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3 May 1998

Our current howler: Must-See-To-Believe TV!

Synopsis: NBC embarrassed itself with its reviews of the Hubbell prison tapes.

Commentary by Tim Russert
The Today Show, NBC, 5/1/98

Reporting by Lisa Myers
The Today Show, NBC, 5/1/98

Reporting by Lisa Myers
NBC Nightly News, 5/1/98

Commentary by Keith Olbermann
The Big Show, MSNBC, 5/1/98

Investigators See Hint That Hubbell Hoped For Pardon
Stephen Labaton, The New York Times, 5/2/98

Life in this celebrity press corps means never having to imagine that someone’s not guilty. And, in the wake of the indictment of Webster Hubbell this week, and the release of tapes of his prison phone calls, we got an unvarnished look at presumption of guilt from the must-see-to-believe folks at NBC.

From Washington bureau chief Tim Russert right through shock jock Keith Olbermann, the whole NBC gang was out there gossiping about the Hubbell phone snippets. They produced a textbook example of instant judgment--and of presumption of guilt, NBC-style.

Russert appeared on The Today Show Friday morning, reviewing the Clinton press conference and other current topics. Katie Couric asked Russert, in her first question, for his reactions to the Hubbell indictment; and Russert’s answer simply assumed that Hubbell had the goods on Bill Clinton somehow:

COURIC: Let’s talk about Webster Hubbell, of course, the former Assistant Attorney General and F.O.B., indicted for the second time--what does it mean?

RUSSERT: Katie, in an interesting way, it’s probably god news for the Bill Clinton. It means that Web Hubbell is not talking, he’s not cooperating with Ken Starr. No one likes to see a human being go through this kind of trauma, but my guess is if Web Hubbell is convicted, he’d be a prime candidate for a pardon from President Clinton.

Russert here initiates the presumption of guilt that will dominate his exchange with Couric this morning. It’s true that Hubbell has not struck a deal with Starr in which he would tell incriminating things about Clinton in exchange for immunity. But Russert’s presentation here seems to assume that Hubbell is therefore hiding something; he seems to assume there is something to tell, and Hubbell is simply not telling it. Hubbell’s claim all along, of course, has been that he doesn’t know anything--that he is in fact “cooperating” and “talking,” but has nothing incriminating to say. This possibility doesn’t seem to appear in Russert’s answer; and in case anyone didn’t pick up the insinuation, Couric and Russert now drive home the point:

COURIC: So does that mean he’s going to stay the course? Or does it mean he might be squeezed and he might talk?

Couric’s question presumes he is not “talking” now. Russert drives home the point:

RUSSERT: Oh, I think that there’s a lot of squeezing going on, particularly when you look at the prospect of your wife going to jail, but my guess is that Web Hubbell will not break. He’s a man who, every year for many years, went Christmas shopping every Christmas Eve with Governor Clinton, every year for many, many years. They’re very tight personal friends and I don’t think Mr. Hubbell’s going to break.

Get the picture? Hubbell isn’t “going to talk,” isn’t “going to break”--and if he gets convicted, he’ll get a pardon. Typically, Russert states no reason at all for his prediction of a pardon--Hubbell didn’t get one the first time in jail, after all--but Today Show viewers have been given an unmistakable picture. Hubbell is “not cooperating,” “not talking,” and the odds are he isn’t “going to break.” It is never suggested, at any time, that Hubbell may simply have nothing to tell. Guilty knowledge is being withheld; no other possibility has ever been suggested, at any time in the exchange.

Russert’s interview continued the convict-a-thon that had been started earlier in the program, when Lisa Myers, in a news report, asserted that we now know the Clintons have been “squeezing” Mr. H. In a report on the release of the Hubbell phone tapes, Myers early on says this:

MYERS: It’s now clear that Starr hasn’t been the only one trying to squeeze Hubbell. So apparently has the White House.

For the record, it’s not often that we see someone contradict herself within a short, two-sentence statement, but Myers here achieves the feat. In the first, nugget sentence, she says it’s “now clear” that someone other than Starr is trying to squeeze Hubbell. By the second sentence, she’s hedging her bets, saying the White House “apparently” is applying a squeeze. But life in this celebrity press corps means being as careless as you like with other folks’ reputations, so after this awkward opening display, Myers begins building her “case:”

MYERS: Phone conversations between Hubbell and his wife Suzy while he was in prison, recorded by prison officials, reveal the Hubbells were being pressured by the White House.

