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13 March 1999

Our current howler: And that’s the way it seems

Synopsis: In Friday's Post, Richard Cohen displays the intellectual sloth that typifies the celebrity press.

When a Deal Has Been Struck
Richard Cohen, The Washington Post, 3/12/99

What I Saw
George Stephanopolous, Newsweek, 3/15/99

Commentary by George Stephanopolous
Larry King Live, CNN, 3/12/99

Yesterday, we mentioned the dwindling role played by fact in the press corps. Increasingly, we said, the corps seems to feel it exists to promote story line. The scribes promote certain favored tales, and when facts contradict them, the facts are discarded. Indeed, we showed how the very concept of “fact” seems AWOL in some press corps debates.

Which brings us up to this morning’s effort by Post scribe Richard Cohen. He asks: Why did the public stick with Clinton last year, when newspapers prescribed his demise:

COHEN [paragraph 7]: Everyone had a reason. For the American people, it seemed to be the economy: Let’s keep things as they are. Others simply declared Clinton’s life off-limits. Let him do what he likes as long as the stock market keeps going up. The Democratic Party made the same deal. As long as Clinton’s numbers were high, the party was high on Clinton. This is the pragmatic morality of politics.

This paragraph recites a lazy “assessment” that has appeared in the press this past year. Pundits wondered why Clinton stayed high in the polls; and, far too lazy to do any research, and far too elitist to interact with the public, the somnolent scribes simply stated a verdict: the public just loves that Dow Jones! We’ve seen this view stated, again and again, over the course of the past year’s time, but we’ve rarely seen pundits make an effort to ground it in empirical fact. What would people actually say, if Cohen went out and asked them about this? Cohen, of course, has no idea--and no intention of doing the work.

What is almost amusing about Cohen’s statement is its juxtaposition with his preceding paragraph. In it, Cohen describes his own lofty reasons for deciding to Stick With Bill:

COHEN [paragraphs 5-6]: [J]ust about every newspaper in the land--not to mention oodles of columnists--was calling for his resignation. I was not one. I loathed what Clinton had done, but I loathed Ken Starr more. I balanced things. Clinton had done wrong, but Starr had done bad. One repulsed me, the other scared me. I’d stick with Clinton.

Notice the lofty type of reasoning which Cohen imputes to himself. He has himself making a “balanced” judgment--considering a welter of factors. But it doesn’t occur to Cohen that ordinary people may have gone through a similar process. In this recitation, Cohen engages in lofty reasoning; the public grunts assent when it see the Dow Jones.

Or at least, that’s the way the matter “seems;” Cohen doesn’t claim knowledge (see paragraph 7). He’s had a year now to do the research, but he’s content to type up a pure guess. But that’s the tone of this entire piece--this entire lattice of vague speculation. Cohen deals in idle guesswork--seemingly unaware that one draws valid conclusions only by working from sets of established facts.

Cohen’s column principally ponders the state of the Clintons’ marriage. “It appears to many,” he vaguely advises, “that some sort of a deal has been struck.” Who are these people? He never tells us. How do they know this? No comment there either. As with Cohen’s assessment of Clinton’s high numbers, his rumination on the Clintons’ marriage is a restatement of Washington talk.

And Cohen’s remarkable lack of effort is especially striking this week. As he airs his view of the Clintons’ marriage, new data have turned up in print. In Newsweek, George Stephanopolous gives an insider’s look at the nature of the Clintons’ union. He describes the Clintons in their private dealings in a way we have not often seen.

The picture drawn by Stephanopolous contradicts Cohen’s “business deal” concept. Here is one of the portraits he draws:

STEPHANOPOLOUS: Every marriage is a mystery, but it seemed to me that their bond had been strengthened by the intensity of their White House experience, that Hillary had fallen in love all over again with the boy from Arkansas who had become the president she dreamed he could be...The last time I’d seen them together was in October 1997 at Hillary’s 50th-birthday party...As Hillary swirled around the dance floor in her husband’s arms, she seemed as happy as I’d ever seen her.

Maybe Stephanopolous is wrong, and maybe he’s spinning; maybe there was something else going on that he missed. But it’s very like Cohen just to ignore this portrait. It’s simpler to type up memorized stories--to recycle stale tales from the past.

For the record, we at THE HOWLER think it’s pointless to muse on the state of the Clintons’ marriage. The press has been spun a hundred times working on topics like this. But it’s very much like this celebrity press corps to assess it the way that Cohen does here--by regurgitating tired, stale, shopworn old theories, simply ignoring a new set of facts.

The truth is, Richard Cohen doesn’t know why the public backed Clinton, because he hasn’t done any work on the subject. And there’s no sign that he knows how Mrs. Clinton feels, although he’s willing to act like he does. There are ways to learn what the public thinks; we believe it’s harder to decipher a marriage. But the notion that scribes should determine the truth? The very notion is missing--again.

Visit our incomparable archives: To William Safire, it’s a point of pride not to know what the public is thinking. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/16/99.

Stephanopolous speaks: Here are Stephanopolous’ words on the subject, on Larry King Live Friday night:

STEPHANOPOLOUS: There have been an awful lot of caricatures of the Clintons’ relationship over time, a lot of people who say this is just some kind of “deal.” What I saw over my time was a real marriage, a marriage full of affection, sometimes tension. They were passionate about each other and their ideas, and I think that this has obviously been a matter of some discussion over the last couple of years and I felt that I wanted to give at least a rounded portrait of what I saw. [Our emphasis]

Again, we think the press is best advised to stay away from such topics. But the key here is Stephanopolous’ reference to the tired nature of Cohen’s discussion. Cohen isn’t just debating private matters he can’t likely know; he’s doing it for the ten thousandth time. Why does the Post waste its valuable space with such pointless, repetitive discourse?