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12 August 1999

Our current howler (part IV): Reading problems persist

Synopsis: The pundits finally read the Talk piece. It didn’t seem to help.

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

The Intimate Hillary
Lucinda Franks, Talk, 9/99

Hillary’s Twinkie Defense
Ben Wattenberg and Daniel Wattenberg, The Washington Times, 8/5/99

Commentary by Andrea Mitchell
Meet the Press, NBC, 8/8/99

Commentary by Dee Dee Myers, Robert Woodward
Larry King Live, CNN, 8/2/99

When the Sunday talk shows discussed the Franks piece on August 1, the pundits hadn't yet read the article. They were working from excerpts that had just appeared in a London Sunday Times piece. Normal caution would suggest that scribes refrain from interpreting an article they haven't read. But as we've seen, pundits offered colorful descriptions of what the First Lady had supposedly said. The descriptions turned out to be largely inaccurate, but—given the press corps' love of Group Thinking—were soon repeated by one and all as if martial law had them under its influence.

But even when pundits had read the piece, it didn't seem to help. The simplest parts of "The Intimate Hillary" continued to escape comprehension. For example, on Brit Hume's Special Report of Monday night, August 2—36 hours after the story broke—Fred Barnes expressed concern about one part of the article. The conversation that followed displayed a tendency common now among some pundits—the tendency to joke and clown about public figures, while baldly misstating what they've said:

BARNES: Look, one of the things I wondered about is, she said there were ten years in which he was faithful. Now, I don't know if she meant ten consecutive years, or ten cumulative years, you know, a year here and a year there [Laughter]—

BRIT HUME: Or maybe an hour here [Laughter]—

BARNES: An hour there. But there are not ten years. If it's ten years starting in 1999 back to 1989, well there are plenty of stories which I think have been verified—you know, the woman, pre-dawn visit of another woman to the governor's mansion just before he came to Washington...So there was no ten years, which she had to know.

Barnes' ignorance of the text was striking. Here is the segment of the piece to which the jesting scribe referred:

FRANKS: "You have to know the real quality of the person," [Mrs. Clinton] says thoughtfully. "You have to be alert to it, vigilant in helping. I thought this was resolved 10 years ago. I thought he had conquered it, but he didn't go deep enough or work hard enough."

It's hard to know what could be unclear about that simple segment. Mrs. Clinton is explicitly referring to the ten-year period beginning in 1989, a point on which Barnes was uncertain. She clearly says she thought Clinton's sexual problem was resolved at that time, but now is aware that it wasn't. Is Mrs. Clinton speaking candidly here? At THE HOWLER, we have no way of knowing. But all of Barnes' jesting can't hide a plain fact. Thirty-six hours into this story, he is completely unfamiliar with one of the simplest points laid out in Lucinda Franks' piece.

Sadly, Barnes was not alone. Listen to what came next:

MORTON KONDRACKE: Well, she doesn't necessarily have to have known it, but my guess is that she did know it. I think that—

HUME: Well, she certainly must know it by now!! [Hume's emphasis]

Hume also didn't know what Mrs. Clinton had said. In this group, Kondracke's willingness to offer a guess made him the King of All Clarity.

It's remarkable that pundits would discuss such sensitive matters without understanding basic points in the text. But this kind of lazy textual ignorance was commonly seen in the press corps. In the Talk article, Mrs. Clinton makes one other comment about a past stretch of fidelity, and it also produced confusion on the part of major pundits. It happens to be one part of the article that begs for factual clarification by Franks:

FRANKS (Mrs. Clinton is speaking): "People are mean. I think it's a real disservice, the way we strip away everybody's sense of dignity, of privacy. People need support, not disdain.

"And you know we did have a very good stretch," she adds later, referring to the period after Gennifer Flowers. "Years and years of nothing."

