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16 February 1999

Smile-a-while (part II): People needing to interview people

Synopsis: If lazy pundits just did their job, they’d understand what the public is thinking.

The Loyalty Mystery
William Safire, The New York Times, 1/11/99

Unimpeachable Authorities
David Broder, The Washington Post, 1/27/99

Bellwether’s Rank and File Strongly Support Clinton
Michael Winerip, The New York Times, 9/30/98

Commentary by Tony Snow
Fox News Sunday, Fox, 2/14/99

Post-acquittal week dawned bright and unclear as our fave, Tony Snow, popped the question:

SNOW: As we get ready to do our post-impeachment analysis, one little bit of information for your delectation. That is a Fox News Opinion Dynamics poll question. 73% say he lied to a grand jury, two thirds approve of his job...Brit Hume, what are we to make of all these numbers?

It was a final appearance for a familiar question, a query the pundits had pondered all year. How could the public think Bill had lied, yet give him those wonderful ratings?

We’re not saying the question shouldn’t be asked. We’re not saying the answer is obvious.

But we can’t help chuckling at the way some pundits have made confusion a point of pride--at pundits who now wear incomprehension as some sort of badge of honor.

After all, people normally work as pundits because they’re able to figure things out! Today, some pundits almost seem to brag that they can’t grasp what the public is thinking.

Which brings us to our favorite, Bill Safire. Here was The Great One, just last month, struggling to puzzle it out:

SAFIRE: That’s only the beginning of the loyalty mystery...Two out of three Americans--a far higher percentage than those who voted for him--are willing to abide with [Clinton] even if the charges are true. Why?

After conjuring possible answers from the top of his head, Safire was still all aflame:

SAFIRE: But there must be something else--in some undiscovered region from which no media biggie reports--to explain the incredible attachment of this great nation to this ungreat man. [Our emphasis]

Safire ruminated a little while longer, tossing out imagined reasons, and then found “the solution to the Clinton loyalty mystery:” it’s “a widespread affection for this likable liar as fervent as a minority’s distaste for him.” There’s your answer, folks! Case closed. People like Bill Clinton!

What amused us, of course, as the great man pondered, was his refusal to do any research--his refusal to act like an actual journalist, and go find out what people thought. It was as if he were talking about people on Mars, and wondering what they might have on their minds. It never seemed to occur to the sage that there are ways to learn what people think.

Luckily, others in this celebrity press corps are not so committed to sloth. For example, a week after Safire penned his musings, a set of scribes from the Washington Post tried to determine what real people think. Why, they were even willing to put in some effort! David Broder described the strange journey:

BRODER: I had a chance to explore that [public] thinking in some depth last week when, along with Washington Post reporter Dan Balz and Claudia Deane of our polling unit, I spent two hours with 10 New Jersey residents talking about Clinton, impeachment and the country.

Incredible! Wondering what the public was thinking, Broder decided to ask them! The Ten were tapped because all believed that President Clinton had lied under oath. Broder asked why Clinton should stay in office. He actually tried to answer the question that so far had Bill Safire stumped.

Similarly, Safire’s own paper conducted six dozen interviews with voters in Stark County, Ohio. In a front-page story on September 30, the paper provided detailed reporting on Stark views on Clinton's impeachment. Both the Post and the Times were engaged, of course, in reporting that was “anecdotal” in nature. But others did extensive polling, trying to pin down what the great unwashed thought.

Dear readers, believe us when we tell you this: in every profession, some drift along, making the most meager effort. If journalists, they’ll puzzle on public opinion, while making no effort to limn it. Both Broder and Winerip reported reasons why some in the public wanted Bill on the job. The “undiscovered regions” they chose for their work? They were known as “Ohio” and “Jersey.”

As you know, we’ve noted a similar impulse all throughout the past few weeks--the press corps’ refusal to read the Starr record and find out what witnesses said. The outright refusal to do their work is increasingly part of CelebCorps’ ethic. Tune in tomorrow for a howling example. We believe if you do, your cheeks will rouge, and you’ll end up averting your gaze.

Tomorrow: You thought TNR didn’t bother checking facts? Chris Hitchens’ piece in The Nation on Sid is filled with embarrassing howlers.

Thursday: Linda Tripp changed her tune on Larry King Live. Her host didn’t offer a challenge