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12 June 1998

Life in this celebrity press corps: Where something’s true if it helps a show’s 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 show’s burgeoning ratings.

Commentary by Chris Matthews
Hardball, CNBC, 5/29/98

Commentary by Max Brantley
Hardball, CNBC, 5/18/98


We’ve 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 show’s 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 McDougal’s creative new Arkansas Mischief. Here’s how the interview started:

MATTHEWS: When I’m watching TV, and I’m watching Susan McDougal, Jim McDougal’s ex-wife, appear with the shackles on, looking pretty good, in prison, those incredible pictures--what’s going on with her and the president and this whole question of a pardon?

And yes, it’s true, we don’t make up quotes--the tabloid talker really did say the part about how Suzy Mac’s been “looking good” in her shackles!

In the course of his answer to the talker’s question, Wilkie threw in this lip-smacker:

WILKIE: I don’t have a clue what’s 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 he’s a man who’s a great story-teller, an exaggerator, a man given to delusions. I think it’s be easy for him to assume something about Susan McDougal, somebody he cared a lot about, and the president, and I think that’s where I’d 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 president’s sex life in his Arkansas years, a linkage with Susan McDougal was not something that had come up before.

But the obvious doubts that Brantley’s 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’ Jim’s new story:

MATTHEWS: Let’s 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 McDougal’s allegations about improper cash payments to Clinton.

Well, we couldn’t 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 talker’s 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 you’re 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 who’d become a mere talker. But as we’ve so frequently pointed out to you, here at THE HOWLER, whenever this slick sleight-of-hand goes on--sadly, it’s all just a part of what we dolove to call: “Life in this celebrity press corps.”


Postscript: Guess what? There’s 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 Browning’s name in First in His Class! (The book, of course, does include lengthy treatment of President Clinton’s high school and college girl friends.) And strangely enough, it has never occurred to a tabloid talker to ask Maraniss what he thought of Browning’s 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 Kyle’s exciting stories!

Isn’t it odd that the tabloid talker has never asked Maraniss what he thought about Browning? Just asking: is there any chance that a talker didn’t ask because he was afraid what a biographer might tell him?