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26 February 2001

Our current howler (part I): Pardon their language

Synopsis: A page-one headline talked about "pardons." Turned out that it just wasn’t so.

4 Pardons Probed for Ties to N.Y. Senate Bid
Michael Grunwald and Christine Haughney, The Washington Post, 2/24/01

Inquiry Focuses on Commuted Sentences for 4 New Yorkers
Jonathan Weiser, The New York Times, 2/24/01

Orthodox Town Under Scrutiny
Christine Haughney, The Washington Post, 2/25/01

Commentary by Andrea Mitchell
NBC Nightly News, NBC, 1/25/01

We couldn't help chuckling as we read through Saturday's page-one lead story in the Washington Post. "4 Pardons Probed for Ties to N.Y. Senate Bid," the headline said. "Felons Were Leaders in Hasidic Community." The headline ran at the top of page one. But inside the paper, deep down in their story, Michael Grunwald and Christine Haughney seemed to say that the headline just plain wasn't true:

GRUNWALD AND HAUGHNEY (2/24): One local Democratic official said he's sure the community's leaders hoped that delivering votes for Clinton—he carried the village by a 1,400-to-12 margin—would enhance the chances of presidential pardons. But he also noted that while the president met with New Square leaders after the election—one source said they discussed health care, housing and Israel as well as clemency—he did not grant the four convicts the full pardons they had sought.

"You know, they went way out on a limb for her, and they really only got half a loaf," the Democrat said.

Say what? Maybe it all depends on what the meaning of "pardon" is. Clinton actually reduced the sentences of the four, according to the text of the Post's story. While they originally received sentences ranging from 2 1/2 to 6 1/2 years, they will now serve from 2 to 2 1/2 years. Meanwhile, deep in his story in the Saturday New York Times, Benjamin Weiser mentioned another fact which we haven't seen too widely bruited:

WEISER (2/24): Mr. Clinton commuted the sentences, which ranged from 30 months to 78 months, to terms of either 24 months or 30 months.

The men must still pay restitution.

We haven't seen that last point mentioned much either. Sunday's Post finished off the trifecta:

HAUGHNEY (2/25/01): Attorneys expect the men to remain in prison for at least another year.

That fact also came at the end of the article. But it certainly is a strange kind of "pardon"—one that leaves the "pardoned" prisoners in stir for a year, and paying money back when they finally get sprung.

Why, oh why, did the Washington Post ink a page one, lead headline about those four "pardons?" Maybe it's just a lot more fun to improve thrilling stories a tad. It's certainly been amusing to watch TV pundits reciting the tale of the New Square 4. For example, how often do you hear our pundits mention these other facts which popped up in the Post?

GRUNWALD AND HAUGHNEY (2/24): [L]ike many Hasidic communities, New Square tends to vote as a bloc, and its leaders have become sophisticated players in New York's political scene.

They threw their votes en masse to George Bush in 1992, but flipped to Bill Clinton in 1996 and supported Vice President Al Gore after he visited last February. They backed former governor Mario Cuomo (D) in 1994, then went with Gov. George Pataki (R) in 1998.

Our pundits love to mention the way New Square backed The Hill en masse. But do you ever hear them say that the town always votes in a bloc? And check your pundits on their sequence skills. Town leaders met with Bill Clinton after the election. Pundits often like to imply that the meeting preceded the vote.

Was Clinton right to shorten these sentences? That's a judgment for another publication. Here at THE HOWLER, we check the press, and our pandering pundits have peddled Big Prop in the weeks since Vile Bill ducked from office. This week, we're going to run through a few favorite ways our puzzling press corps has improved favorite stories.

And by the way: And by the way, while we're on the subject—another week has now gone by since the Wall Street Journal dished facts on those gifts (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/17/01). The facts about the Clintons' "loot?" George and Bar took $39,000 worth of presents per year; Hill and Bill walked off with slightly less. Have you ever seen that fact cited again? One week later, we still haven't. We suspect those facts kill a good tale.


The occasional update (2/26/01)

Your counter of towels: Robert Frost was a swinger of birches. Andrea Mitchell, by contrast, counts towels. We thought you might enjoy her deathless report from Nightly News on January 25. We reprint the NBC transcript:



TOM BROKAW, anchor (Los Angeles):

And in Washington tonight, many people are shaking their heads over some surprising behavior by members of the outgoing Clinton administration. NBC's Andrea Mitchell now on an unsettling footnote to this bitter presidential election.


A moment in history, heavy with constitutional significance. Hardly a time for college pranks or outright vandalism, but that's exactly what Bush White House officials say happened when the Clinton team left 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on January 20th.

Mr. ARI FLEISCHER (White House Press Secretary): The president understands that transitions can be times of difficulty and strong emotion.

MITCHELL: Publicly, Bush officials are downplaying some of the damage at the old executive office building on the White House grounds, calling some of it "silly," like a message on an answering machine that says, "This is Al Gore's office. Due to a constitutional crisis, I'll be out for the next four years." But sources tell NBC News some of it is serious: phone lines cut, drawers filled with glue, door locks jimmied so that arriving Bush staff got locked inside their new offices. Obscene messages left behind on copying machine paper.

Mr. ROBERT REICH (Former Clinton Labor Secretary): I think that if there was anything bordering on vandalism here, we all ought to be very, very concerned, and we should not tolerate it.

MITCHELL: How could this happen? Some former Clinton officials explain it's the after-shock of the battle for Florida. Low-level staff still angry over the way the election was decided.

Mr. JOE LOCKHART (Former Clinton Press Secretary): Someone's idea of fun is obscuring what was a very good transition, a very cooperative transition.

MITCHELL: But destroying government property is illegal.

Mr. C. BOYDEN GRAY (Former White House Counsel): But if it does slow down the incoming administration from actually getting work done and being able to communicate, then it probably ought to be seriously investigated.

MITCHELL: One of the easier fixes: an Ohio office supply company is donating 500 W's to replace the "W"'s taken off White House keyboards by departing Clinton aides. And the Air Force will replace Air Force One glasses and four hand towels, apparently pilfered by passengers traveling with the Clintons on their last plane ride home.

Clinton officials recall that when they took over the White House from George Bush's father, computer hard drives were missing, but nothing on the scale of what the Bush White House calls an unfair parting shot from the Clinton team. Andrea Mitchell, NBC News, Washington.

Question: How much of this "vandalism" actually happened? Throughout the piece, Mitchell keeps saying that Bush staff people are making these claims. It's now been said that these claims missed the mark. Wierdly, Mitchell never has come back on the air to help viewers know what really happened. Huh! The scribe took a hike from her story! But if you want to enjoy a good hearty laugh, enjoy the image of pandering Mitchell, in Day 5 after Vile Bill departed. She is actually on the air with Brokaw, reporting, at the end of her piece, that four towels are missing from Air Force I! ("Hand" towels—the kind that cost 19 cents to replace.) Future historians will read that dispatch and assume that something was transcribed incorrectly. But no—this is the way our pandering press corps spreads its dim-witted propaganda campaigns. Pathetically, that is the kind of simpering nonsense Brokaw and Mitchell will now palm off as "news."

The propaganda campaign was just getting started when your Counter of Towels went on-air this day. Hay-yo! In the sheer inanity of Mitchell's report, you see the soul of our hapless press corps—and you see the way propaganda campaigns get gimmicked up by those bulldogs, our "press.".