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12 April 1998

Life in this celebrity press corps: Must-see-(to-believe) TV

Synopsis: Three NBC pundits told the story they like when they discussed what Clinton said about Flowers.

Commentary by Tim Russert, Andrea Mitchell, Claire Shipman
Tim Russert,CNBC, 4/11/98

Commentary by Bill O’Reilly
The O’Reilly Factor,Fox News Channel, 4/10/98


We couldn’t help chuckling as we watched these three pundits as they batted the Clinton scandals around Saturday night. Surely, they set a new record for disingenuous treatment of the president’s deposition about his relations with Gennifer Flowers.

The crew warmed up with predictable chatter about standard Clinton White House themes. But soon enough, we hit the real question: what of the president’s lying about Flowers? Host Tim Russert offered the standard recitation of the press corps’ most sacred new text:

RUSSERT: And how do [White House aides] explain Gennifer Flowers, where the president looked the public in the eye in 1992 and said, “Her story’s untrue,” and then under oath said, “Yes, I had sex?”

We were amazed to see Russert make this presentation, because he’d been reminded on Meet the Press,just the week before, that Clinton had notso testified. James Carville had pointed out that, in his deposition, Clinton had been given a wide-ranging definition of “sexual relations” by Paula Jones’ lawyers--a definition which included all sorts of activities that fell far short of sexual intercourse. As Carville pointed out on Meet the Press,Clinton had been instructed by the court to use the lawyers’ definition for purposes of answering their questions. When Clinton said he’d had “sexual relations” with Flowers, therefore, he was not necessarily testifying to “having sex” as the phrase is commonly taken. As Carville mentioned, Time magazine has reported, on its web site, that Clinton told friends that the episode in question was a grope-and-grab session in a Little Rock night club--nota case of “having sex” as the phrase is commonly understood, and notan event that would contradict Clinton’s 1992 claim that Flowers was “a woman I didn’t sleep with.”

And Carville had hardly been out there alone in making this public explanation. Here at THE HOWLER, we’d seen Mandy Grunwald make the same presentation on two different TV shows (including Hardball,on CNBC), and Dee Dee Myers had engaged in a colloquy on the subject on Charles Grodin’s CNBC show April 10! In other words, it had been pointed out, all week long, that Clinton had nottestified that he’d “had sex” with Flowers, as the term is usually understood. But there was Russert telling the same tired old story, as if he’d never heard anything different!

Truly, we didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry, here at DAILY HOWLER World Headquarters. We couldn’t believe the representation we’d just heard Big Tim make! But Russert’s colleagues quickly proved themselves equal to the Big Guy’s considerable challenge. Here’s how Shipman and Mitchell, knowing theirsacred texts, responded to Russert’s question:

RUSSERT: And how do [White House aides] explain Gennifer Flowers, where the president looked the public in the eye in 1992 and said, “Her story’s untrue,” and then under oath said, “Yes, I had sex?”

MITCHELL: Well, her story was that there was a twelve-year affair--

SHIPMAN: --a twelve-year affair and that’s the phrase they cling to, the twelve-year affair. They say it was not a twelve-year affair.

It’s no wonder the pundits were able to complete each other’s thoughts, so lovingly do theycling to favorite stories. The fact is, all week long, Clinton spokesmen had been appearing on NBC channels, making a presentation that was very different from the one the two pundits now described. Carville and Grunwald had not “clung to” the claim that “it was not a twelve-year affair;” they had pointed out that the president had not testified to any affair at all! But that’s not the story NBC pundits prefer, since it robs them of their chance to say that Clinton’s a liar. So their viewers were given accounts that were false, but which did have one enormous advantage--they made Clinton out to be a liar, and so are preferred to other explanations that would actually be accurateaccounts.

For the record: THE DAILY HOWLER does not know if Clinton and Flowers ever actually “had sex.” THE DAILY HOWLER has no way of knowing if Clinton testified truthfully in his Paula Jones deposition. But THE HOWLER doesknow what Clinton said, and we doknow what explanation Clinton spokesmen have “clung to.” It’s hard to imagine a panel of pundits giving their viewers more profoundly flawed info. But then, sad but true, as we’ve told you before--it’s all just a part of what we dolove to call: “Life in this celebrity press corps!”


Postscript: Working our way down the network news chain, we got a glimpse of just how bad it can get on the matter of the Clinton deposition.

On Fox News Channel, Bill O’Reilly asked Larry Klayman to cite five instances where Clinton had lied to the public. Needless to say, Klayman started his list with the standard stock howler about Clinton having lied about Flowers:

KLAYMAN: Now the story line as it came out in one of the depositions that we’ve taken recently in the Filegate class action suit--this is James Carville--was that it was only groping. Of course, we don’t know how to define groping. Sometimes the lies are so vast they’re even almost funny in a way. Although it certainly wasn’t funny for Miss Flowers.

We enjoyed that final reference to Flowers, who has never claimed that her alleged relations with Clinton were anything but consensual. (“I loved Bill,” the chanteuse memorably cooed.) But we were particularly amused by O’Reilly’s response, which gave a rare glimpse of how a top-flight Fox journalist nails down important facts in big stories:

O’REILLY: In his deposition in the Paula Jones case the president admitted a one-night stand with Gennifer Flowers. So we’re led to believe, and I called up and it was confirmed and all of that. I have no doubt that he did that. But again, the Democrats are going to say, “Listen, there’s a difference between a one-night stand and a twelve-year affair and the president was referring to the twelve-year affair.”

Don’t you just love how Bill O’Reilly gets info? First he says “we are led to believe” how the president testified, as if the president’s deposition were locked away in a vault. The text of Clinton’s deposition was released to the public on March 13. It was published, in the New York Times, in great detail, three days later. But how does O’Reillyfind out what Clinton said? He “called up, and it was confirmed, and all of that.” Clear enough, journalism majors?

But here’s what’s reallyremarkable in these two TV episodes: of the five people who discussed Clinton’s deposition, only Klayman, the one who isn’ta journalist, even seems to have heard what Clinton spokesmen have been saying. The four journalistswho took part in these embarrassing discussions--Russert, Shipman, Mitchell, and O’Reilly--all seem completely unaware of the ubiquitous presentation that Klaymanquite knowledgeably reports. Four journalists--four!-- just sittin’ around, and none of them know what Clinton spokesmen have been saying! So, tell us again, so we’ll get it straight in our minds--what is it that the NBC and Fox news divisions are paying these people to do for them?

At THE HOWLER, we don’t know if Clinton’s deposition is true; but we are fully aware what his deposition says. Russert, Shipman, Mitchell, O’Reilly? It almost begins to look like they just prefer to tell stories that please them.