9 August 1999
Our current howler (part I): Reading problems
Synopsis: The Talk magazine article showed us one thingour press corps dont read all that good.
The Intimate Hillary
Lucinda Franks, Talk, 9/99
Commentary by Brit Hume, Mara Liasson
Fox News Sunday, Fox, 8/1/99
Commentary by Cokie Roberts
This Week, ABC, 8/1/99
What's the first thing one notices about Mrs. Clinton's
Talk interview? To us, it's how little of the article concerns
the psychosexual topics that have been so widely discussed. Franks'
article includes 78 lengthy paragraphs, running many thousands of words.
The article explores many aspects of the First Lady's life and
current situation. But only eight of the paragraphs, in two separate
sections, explore President Clinton's psychological history and
sexual conduct. And in those brief sections, one is principally
struck by how many things Mrs. Clinton isn't asked.
Mrs. Clinton is never asked to state her overall view of the
degree to which her husband has cheated. The fleeting references
to his history in this area are extremely unclear and undefined.
She is never asked what she believes about her husband's alleged
conduct with Gennifer Flowers. She is never asked to evaluate
the claims of any other of his well-known accusers. We don't know
how many times she thinks Bill has cheated; we don't know if she
believes that he propositioned Paula Jones; we don't know what
she thinks about Juanita Broaddrick. She says there was "a
good stretch" with her husband at one point, featuring "years
and years" of sexual fidelity. But it isn't made clear what
period she refers toalthough some press corps members have seemed
to think otherwiseand so we don't really know when she thinks
her husband was on track.
Nor does the article detail her view of her husband's psychological
history. At one point, Franks tells Mrs. Clinton that she read
the autobiography of President Clinton's mother, Virginia Kelley,
"in which she wrote about the atmosphere of alcohol, violence,
and chaos" in which Clinton lived as a youth. Mrs. Clinton
tells Franks, "That's only the half of it," and briefly
describes the troubled dynamics of her husband's childhood home.
But Mrs. Clinton's account is delivered in five short sentences,
and the article then moves to a totally different topic. In Mrs.
Clinton's brief comments, we get no detailed view of the president's
family dynamics. Indeed, in the article's most famous instant
sound bite, Mrs. Clinton says the president was "so young,
barely four, when he was scarred by abuse that he can't even take
it out and look at it." But she isn't asked to say how he
was scarred, or how it has affected his personality as an adult.
She isn't asked how she knows that he was scarred, or how she
knows he has trouble "taking it out" (or what that means).
When she says that a psychologist once evaluated the dynamics
that she describes, she doesn't say whether she actually consulted
a psychologist in search of insight, or if this was minor chatter
at a dinner party. In short, the sections of this article that
deal with President Clinton's psychological history are brief,
and lack all detail. In truth, one learns very little, in this
article, about Mrs. Clinton's views of her husband's psychological
profile. (On Larry King Live last Monday night, author
Franks said she was surprised that Mrs. Clinton discussed this
at all, since this was not Franks' intended focus in planning
the interview and article.)
What does Hillary think about Bill? It's hard to say from this
article. But then, lack of knowledge rarely stops our press corps
from uncorking its analytical skills. And so starting on Sunday
morning, August 1, the press corps entered emergency mode, offering
detailed, often inaccurate descriptions of what Mrs. Clinton had
supposedly saidand clearly displaying one major dysfunction the
article did bring to light.
It would be unfair to single out any one show in what quickly
became a group effort. But Fox News Sunday was first on
the air, so let's look at what the Fox pundits said. Tony Snow
introduced the topic at the start of the show with a pair of quotes
from the Talk article. Immediately, Brit Hume offered this:
HUME: As far as I know, all the tales about the poor chap's
troubled youth had to do with an abusive stepfather who drank
too much. Now we're given to believe by Mrs. Clinton in this interview...that
his difficulties with women or his hunger for them or whatever
it is were caused by disputes between his mother and his grandmother,
which is so far as I know a novel theory in psychology.
But if you actually read the Talk magazine article,
the First Lady doesn't say that. In the segment where she mentions
the warring elders, Mrs. Clinton says nothing at allnot one wordabout
this causing her husband's philandering. But that hasn't stopped
the rest of the press corps from echoing Hume's now-familiar summation,
as when Cokie Roberts introduced the topic on This Week
later that morning:
ROBERTS: It turns out to be a rather extraordinary interview.
She talks about the president's infidelities and blames them to
some degree on child abuse.
Roberts ratcheted up the excitement with her reference to "child
abuse." Her panel followed her lead. "The suggestion
that the president was somehow a victim of child abuse is a pretty
startling revelation," George Stephanopoulos said. He described
the coming fallout:
STEPHANOPOULOS: She was not misquoted. That is the quote in
the magazine. I think there's no question that, at a minimum,
Joe Lockhart, the White House press secretary, tomorrow morning
is going to have to answer, what did she mean by "child abuse?"
And the answer was, she didn't mean anything by the term; the
phrase "child abuse" doesn't appear in the article,
although every member of the ABC panel used it, except for one
savior, William Kristol, who said "I don't think she literally
meant 'child abuse.'" Perhaps Kristol thought she didn't
literally mean "child abuse" because it was something
she literally hadn't said. Again, the press corps showed
its perpetual instinct to make news a bit more exciting.
But of course, the pundits were operating under a handicapnone
of them had actually seen the article. The piece had been excerpted
in the London Times, and their analyses all stemmed from that.
The following morning, major writers would explain what Mrs. Clinton
had said, also without having read the articlean article which
was, of course, Lucinda Franks' version of what the First
Lady had said.
Here at THE HOWLER, we don't support Mrs. Clinton's run for
the Senate. We don't think our public discourse should be about
who had sex with whom for what reason, and we think it will be
impossible to avoid these discussions if Mrs. Clinton does enter
the race. Pundits determined to discuss nothing else will assure
us how they hate the subject. And yeswe have trouble trusting
the First lady's judgment because of her role in her husband's
absurd conduct. We think it poorly serves the public interest
to have her conduct the New York race.
But we at THE HOWLER don't evaluate hopefuls; we examine the
work of the press corps. And the Talk article has given
us a remarkable chance to see how today's press corps works. First
responding to an article it hadn't seenthen describing an article
it didn't seem to have readthe celebrity press set news standards
last week for incompetent, spin-driven reporting. The press corps
presented detailed descriptions of Mrs. Clinton's viewson topics
the article article barely dealt with at all. It reported statements
the First Lady hadn't made; conflated quotes that dealt with different
topics; and generally used the sketchy Franks piece as an excuse
for the kind of exciting reinvention it routinely now brings to
the news. The greatest dysfunction revealed by this piece was
the extreme dysfunction of today's hapless press corps. There
are a few things which one can learn from the parts of this article
on sex and psychology. Predictably, the press corps leapfrogged
beyond them in its desire to improve on the news.
Tomorrow: What she said.