’t the gifts. It’s the lying.

Synopsis: Hay-yo! When the "Fox All-Stars" gathered last Sunday, the dissembling got started in earnest.

Commentary by Tony Snow, Brit Hume, Mara Liasson, Juan Williams, Lawrence Lindsey
Fox News Sunday, Fox News Channel, 2/4/01

Commentary by Tim Russert
Meet the Press, NBC, 2/4/01

Commentary by Susan Page
Late Edition, CNN, 2/4/01

"Today we're going to debut a feature that may be occasional, it may be weekly." So said host Tony Snow on Fox News Sunday, introducing a new segment, "The Ex Files." The "Ex," of course, would be President Clinton, who will star in the gang's newest feature. To all appearances, the segment will allow the gang to explore all the latest Clinton scandals.

But what was the "scandal" in Sunday's hapless program? Sadly, readers, it was the open dissembling of the FNS panel itself. Are the "Fox All-Stars" well-informed at all? If they are, then what we saw was a shameless example of spinning, dissembling, embellishing and embroidering—the latest case in which journalists engage in the behaviors they claim to abhor.

First topic? The Marc Rich pardon. As Snow raised the issue for sidekick Brit Hume, the ham-handed spinning got started:

SNOW: It's enormously controversial, and the other day, the president, the ex-President Clinton, got before reporters and tried to explain exactly how the pardon worked and why it was a good idea. Let's listen in.

Clinton, on videotape: If I'm wrong and he shouldn't have been pardoned, then the government can go against him like they could everybody else. Otherwise, they would never have a chance to do that. So in my view, we get the best of both worlds here. But there was absolutely nothing political about it.

SNOW: Eric Shawn of Fox News got that. What did that mean?

Snow made a rather obvious point of being completely befuddled. Of course, the clip didn't make perfect sense as edited, but anyone who had followed the news in recent days would have known what Clinton had said. In his unedited statement, Clinton had stressed that Rich would still be subject to civil penalties for his disputed transactions (for which he'd been given a criminal pardon). Jack Quinn, Rich's lawyer, had explained the point endlessly too. It's hard to believe that Snow and Hume didn't understand it perfectly well. But Hume was either amazingly uninformed—or he was willing to play dumb for Fox viewers:

HUME: Well, I assume he's talking about proceeding against Marc Rich in some civil way to collect money. I think that's what he's talking about. But that—you know, the prosecutors in the case have said that that gives up nothing, really, on his part. But for [Clinton] to say, broadly speaking, that they can go after him as they would anyone else, of course they can't. He's been pardoned for all the alleged crimes for which he was indicted. So that's, you know—interpreted literally, what he said was preposterous.

Hume assumed (and thought) that's what Clinton meant? Anyone who had followed the news at all would have known full well what Clinton had said. But—playing dumb to make a story sound better—Hume slammed Clinton's "preposterous" statement. And Mara Liasson was playing dumb too:

LIASSON (continuing directly): I think he was suggesting that somehow by pardoning him he makes him more available for a civil case. Now of course you have to be in the United States to be sued civilly, which I don't think is the case—

Liasson "thought" she knew what Clinton meant, then played dumb about Rich's whereabouts. Of course Rich isn't on U.S. soil. But—as has been explained a thousand times—Rich sought the pardon because he wants to return. Even Hume had heard about that:

HUME (continuing directly): Well, apparently, he's got an ill daughter and it's thought he'd want to come to these shores to visit her, and that's the incentive. And he wants to come back here, I guess.

Hume "guessed" that was "apparently" the case. Hapless Juan Williams jumped in at this point, complaining about the gifts which Rich's wife gave the Clintons. Strangely, Hume—who seemed to know nothing at all about other matters—was able to recite the exact amount of the gifts which Denise Rich had given!

But so it goes when dissembling journalists feign ignorance to goose up a story. Incredibly, the panel topped its own performance when Snow raised the very next topic:

SNOW: OK. Let's talk about something else related to this, which is we mentioned, Denise Rich. Now the president is giving back money...You see, he's writing checks back to people, saying, "Oh, you know that gift you gave me? Here, I'll repay you for it."

HUME: Half.

SNOW: Half.

HUME: Half. Let me ask you this. If it was wrong to accept the gifts, then why is it—how is that wrong corrected by giving back half their value? I don't get that.

