12 June 1998
Life in this celebrity press corps: Where somethings true
if it helps a shows ratings...
Synopsis: What is truth? Sages long have inquired. And--at least to one TV tabloid talker--truth now seems to be whatever might help his inventive shows burgeoning ratings.
Commentary by Chris Matthews
Hardball, CNBC, 5/29/98
Commentary by Max Brantley
Hardball, CNBC, 5/18/98
Weve seen how, in the world of Curtis (Slick) Wilkie, things are true just because ol Jim said them. But how does a TV tabloid talker try to separate truth out from fiction?
On May 29, Hardballviewers got a look at the way tabloid talker Chris Matthews tries to sort out the facts. And to us here at THE DAILY HOWLER, it almost seems as if, for our old friend Chris, truth has become any assertion of fact that helps build his inventive shows ratings!
Just look how Matthews reacted to an unsupported claim about President Clinton and Susan McDougal.
Curtis Wilkie was present with exciting new tales from Jim McDougals creative new Arkansas Mischief. Heres how the interview started:
MATTHEWS: When Im watching TV, and Im watching Susan McDougal, Jim McDougals ex-wife, appear with the shackles on, looking pretty good, in prison, those incredible pictures--whats going on with her and the president and this whole question of a pardon?
And yes, its true, we dont make up quotes--the tabloid talker really did say the part about how Suzy Macs been looking good in her shackles!
In the course of his answer to the talkers question, Wilkie threw in this lip-smacker:
WILKIE: I dont have a clue whats going on between Susan McDougal and the president now. Of course, Jim also made the assertion that they had a long-running affair well before the Whitewater case blew up.
Wilkie was reciting a claim, denied by Susan McDougal, that Jim McDougal had made for the first time in the year before his recent tragic passing.
It was interesting to see Matthews response to this story, because the tale had come up on his creative program only a couple of weeks before. On May 18, Max Brantley of the Arkansas Times had been reporting from Little Rock on various matters; and an exchange occurred in which Brantley disparaged this new claim by the erstwhile cuckold:
BRANTLEY: ...I do know that Susan McDougal was not somebody that had been linked with the president through the years of gossip. Lots of others had been, she had not. Once again, this strikes me--Jim McDougal suffered from bipolar disorder, had a nervous breakdown, I think the record of his testimony and the record of his life outside of court show hes a man whos a great story-teller, an exaggerator, a man given to delusions. I think its be easy for him to assume something about Susan McDougal, somebody he cared a lot about, and the president, and I think thats where Id begin in trying to figure out what it all meant.
In short, Jim McDougal was a liar and a nut, and no one thought Bill and Sue were hooked up at the time. Shortly after, Brantley spelled it out again:
BRANTLEY: In the gossip about the presidents sex life in his Arkansas years, a linkage with Susan McDougal was not something that had come up before.
But the obvious doubts that Brantleys remarks should have engendered had flown by the time that Slick Wilkie took over. Here is Matthews reaction on May 29, after Wilkie recited ol Jims new story:
MATTHEWS: Lets talk about the things that President Clinton, then Governor Clinton, got out of the Whitewater deal. One of the things he got out of the deal was, he got Susan McDougal, this long-term affair. But what was the cash he got out of the deal?
And, right on cue, with no complaining, Wilkie went on to recite Jim McDougals allegations about improper cash payments to Clinton.
Well, we couldnt help chuckling over the way that a talker had simply recounted the McDougal sex story as fact. Wilkie never had claimed, of his own knowledge, that the alleged affair had actually occurred; and it had only been eleven days since Brantley, on Hardball, had cast an obvious doubt on the story. Yet here was Matthews asserting as fact what at best was a shaky new allegation!
Our analysts puzzled over how a talker could have made such an odd assertion. How could a talker assert as fact what had been alleged by a liar, and then challenged? We brainstormed, thinking hard. Maybe he just thought Suzie Mac looked so good in her chains that she must have been irresistible when she walked the earth in full freedom. Or maybe another, very different sort of motive had been at play in a talkers strange assertion.
Perhaps a talker--himself lusting, for ratings--had pandered to those who were lusting for dirt! Perhaps this odd behavior by a tabloid talker was all just a pitch for good ratings! What is truth, the sages had asked? If youre living within this celebrity press corps, sometimes truth may be the thing that you think will feel right to your viewers...
But at any right, we had once again seen the assertion of fact where it was perfectly clear that the facts were not known. We had once again seen the embarrassing work of a former journalist whod become a mere talker. But as weve so frequently pointed out to you, here at THE HOWLER, whenever this slick sleight-of-hand goes on--sadly, its all just a part of what we dolove to call: Life in this celebrity press corps.
Postscript: Guess what? Theres nothing new for the talker Matthews in simply accepting lurid Clinton sex tales. The talker has frequently hosted Dolly Kyle Browning, and sat pensively through her undocumented stories. And, despite his histrionic efforts to challenge her stories, he has never seemed able to come up with a way to subject her racy claims to real scrutiny!
Yet he has frequently hosted Clinton biographer David Maraniss, who never mentions Brownings name in First in His Class! (The book, of course, does include lengthy treatment of President Clintons high school and college girl friends.) And strangely enough, it has never occurred to a tabloid talker to ask Maraniss what he thought of Brownings stories!
For example, on April 1 Dolly Kyle appeared on Hardball, and throughout the course of her lengthy appearance Matthews histrionically sought ways to challenge her truthfulness. But then, amazingly, just one day later, Maraniss appeared as a guest on the show, and the talker never asked the bio-man what he thought of Dolly Kyles exciting stories!
Isnt it odd that the tabloid talker has never asked Maraniss what he thought about Browning? Just asking: is there any chance that a talker didnt ask because he was afraid what a biographer might tell him?