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20 July 2001

Our current howler (part IV): Here to stay

Synopsis: The cable nets have made it clear—they plan to be Totally Tabloid.

Commentary by Paula Zahn, Lisa DePaulo
The Edge, Fox News Channel, 7/18/01

Commentary by Michael Isikoff, Chris Matthews
Hardball, MSNBC, 7/17/01

Commentary by Brit Hume, Mara Liasson
Special Report, Fox News Channel, 7/3/01


One repulsive part of Tabloid Nation is the total ignorance displayed by its hosts. On Wednesday night, Paula Zahn was chatting with ardent Lisa DePaulo, whose article on the Levy case will appear in September’s Talk magazine:

ZAHN: I’ve got to tell you, the one thing I don’t understand about all this is I had the opportunity to interview Dr. and Mrs. Levy a couple of times, and early on in this tragedy, they wouldn’t confirm the nature of the relationship their daughter had with Gary Condit. Did they know or were they surprised?

Did they know about their daughter’s relationship? Where in the world has Zahn been? On June 14, Susan Levy told the Washington Post that she had known about the relationship since April. That should have raised an obvious question—had the Levys told the police? On The Edge, DePaulo said that they had; "they told the cops from day one, which would be early May, everything, everything, everything they knew," she ardently said. And Zahn, who has been following this case around the clock, seemed amazed by DePaulo’s assertion:

ZAHN: Wait a minute. Are you telling me the D.C. police had confirmed from her parents at the beginning of May that their daughter had had an affair with Gary Condit, and it wasn’t until the third meeting with police that they got that information out of him?

For the rest of the evening, Zahn continued to express surprise to think that the police had known about the affair since early May.

But did the Levys tell the police right away? Zahn, of course, simply assumed that what DePaulo said was accurate. But this question would have occurred to any real reporter starting on, yes, June 14. Zahn, who has been playing her creepy-crawly music and exploiting the Levys for all that she’s worth, was either faking it with DePaulo or she was revealing an astounding ignorance of a basic aspect of this case. Zahn said she "didn’t understand" if the Levys knew all along. But that had been a clear part of the record for the past five weeks.

But then, it’s a common part of our new Tabloid Nation; pandering hosts and "expert" guests often display ignorance of the most basic facts. Consider an exchange on Tuesday night’s Hardball. Michael Isikoff and Chris Matthews were discussing Levy’s behavior on May 1; Isikoff told Chris Matthews that Levy had been on her computer "four hours, from about 9:30 to 1:00, checking out various Web sites, travel schedules, plane and train schedules for going back to California." And Matthews—who said "I’m just playing Sherlock Holmes here and deducing a couple of things"—was surprised by what Izzy said next:

ISIKOFF: It could be the most innocuous—it could be the most innocuous thing in the world. You know, she was going to go for a jog in, in Rock Creek Park, and she wants to—

MATTHEWS: At 1:00 in the morning? This is, this is the morning till 1:00!

ISIKOFF: No, no, no, 1:00 in the afternoon.

MATTHEWS: OK.

ISIKOFF: 9:30 AM to 1:00 in the afternoon.

MATTHEWS: OK.

ISIKOFF: Tuesday afternoon, you know.

Except no, Chris Matthews didn’t know—didn’t know this elementary fact. The fact that Levy had been on her computer on the morning of May 1 had been generally known for some time. The specifics had been published in a page one story in the Washington Post on Monday, July 16. Anyone following his story at all already knew what Isikoff said. But thirty-six hours after that page-one Post story, Matthews still lacked clue the first.

But then, howling ignorance of basic facts is a staple of Tabloid Nation. In Tabloid Nation, pandering phonies like Zahn and Matthews go on the air each night rubbing their thighs, shedding wet tears and telling the world how much they want to find Chandra. Meanwhile, anyone who follows their work in detail sees that they frequently don’t know elementary facts—facts that any journalist would know if he had made any effort to study the case. These displays of factual ignorance are found all over Tabloid Nation. By the time you get down to the "expert guests," the ignorance can be truly Olympian.

How is it? How is it that deeply concerned hosts like Matthews and Zahn can be ignorant of such simple facts? It’s because they’re hosts in Tabloid Nation, and their concern for Chandra is Totally Phony—a pretense in which the hosts engage to gin up a thigh-rubbing story. Zahn will shed her big wet tears—then let psychics say Chandra is stuck in the mud (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/18/01). And she’ll engage in the kind of disgraceful exchanges we looked at in yesterday’s HOWLER (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/19/01). Only in Tabloid Nation could a TV host pretend that the loathsome Jim Robinson makes sense. But then, Paula Zahn is willing to do anything—except, it seems, read a few newspapers.