We don't get it either. The Clintons hadn't said they would pay for "half," as anyone who read a weekend paper would have known. The Clintons had said they would pay for the gifts that had been given during the year 2000—for $86,000 worth of the $190,000 in total gifts. (This point was thoroughly explained in Saturday's papers.) Why Hume and Show thought they were paying for "half" is one of the mysteries raised by this segment. This time, though, Liasson refused to play along. She corrected the latest dissembling:

LIASSON: Well, he's giving back—they say they're going to give back the value of the gifts they got in the last year which were clearly meant to furnish their new homes. It wasn't a gift to the president of the United States. It was a shower. It was a shower for the Clintons who had—and as a matter of fact, as Maureen Dowd has told us quite deliciously, there were plans for an actual shower for Mrs. Clinton.

Like anyone who had read a Saturday paper, Liasson knew exactly what the Clintons had said. By the way, Dowd had also told us, "quite deliciously," that the "shower for the Clintons" hadn't actually happened. Liasson knew enough not to say that—but drew the line at pretending to think that the Clintons were paying for "half."

But that, dear friends, is why Juan Williams is hired to sit on this panel. Just when you think that you've seen it all, Williams often takes the next step. Here's what happened: Snow played tape of Sen. Clinton saying naughty things about an unnamed person. Mightn't she have been talking about her own husband, Snow asked? Hume and Liasson admitted they knew that Mrs. Clinton was discussing John Ashcroft. And then—even after Liasson had explained the facts about the gifts—Williams expertly took some time to go back and re-bungle the matter:

WILLIAMS: Well, it certainly is Ashcroft, but given what we were just talking about, it sounds like she's talking about her loving husband, Mr. Clinton. And that's why they're giving back half the money. They're trying to correct the crime.

"That's why they're giving back half the money!" Williams said it even after Liasson explained the facts—facts which the panel's members had surely known all along.

In a rational world, every one of the four would have been fired as soon as they walked off the set. And why is that, dear boys and girls? It's because you have two choices about this performance. Either the panelists were uninformed about the simplest topics (topics which they themselves chose to discuss). Or, as is much more likely, they knew the facts of the matter full well, and just chose to spin, distort and dissemble to make the alleged perfidy of the Clintons sound somewhat worse. So it goes when our dishonest—and wholly unaccountable—pundits tell you the stories they like.

So which is it? Do you believe that Hume thought that the Clintons said "half?" Or do you think that Hume was simply lying? Because, dear friends, that is your choice—we struggle to find a third option. At any rate, in a nation of 280 million souls, an obvious question comes to mind. Why, oh why, is a group like this at the top of our corrupted public discourse? And how on earth can Roger Ailes put his name on this corrupt, hopeless product?

How about a final bit of fun? At one point, Williams went on a rant. Clinton had said he pardoned Rich on the merits. Williams' shorts got in a wad:

WILLIAMS: I mean, look I don't know how Clinton can say there's no politics involved. What is Denise Rich giving them a $7,000—what did she give them, chairs and tables?

LIASSON: Coffee table.

HUME: Table, chairs. [Again, Hume suddenly knew every fact.]

WILLIAMS: What is going on here? Do you think we're fools?

Yo, Juan. Take a pill. If he's seen you, there's no doubt. Yes—he does.

They'll never walk alone: Could the press corps possibly be less well-informed? Here was Tim Russert, on Meet the Press, bungling the size of the tax cut:

RUSSERT: Congressman Rangel, let me turn to tax cuts. How big of a tax cut should we have? George W. Bush has said $1.3 trillion over the next 10 years. You're the ranking Democrat in House Ways and Means. What can you buy into?

What planet does Russert inhabit? After a long, silly waltz with some fuzzy math, even Bush's people now say "$1.6 trillion" to describe the size of their tax cut. Scribes are no longer have to say "$1.3 trillion" to pander to the folks down in Texas. And how well known is this simple fact? They even knew it on Fox News Sunday! Here's an exchange from Sunday's show, when Snow interviewed Larry Lindsey:

SNOW: The key issue for week three of the Bush administration is tax cuts. The president wants taxpayers over the next decade to receive $1.6 trillion of the projected $5.6 trillion surplus. How will that work? Here with answers is White House Economic Advisor Lawrence Lindsey. Also here, Brit Hume, Washington managing editor of Fox News. Let's make sure we've got our numbers right: $1.6 trillion over 10 years?

LINDSEY: Yes, sir.

SNOW: No more, no less?

LINDSEY: No more, no less.

