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11 August 1999

Our current howler (part III): Giving good story

Synopsis: Does Mrs. Clinton think the president has an “addiction?” Several pundits made it seem that she did.

Pardon Us, Mrs. Clinton...
Gene Weingarten, The Washington Post, 8/5/99

The Intimate Hillary
Lucinda Franks, Talk, 9/99

Commentary by Andrea Mitchell
NBC Nightly News, NBC, 8/2/99

Commentary by Fred Barnes
Special Report with Brit Hume, Fox, 8/2/99

Commentary by Wolf Blitzer, Lucinda Franks
Larry King Live, CNN, 8/2/99

Commentary by Gail Sheehy, Lucinda Franks
Meet the Press, NBC, 8/8/99

Few media events in the recent past have so fully displayed our press corps' dysfunction as the striking performance CelebCorps put on in the wake of the recent Talk piece. Whatever one thinks about Mrs. Clinton—and we do not support her Senate campaign—the CelebCorps' insistence on spinning her words threw press culture into groaning relief. The press corps' shabby intellectual standards; its love for the personal over the substantive; its enduring passion for total GroupThink; its love for predictions, which almost always prove wrong—all were put on vivid display as CelebCorps deconstructed Lady Clinton.

How ridiculous did the conjuring get? Listen to the Post's Gene Weingarten. Continuing from yesterday, we print Weingarten's three-part QED. In it, he "proves" Mrs. Clinton said grandma's tusslin' caused the president's later infidelity:

WEINGARTEN (addressing Mrs. Clinton): In the article, you called Bill's womanizing a "weakness." Then you suggested that this weakness—irresponsibility and lack of discipline, you said—was caused by Bill's "background." Then, in the next paragraph, you discussed his background—observing that he was "scarred" by a terrible conflict between his mother and grandmother. You said a psychologist told you this sort of conflict was "the worst possible thing for a boy," making him try to accommodate both female relatives (the implication being that he would grow up to be a man with a need to please multiple women).

We noted yesterday that Weingarten's second sentence made quite a leap from the article's text (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/10/99). But the highlighted section at the end of his passage is a complete and utter invention. There is not a single word in the actual text to suggest that Mrs. Clinton meant to "imply" this conclusion. Mrs. Clinton says she was told the dynamic was bad for a boy, and that is the end of the discussion.

What made Weingarten feel so free to embellish the words of a public figure? In the particular case, we cannot say, but it's plainly part of our current press culture. Just take the way a number of pundits approached the "addiction" question. At one point in the article, Franks describes Mrs. Clinton's reaction when she is asked about use of that word:

FRANKS: In this interview and other conversations, I refer to her husband's sexual conduct as "an addiction," and Hillary doesn't correct me. But when I finally ask directly if she thinks of it this way, she demurs. "That's your word. I would say 'weakness.' Whatever it is, it is only part of a complex whole."

There are two basic parts to this story. Mrs. Clinton doesn't object when Franks says "addiction." But when she is specifically asked about the term, she says she prefers a different word. But some pundits, preferring a colorful story, described this matter rather selectively. Andrea Mitchell, on the NBC Nightly News, as the article was first being described:

MITCHELL: In the article, Mrs. Clinton also does not disagree when the interviewer characterizes her husband's sexual conduct as an addiction he needs to confront.

That was the entire account Mitchell offered. Never mentioned was Mrs. Clinton's specific statement that she did not prefer that term. Fred Barnes told it much the same way, the same night, over on Fox:

BARNES: Lucinda Franks said, when she used the word "addiction," Hillary didn't stop her from saying that. Hillary didn't specifically use that word herself. She's held him up to ridicule.

Wolf Blitzer, on the same night, after Franks had pointed out that Mrs. Clinton "did not use the word 'addiction:'"

BLITZER: But Lucinda, correct me if I'm wrong. Larry, I just wanted to ask, she did say in the article that when she used the word "addiction" in front of Mrs. Clinton, Mrs. Clinton did not challenge her.

