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9 August 1999

Our current howler (part I): Reading problems

Synopsis: The Talk magazine article showed us one thing—our press corps don’t 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 to—although some press corps members have seemed to think otherwise—and 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 said—and 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 all—not one word—about 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 handicap—none 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 article—an 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 yes—we 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 seen—then describing an article it didn't seem to have read—the celebrity press set news standards last week for incompetent, spin-driven reporting. The press corps presented detailed descriptions of Mrs. Clinton's views—on 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.