What part of "yes, sir" doesn't Tim Russert get? And this is not some surprising new fact—it has been the official Bush message for weeks. Even the Bushies no longer pretend that the tax cut's size is $1.3 trillion. So tell us again, so we'll all understand—how many millions is Tim Russert paid to know nothing about central issues?

Meanwhile, just how hopelessly dumb is our press corps? Here, heaven help us, was Susan Page, three hours after Fox's fandango:

WOLF BLITZER: Susan, President Clinton was engaged in very serious damage control over the past few days on the high office rent for his office in New York, on the gifts that he and the first lady, now the senator from New York, have received, and on the pardon he gave the fugitive billionaire, Mark Rich. Successful?

PAGE: Well, I think more effective in terms of paying for half of those gifts that he took. I think not so successful on the Rich part, and I think the questions remain.

Is there anything—anything—these people get right? Susan Page was wrong as a dog. But at least in our press corps, when she goes to The Palm, she's sure to have plenty of company.

Visit our incomparable archives: Do you want to review last summer's struggles about that $1.6 trillion? You know what to do. Just click here.


Smile-a-while (2/7/01)

When your numbers are small, just omit them: We couldn't help notice Lisa Myers' presentation of the hottest new Clinton gift scandal. On Monday morning, the Washington Post reported that some Clinton gifts were actually intended, by their donors, to be "part of the permanent White House collection." According to the Post, gifts from five donors might have fit into this category. The Post's George Lardner explained what happened when he called the five donors. According to Lardner, two donors—Joy Ficks and Steve Mittman—said they had intended their gifts for the White House. One donor said he'd intended his gift for the Clintons. Two other donors, Lardner said, did not respond to phone calls.

On Monday night, Myers had her way with the scribe's report. Is it just our imagination, or was the inventive scribe having some fun with the very small numbers involved here?

MYERS: Steve Mittman donated $20,000 worth of furniture similar to this and received a thank you note signed by the first lady specifically noting "your generous contribution to the White House." Today Mittman says he's given to the White House before and doesn't really care where the furniture ends up.

Mittmann on tape: I considered it an honor in 1993. I consider it an honor today to have been chosen, and we would do so again.

Most of the other donors contacted by NBC News or the Washington Post thought their gifts were to the White House itself. Only one Arkansas businessman says a rug was meant as a personal gift to the Clintons.

But how many donors did NBC contact? Myers forgot to say. "Only one" donor meant his gift for the Clintons? In fact, only five donors were ever in question. Myers didn't mention that either. And one of those donors was the aforementioned Mittmann; though Lardner counted him as a disgruntled donor, Myers seemed to have him in the "Who cares?" camp. Or did she? Given her writing, it's a bit hard to say.

But note the way a spinner like Myers can make a tale sound a lot better. She says that "only one" donor takes Clinton's side; "most of the others," she reports, have a beef. She never mentions how few people are involved. In this story, "most of the others" may just mean "two." But Myers is too slick to say it.

"Most of the other donors?" Hay-yo! Myers understands a key part of spin—when your numbers are small, you don't cite them. Instead, you fill in with slick words like "most." Her report, of course, was widely replayed by NBC's associate spinners. At MSNBC, Mike Barnicle ran it! That's how low the Peacock Net now stoops to assemble a quorum.

Postscript—discourse on "most:" The word "most" can be a spinner's best friend. For example, in a New York Times profile on June 15, 1999, crafty Katharine Seelye—the inimitable Spinner One—was explaining how boring Al Gore is. (And how devious. Her headline: "The Unbuttoning of Al Gore: Act 1"). After a set of mocking appraisals, Seelye delivered a classic:

SEELYE: Perhaps most important, [the coming campaign] gives him a chance to present himself in human terms—he will talk a lot about himself and his family—and to try to overcome the perception that he is a wooden technocrat, or, in the word that most people said in a Pew poll was the one that immediately came to mind when asked about Mr. Gore, "boring."

In fact, Pew had surveyed 1786 people. And, as the Pew report made unmistakably clear, exactly 66 of them said the word "boring" when asked for one word about Gore. That's 66—out of almost 1800! But no other word was said more often, and Seelye had some spin to peddle. So her readers were told that "most people" said it. It wasn't true, but what else is new when you're discussing Spinner One, Katharine Seelye?

Why did Spinner One say "most?" Why didn't Spinner One use the real numbers? Obviously, her story was dead if she used the real data. Deftly, S-1 went with "most."

Commentary by Lisa Myers
NBC Nightly News, NBC, 2/5/01

The Unbuttoning of Al Gore: Act 1
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 6/15/99