FRANKS: No. She did not challenge me.

Maybe the ladies could have wrestled on the floor until Franks took the ugly word back. Does Mrs. Clinton think her husband has an "addiction?" Here at THE HOWLER, we don't really know—she isn't specifically asked in the article, and she doesn't specifically say. But a number of pundits have spiced the tale by reporting one part of a two-part story. On none of these shows were viewers ever told that Mrs. Clinton, when directly asked, said she preferred to use a quite different term.

Our favorite version of this story improvement occurred on Meet the Press. Gail Sheehy was in from San Francisco, prepared to enlighten again:

SHEEHY: She keeps looking for other rationalizations. You know, it's a weakness—now it's a pathology, it's a disease. To go so far as to say her husband, the president of the United States, essentially is an addict, which she essentially agreed with Lucinda's version, is a pretty strong version of denial of something that I think she can't deal with personally one on one.

Again, here's how Mrs. Clinton "essentially agreed with Lucinda's version:"

FRANKS: But when I finally ask directly if she thinks of it this way, she demurs. "That's your word. I would say 'weakness.'"

We also missed the part of the text where Mrs. Clinton called it a "pathology." The story just keeps getting better and better in the hands of these talented analysts.

By the way, to get the full flavor of Sheehy's performance, here's the fuller exchange from the program:

SHEEHY: To go as far as to say her husband...essentially is an a pretty strong version of denial of something that I think she can't deal with personally one on one.

FRANKS: But don't you think he is an addict?

SHEEHY: Yes, I do.

We are offering $100,000 to James Carville's alma mater if someone can explain what makes Gail Sheehy tick.


Tomorrow: Finally, the pundits did read the article. Even that didn't seem to help.

Take a sad song and make it more exciting: Does Mrs. Clinton think her husband has an "addiction?" Once again, the piece doesn't really say. Later in the article, Mrs. Clinton says the president is "responsible for his own behavior. You have the confrontation, and then it is their responsibility, whether it's gambling or drinking or whatever." Some have pointed out that gambling and drinking are other syndromes which are sometimes called "addictions." But many people drink too much without being addicted to alcohol—that is Governor Bush's view of his earlier life, and no one has said that it doesn't make sense. Is there such a thing as a "gambling addiction?" Few non-specialists can say. In the exchange with Franks about the term "addiction," Mrs. Clinton does say, "Whatever [the president's sexual conduct] is, it is part of a complex whole." In that passage, she leaves open the possibility that the president's conduct may be some sort of addiction.

Does Mrs. Clinton think the president has an "addiction?" Most likely, she doesn't know. Obviously, his conduct with Monica Lewinsky was reckless and puzzling—and exceptionally hard to explain. If one wanted to take a sympathetic view of the First Lady, one would imagine that she doesn't quite understand her husband's behavior, and doesn't know how to explain it. But sympathetic views are forbidden in the press, and so there has been a familiar tendency to spin up the story—to stress the fact that she didn't wrestle Franks to the ground when Franks used the word "addiction," and to act like she said things she plainly didn't quite say. The press corps has a powerful urge to make these stories more exciting. That tendency has been widely displayed in discussion of the Talk magazine piece.

Speaking of addictive behavior: Just a note on CelebCorps' love for predictions about the public's attitudes. All week long, the pundits were chortling about what a blunder the First Lady made. The public was sick of hearing this stuff, and she was going to be hurt in New York. But a Zogby poll was released on Thursday—and she had gained ten points on Mayor Giuliani. And now some pundits began to say the public loves the "victim" stuff—although nothing in the Zogby poll explained why the numbers had changed.

Maybe voters had changed their views because of recent actions by Giuliani. Maybe somebody liked the listening tour (although you'll never hear a pundit say that). But one thing pundits love to do—they love to predict those public reactions. Their predictions are almost always wrong, but it never stops them from predicting again. Remember—admitting they don't know is generally forbidden, although some pundits did that this week.