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Caveat lector

12 April 2000

Our current howler (part I): Jay’s notes

Synopsis: Peter Jay reviewed Gene and Joe’s book. But we weren’t all that sure he had read it.

All the president's apologists
Peter Jay, The Washington Times, 4/11/00

The Hunting of the President
Joe Conason and Gene Lyons, St. Martin's Press, 2000

Gore Lavish With Praise As Mother Is Given Degree
James Dao, The New York Times, 4/11/00

Here's Peter Jay, reviewing The Hunting of the President in yesterday's Washington Times:

JAY (paragraph 1): Poor Bill and Hillary. They're so elegant, so intelligent; so well-intended, so unoffending; so innately good, so misunderstood.

They're also, in the case of President Clinton, so guilty of "extravagant folly," say the authors of Hunting. But to know that, you'd have to read all the way to the end of the book's four-page preface. And it isn't clear that Jay has done it; it's hard to tell from his hapless review. Here, for example, is one of the very few times Jay actually quotes the two authors:

JAY (4): The writers, one a New York journalist [Joe Conason] and the other Bill Clinton's favorite Arkansas columnist [presumably, Gene Lyons] are much too sophisticated to call the Clinton opponents "a vast conspiracy." Instead, they call the opposition "a loose cabal," further described as "an angry gallery of defeated politicians, disappointed office-seekers, right-wing pamphleteers, wealthy eccentrics, zany private detectives, religious fanatics, and die-hard segregationists." Crackpots all, in other words.

That quote comes direct from page two of the preface, along with one of Jay's other modest attempts to offer words which the two writers wrote. In this passage, Jay is apparently trying to capture the authors' overall view of the Clinton scandals:

JAY (8): Sure, there was some illicit sex. And yes, lots of people, including the president of the United States told lies by the carload to cover it up. But that's not really important, especially when the economy's good and the country's not at war. After all, many other "men who had ascended to the Oval Office had often displayed vigorous libidos and imperfect fidelity to the truth." Warren Harding, take a bow.

Yep—that quote also comes from page two of the preface. Nothing of substance ever is quoted from the pages of the actual book, though Jay, in his laziness, does carry his search for evidence even further afield:

JAY (6): But while most of the opposition to Mr. Clinton was fomented directly by the sinister Right, the authors say, some blame attaches to the sinister Right's dupes. Many naïve but quite normal Americans—liberals, in other words—were taken in (or "seduced," as the publisher's blurb felicitously puts it) by the scheming extremists. That seduction in turn led to "mainstream publications like the New York Times, The Washington Post and Newsweek" printing stories they never should have touched, and the first thing you know, the Clintons were unjustly tarnished by the scandal.

That's right. Jay—perhaps too lazy to read the book, with Cliffs Notes for Hunting not yet in existence—takes to quoting the press release which accompanied his review copy! (Both quotes within this paragraph 6 come from the release, not the book.) And how do we know that Jay had a review copy? Because he wastes time with utter nonsense like this:

JAY (12): The volume is copiously annotated, which should make their book helpful to future researchers. But the notes, organized by chapter and placed at the end of the text, are unfortunately difficult to follow. At least in the review copy provided by the publishers, all the page citations are incorrect. This defect will no doubt be corrected in future editions...

Jay's review was published more than a month after the book was available in bookstores. But the recumbent reviewer hadn't bothered to see if the page citations in the book are correct. (They are.)

So it goes when one major newspaper tries to describe a new book. There is little clear sign that the Times' star reviewer has worked through the actual text. Do Jay's persistent paraphrases—in paragraph 1 and 8, for example—actually reflect the authors' outlook? As a matter of fact, they do not. In paragraph 7, for example, Jay elaborates a bit on what supposedly happened when those "mainstream publications" we've already mentioned began "printing stories they never should have touched:"

JAY (7): It wasn't that most of the Clinton-scandal stories were made up, the writers make clear. They were just inappropriate, naïve and contrary to the national interest.

But if Jay had only read to page three of the preface, he would have found Conason and Lyons discussing this topic. What they said simply ain't what Jay wrote:

CONASON AND LYONS: [This] is also the story of important journalists and news organizations succumbing to scandal fever, credulously and sometime dishonestly promoting charges against the Clintons in heavily biased, error-filled dispatches, columns, best-selling books, and TV news specials, and thus bestowing "mainstream" prestige upon what was often little more than a poisonous mixture of half-truth and partisan malice. Some conducted themselves as if their mission were less to inform the public than to guard their institutional prestige by protecting their own erroneous reporting from correction.

Conason and Lyons do not simply say that the press was naïve ("credulous"). They also explicitly say that the press was "dishonest." They say that the press produced work which was "heavily biased" and "error-filled"—often "a poisonous mixture of half-truth and malice." And their book is filled with detailed examples of press vehicles spinning important scandal stories—endless examples, which can still shock a reader, of major newspapers burying major facts. In our normal excess of fairness, we can understand the sympathy Jay brings to writers who have to "protect their own erroneous reporting from correction." But in his paragraph 7, Jay's paraphrase fails to give readers a hint of the authors' actual claim. If Jay had quoted the authors instead of speaking out for them, his readers today might have a glimmer of what Conason and Lyons have really said.

The spirit of paraphrase courses through this review; Jay turns to the phrase "in other words" in paragraphs 4 and 6 (see above). So does the spirit of college kids on spring break, not quite having finished their homework. Indeed, Jay's review took us back to our own college days; we too have filled space with long rambles, quoted any source ww could grab, and offered up pointless asides about trivia. We too have dozed midway through a preface and wandered off, never quite to return.

But the reviews of Conason and Lyons' book give us a window on more than spring fever. They let us see how the press corps behaves when its own work is under attack. As we've seen, Lyons and Conason make aggressive assertions about the press corps' competence—and moral character. Jay's misused readers weren't exactly told that. Was Jay suppressing a story he doesn't like?


Tomorrow: The analysts came to the edge of their chairs! Neil Lewis said he'd give an example!

Dao-thought: If you enjoy the sensation of being brainwashed, you'll love what James Dao wrote yesterday. At the end of his article in the Times, Dao wrote this about Gore-on-Elian:

DAO: Asked about Elian Gonzalez, Mr. Gore offered yet another shading of his position. Reaffirming his support for having a family court decide the custody battle, Mr. Gore added that he thought the boy's Cuban father and American relatives should meet to resolve the fight.

"At this point, with tensions as high as they are, and both sides trying to reach a solution, we need to encourage the talks between the family members themselves," he said. "Because that's the ideal solution."

For those who may not know the lingo, "shading your position" is less awful than "pandering," but it's slightly worse than "evolving over time." The claim that Gore had offered "yet another shading" is an attempt to insinuate what Dao isn't allowed to say: Gore just keeps changing his position. If Dao wanted to argue that in an op-ed or "analysis," we'd be happy to look at his case. But reporters frequently have Big Ideas their benighted editors won't let them state. They frequently do what Dao has done here—they insinuate, in winking code language.

At any rate, had Gore "shaded" his position in some way worth mentioning? Back in January, Gore had said the dispute should be settled in a Florida family court. If the disputants can settle their dispute on their own, is that somehow a change in position? We'd like to see Dao argue his case because it's so hard to make out the case as presented. But as we've told you, determined scribes will be fly-specking Gore, eager to tell you the story they like.