But you’d better get used to this new breed, because Tabloid Nation is now in your future. The cable nets have used the Levy story to make a veiled announcement. From this point on, they’ll be totally tabloid—they won’t be news nets any more. They will search high and low for tabloid tales with which they can drive real news out of sight. And to make those tabloid tales sell good, they will monkey around with them always. There will be nothing so stupid that it won’t be said; there will no guest too repulsive to book. Global warming? Social Security? Those topics will drop from our discourse.

Where do they find them? Where in the world do they find the hosts prepared to behave like the new Paula Zahn? If the new Tabloid Zahn didn’t exist, we surely couldn’t have dreamed her up. But one thing has become quite clear in the past two weeks—she will have a role in your future.

Couldn’t care less: We first noted the pundits’ total disinterest on the July 3 Special Report. On July 2, Fox had aired Rita Cosby’s interview with Anne Marie Smith, which the net was treating as a blockbuster. In the interview, Smith said that Condit had called her "on May 5 or 6," telling her that he might have "to disappear for a while." Let’s recap: Fox aired the footage on Monday night, July 2. It aired again the following night at the start of Special Report.

But when Hume asked his panel that night about Smith’s statement, it was clear that none of them had watched the footage. At one point, Hume asked about Smith’s "May 5 or 6" comment:

HUME: Any sense of what he might have meant in telling her as—what she says he said—that he was in trouble and might have to disappear for a while?

LIASSON: I think he meant disappear from her life. I mean, wasn’t she talking about when he broke off the relationship with her in March? Not disappear into a cloud of—a puff of smoke.

And no, Smith wasn’t "talking about when he broke off the relationship with her in March" (by all accounts, that never happened either, by the way). Smith was explicitly talking about May 5 or 6, as anyone who watched the footage would have known. But Fred Barnes and Ceci Connolly quickly agreed with what Liasson said. It was abundantly clear that none of the three had watched the ballyhooed Fox EXCLUSIVE.

Oh yes—one other person hadn’t watched, either. All three panelists agreed: Smith was talking about March. Here’s what Hume said in summation:

HUME: All right. Well, that makes as much sense as anything else in this. Thank you all. We have more to talk about.

Fox had been airing the footage as a major EXCLUSIVE for 24 hours when this panel convened. But it was perfectly clear that no one—including Hume—had bothered to watch the Smith footage. And Hume had aired this very "May 5 or 6" clip from Smith at the start of that night’s program.

What conclusion can you draw from this? Tabloid Nation is crawling with phonies. All the pundits feigned Deep Concern about Chandra. But none of the four had bothered to look at their own network’s major EXCLUSIVE.

But get ready. This new Tabloid Breed is in your future. They’ll be spinning you hard every day about their beloved dimwit stories.


Smile-a-while (7/20/01)

Never heard of him: At the start of last night’s Special Report, Rita Cosby filed an intriguing report:

HUME: Rita, apart from Condit himself, who, who doesn’t want to play, are there others who are resisting lie-detector tests?

COSBY: Well, police officials are telling me that Sven Jones, who’s a co-worker and good friend of Chandra Levy’s—he worked with her at the Bureau of Prisons—that he was asked by law enforcement to take a test. At first he accepted, then he refused. And ultimately, so far he has not taken a test.

Incidentally, according to the cell phone records which Fox News was able to review, he was the last person who Levy spoke with before she disappeared, according to her cell phone records.

Does any of that sound like news? Not to the Special Report panel, it didn’t. During the roundtable, no one even mentioned what Cosby had said. Instead, the gang kept saying how Condit’s refusal to take the test shows that he’s the appropriate suspect. "The implication is that he has something to hide," Morton Kondracke said, nicely scripted. To Fred Barnes, Condit’s refusal to be tested "tells us he has something to hide or is acting like a man with something to hide." No one said that Jones’ refusal meant that he had something to hide. But then, don’t forget, this is Special Report. Most likely, the panel had no idea what Cosby had just reported.

Commentary by Brit Hume, Rita Cosby
Special Report, Fox News Channel, 7/19/01