At least now we’re back to a definite assertion: the phone calls “reveal” that the pressure was on. But having made so damning a charge, Myers’ “evidence” is remarkably thin. After tapes describe Hubbell’s plan to sue the Rose law firm (a suit that could somehow be damaging to Hillary Clinton), Myers cites one brief excerpt from the tapes--and that is all--to show the “pressure” the White House was applying:

MYERS: Hubbell’s wife complains of pressure from Clinton aide Marsha Scott, and worries about losing her job. [Voice of Mrs. Hubbell, to Webster Hubbell]: “I get all this back from Marsha [Scott], who is ratcheting it up and making it sound like if Web goes ahead and sues the firm, then any support I have at the White House is gone. I’m hearing the squeeze play.”

This is the sum total of evidence in Myers’ report to support her claim--her claim that the phone conversations “reveal” the fact that the White House “has been trying to squeeze Hubbell.” (Myers’ tense is also somewhat troubling, by the way; this conversation is over two years old.) Does this snippet make Myers’ claim “clear?” Does it “reveal” White House pressure? It is virtually impossible to tell from the clip what Mrs. Hubbell even is talking about; but it is fairly clear from transcripts released elsewhere that she was concerned that her job was being threatened. But how concerned about that was Mrs. Hubbell, and was her concern justified? Wouldn’t you know it--Myers doesn’t bother to mention other parts of the tapes that suggest that her concern may have been misplaced! For example, The New York Times’ Stephen Labaton quotes this exchange from another phone call, between Webster Hubbell and Marsha Scott:

HUBBELL: The other thing, Marsha, is that Suzy has realized for one thing how important her job is. She worries that she is at risk.

SCOTT: How does she feel at risk?

HUBBELL: Something you said to her did make her feel that way.

SCOTT: Really?

HUBBELL: Yeah. That she was at risk and she would lose her support at the White House if I fought it.

SCOTT: We weren’t even talking about that.

HUBBELL: Well, maybe something else said that to her. But see, I think that is where--

SCOTT: What I said was that no one is going to support a public trial on this. You know that. No one wants that.

In short, a claimed misunderstanding. THE DAILY HOWLER has no way of knowing whether Mrs. Hubbell simply misunderstood what was said. But Lisa Myers has no way of knowing either; and Myers’ viewers were never told that Scott had offered an explanation of what Mrs. Hubbell said. But none of that kept Myers from assuring her viewers that it’s now “clear” that the White House had been squeezing Hubbell. Clarity really comes remarkably easy, when you’re a part of this celebrity press corps.

Myers’ characteristically lazy practices continued through her evening report, and led Olbermann to engage in embarrassing speculation on his MSNBC show that night. On a Nightly News report re-aired through the evening on sister stations C- and MSNBC, Myers made this breathless revelation:

MYERS: On a tape released tonight, Hubbell, in a conversation with his lawyer, indicates he’s hoping for a presidential pardon.

Except for the fact that, as it turned out, it was the lawyer making the comment, not Hubbell, and it’s another one of those crazy “excerpts” where the context is so thin that it’s hard to know what’s going on; and--Oops!--the lawyer, John Nields, said on This Week today (Sunday, May 3) that they were talking about something totally different, and then he went ahead and explained what it was! None of which stopped Olbermann from piggy-backing onto what Myers had said. Lovers of wisdom and fans of precision, prepare to avert your gaze:

OLBERMANN: ...Let’s wrap our discussion up here tonight by turning to these developments regarding the White House, especially these revelations tonight from Lisa Myers of NBC News in which there is apparently a taped conversation--and we don’t have the context of it, the point that was raised earlier in the show, I think was valid, we don’t know if it was said sarcastically, sincerely, hopefully, or what--but Web Hubbell is said to be talking with his lawyer about the subject of a presidential pardon. Is that truly potentially damaging, from a PR standpoint, for this president?

We’re sad to report that the Washington Post’s David Maraniss went ahead and answered the question, exactly as it had been asked.

We made so bold as to dress up the remarks that were offered by the expert Olbermann. We hope it isn’t necessary to make a further point--what a truly embarrassing, disgraceful day this was all throughout NBC.

POSTSCRIPT: We don’t have all year to spend, or we could go through the other errors made by the NBC Three throughout the course of the NBC day. But one more howler made by Myers would seem to sum up the group’s gruesome outing. On her NBC News report, Myers closes by saying: “Though Hubbell now insists he did not evade taxes, in a prison phone call with his lawyer he admits not paying some of them.” She then plays an exchange in which this admission occurs. But “evasion of taxes,” as a legal charge, involves more than simply owing back taxes, a fact that experts have made plain this week. But then technical inaccuracy rarely seems to stop Myers from getting a good story out to her viewers. It may not be an accurate story, but it’s an entertaining, pleasing tale all the same.