Did Mrs. Clinton herself refer to "the period after Gennifer Flowers?" If so, we have some major news, for those concerned with such matters. President Clinton testified under oath in the Paula Jones deposition that he had one sexual encounter with Flowers, in 1977 (not intercourse). If Mrs. Clinton said something different in these interviews, that would be a Major Sex Breakthrough. More likely, Franks herself added this bit of interpretation, embellishing something Mrs. Clinton said, but it is impossible to tell from the text. But in all the interview shows on which we saw Franks appear, no one ever asked her to clarify this point. Meanwhile, various pundits leaped into action, asserting what the ambiguous passage meant, although they plainly had no way of knowing:

WATTENBERG/WATTENBERG: Mrs. Clinton now candidly acknowledges there was an affair with Mrs. Flowers.

The Wattenbergs are reliable anti-Clinton spinners. But other pundits, on TV shows, were flummoxed by this passage too. Andrea Mitchell was still unclear on Meet the Press a week later:

MITCHELL: [Mrs. Clinton] refers to what may have happened after the Gennifer Flowers incident ten years ago. There are all sorts of implications that there was some therapy back then.

Mitchell suggests that Mrs. Clinton referred to Flowers (highly unlikely), and conflates the two passages we have quoted above. Nowhere in the article does Mrs. Clinton, or anyone else, say that "the Gennifer Flowers incident" ended in 1989. Franks was sitting beside Mitchell as she spoke, but Mitchell never asked Franks to clarify what Mrs. Clinton said. Dee Dee Myers, on Larry King Live, also failed to ask Franks, while giving this passage a completely different reading:

MYERS: There's some time-line problems. [Mrs. Clinton] said there was a period after Gennifer Flowers when for ten years she thought they had no problems. Well, the president said he had a physical relationship with Gennifer Flowers once, in 1977. So that leaves a long period of unexplained time. And so I think there's a lot of contradictions as you go through her quotes about this.

Myers knows what the president said, but she doesn't know what is in the Franks article. Mrs. Clinton clearly, explicitly says the "ten-year period" began in 1989. And Myers also assumes that Mrs. Clinton mentioned Flowers, which we regard as highly unlikely. Bob Woodward spoke immediately after Myers, and he had clearly read the article. But he did obey a basic pundit law—pundits never call attention to other pundits' errors:

KING (continuing directly): Bob, what questions in your mind does this article leave loose?

WOODWARD: Well, there's that question, what happened in 1989 that seemed to end this?

Woodward, who knows when the "ten-year period" began, has contradicted what Myers just said. But no one said a word about it, or tried to resolve the contradiction, although Franks was sitting right there on the panel, and could have explained what Mrs. Clinton really said.

It is truly remarkable that these major commentators—Mitchell; Myers; Hume; Barnes—would go on TV without understanding the simplest things that this article said. This situation is truly remarkable for at least a couple of reasons. First, the commentators were discussing a major public figure, and talking about very sensitive issues. One would think that a modest sense of professional responsibility would lead them to read the text carefully.

But the ignorance displayed is especially striking because the text under review is so short. As we mentioned on Monday, there are at most ten to twelve paragraphs in this article that concern the president's family background and sexual history. In terms of length, one could barely coax an op-ed piece out of what Franks wrote on the topic. The fact that these commentators couldn't even be bothered to read that—couldn't even get straight on a handful of paragraphs—raises a point of professional malfeasance that simply must be addressed.

Is there any other professional sector where one can imagine such total incompetence? If engineers conducted their business like this, there wouldn't be a bridge in this country still standing. And we're not just complaining about minor technical points. The pundits' ignorance produced substantive, critical comments about Mrs. Clinton, wholly based on the commentators' ignorance. Myers, for example, told Larry King's viewers that there were "timeline contradictions" in what Mrs. Clinton had said. That is simply, totally false, based on Myers' ignorance of the article's clear text. To Barnes and Hume, Mrs. Clinton's basic story doesn't make sense. That is false—and they plainly haven't read the text either. Mitchell implies, and the Wattenbergs state, that Mrs. Clinton has endorsed Gennifer Flowers' claim of an affair lasting through 1989. That is almost surely false, and can't be derived from the ambiguous text.

It's hard to find a way to describe the incompetence of this performance. It's hard to imagine another sector in which conduct like this could persist. Why is such conduct so routine in this sphere? We offer a thought on the morrow.

Tomorrow: The word from a scribe's beauty parlor.