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Caveat lector

8 February 1999

Life in this celebrity press corps: Why can’t cable news offer nuance?

Synopsis: Is it too much too ask that our cable news channels bring clarity to the endless debate?

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

Speech by James Rogan
United States Senate, 2/6/99

Is it too much to ask that the cable news channels bring clarity to the endless debate? Hour after hour, night after night, pundits hold forth on the day’s hottest topics. And, as we pointed out in THE HOWLER last Saturday, since everyone often speaks all at once on these programs, the volume of talk actually reaching the public often dwarfs the total hours being aired!

One would think, in the fullness of cable news time, clarification and insight might happen. One might picture an increase in factual knowledge of the events that are endlessly thrashed. Yet, too often the pundits just rehash worn-out dogma, endlessly stating the same tired bromides. A good example was aired last Wednesday night in Hannity & Colmes on FNC (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/6/99, for our review of the H & C program).

Sean Hannity offered a familiar assertion: President Clinton had used White House aide Sidney Blumenthal as a conduit of lies to the grand jury. The claim is all over the cable news channels--and in the brief of the House GOP. It formed a substantial part of the argument made by Rep. James Rogan in the Senate last Saturday. Here’s how Rogan parsed Clinton’s conversation with loyal aide Sidney B:

ROGAN: The most glaring example of the president’s using an aide as a messenger of lies to the grand jury was his manipulation of presidential assistant Sidney Blumenthal...The date is January 21, 1998...The president of the United States used a special assistant, one of his aides, as a conduit to go before a federal grand jury and preclude the grand jury from being able to make an honest determination in their investigation.

Rogan’s charge is one of the seven pillars in the House allegation of obstruction of justice.

For the record, it’s hard to see how grand jurors could have been sidetracked by Blumenthal’s testimony. Blumenthal’s testimony was, of course, hearsay, and, even at second hand, it amounted to a self-serving statement of exculpation from someone accused of a crime. Rogan’s silly assertion that this could “preclude” the grand jury from “making an honest determination” is of a pace with so much of the managers’ work, in which they have floated canards and simple falsehoods, embellishing a case which would be perfectly adequate if they just went ahead and presented it straight.

But the claim that Clinton was deliberately planting false stories on January 21 is simply absurd on its face. On that date, Clinton spoke first with Richard Morris. And in that conversation, as recounted by Morris, Clinton confessed that he’d engaged in sexual conduct with Lewinsky:

MORRIS: Then he said, “I didn’t do what they said I did, but I did do something...” He repeated it like twice...Then he said...”You know, ever since the election, I’ve tried to shut myself down. I’ve tried to shut my body down, sexually I mean...But sometimes I slipped up and with this girl I just slipped up.”

Morris is hardly the most reliable source, but Clinton’s conversation with Blumenthal later that day seemed to run in the same direction. From Blumenthal’s deposition to the Senate:

BLUMENTHAL: He said he had spoken to Dick Morris earlier that day, and that Dick Morris had told him that if Richard Nixon had given a nationally televised speech at the start of the Watergate affair, acknowledging everything he had done wrong, he may well have survived it...Well, I said, as I recall, that’s one of the stupidest ideas I ever heard. If you haven’t done anything wrong, why would you do that?

Clinton made statements to Morris and Blumenthal that day that were either openly incriminating, or that hinted at guilt. Both aides repeated these statements to the Starr grand jury. Whatever one may think of Clinton’s overall conduct, Clinton does not seem to be serving his own interests very well in his undisciplined statements on January 21. The picture of a man planting lies for the grand jury is simply absurd on its face.

One would think, in the fullness of cable news time, distinctions like this would emerge. Observers could then judge Clinton’s conduct based on what actually seems to have happened.

But we’ve told you before, again and again, how much the press corps loves simple stories. “News” is rarely short for “nuance” on our bare-knuckled cable news scrums.

Read on: One newsman did demand greater clarity. See “Hume gets it right,” 2/8/99.