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19 August 1998

Life in this celebrity press corps: Where we lie to prove Clinton’s a liar...

Synopsis: How does the press corps prove Clinton’s a liar? All too often, by fibbing themselves.

Clinton’s Own Web
Bob Herbert, The New York Times, 8/17/98

Political Houdini is in his tightest spot yet
Mimi Hall and Bill Nichols, USA Today, 8/17/98

The whole truth, Mr. President
Editorial, USA Today, 8/17/98


What a time for the analysts to be at (Walt) Disney World, addressing the International Association of Firefighters, and their estimable political action committee, FirePac, the nation’s 53rd-largest PAC! Sadly, the Disney hotels keep a tight lid on cable--no CNN, no CNBC--so the analysts were unable to check out the drek that must have been flying around the Big Speech Monday night.

But the hoo-hah that comes from this celebrity press corps is flying so thick and so fast this week that one doesn’t even have to play any Hardballto savor its execrable essence. On Monday morning, before Clinton even made his Big Speech, the press corps was working on the week’s favored story--Big Bill’s A Liar, And He Always Has Been--and these three articles provided a dispiriting look at a press corps up to its usual old tricks: trying to prove that Bill Clinton’s a liar by misreporting what he’s said in the past!

In these articles, the press corps was dealing with our own favorite topic--President Clinton’s past statements about Gennifer Flowers. Here’s Bob Herbert of the New York Times, outlining past depredations:

HERBERT (paragraph 2): Presidential candidate Bill Clinton goes on the “60 Minutes” program right after the Super Bowl in late January 1992 to clear up the Gennifer Flowers mess. The idea was to tell the truth, to be straight with the American people, and thus save his damaged presidency. Here’s what happened. With more than 30 million viewers looking on, and with Hillary at his side, he lied.

Which is not a real nice thing to do. But, do you know what strikes us in this Bob Herbert column? Herbert never even attempts to explain the charge that he makes against President Clinton--never tells us what lie he believes Clinton told, or how he’s certain that Clinton was lying. Columnists like Herbert now apparently feel they don’t even have to argue for charges like this, so strong is the pull of conventional wisdom that tells us Bill Clinton’s A Liar. We’re all supposed to know what Herbert means when he dramatically tells us that Bill Clinton Lied--we’re expected to know the approved stories so well that Herbert doesn’t have to explain or defend them.

But the notion that Clinton lied about Gennifer Flowers is a perfect example--it’s theperfect example--of the lazy, incompetent, dishonest bumbling that runs all through this celebrity press corps. The standard story of how Clinton “lied” has been repeated again and again in the celebrity press--usually by journalists who have no way of knowing what the facts are in this endless story. It’s virtually certain that Bob Herbert has no way of knowing whether or not President Clinton lied in this matter; and it’s virtually certain that Herbert has no way of knowing what actually occurred between Clinton and Flowers. Why then is Herbert calling Clinton a liar? Because he feels entitled to parrot a favorite press story, without ever engaging in the basic procedures by which real journalists try to nail down real facts.

What does Herbert likely mean in saying Clinton lied about Flowers? Luckily, USA Today’s Hall and Nichols are willing to spell out the standard fable:

HALL AND NICHOLS: [Clinton’s] denial specifically of a twelve-year affair may have been technically true, but he wasn’t asked on 60 Minuteswhether he had slept with Flowers. He didn’t volunteer that until this year. In a deposition Jan. 17 in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case, Clinton acknowledged a sexual relationship with Flowers but said they had sex only once, according to two lawyers and two other people with knowledge of his deposition.

In this passage, Hall and Nichols state the standard press story--that Clinton finally admitted, in his Jones deposition, that he “had sex” once with Gennifer Flowers. But, as we’ve spelled out so many times in the past, President Clinton quite plainly did notever testify that he’d had intercourse with Gennifer Flowers. As anyone with a professional interest in this matter must surely know, he testified that he’d had one instance of “sexual relations” with Flowers, using a mandated definition of “sexual relations” that was provided for the deposition by Paula Jones’ lawyers. And, as has been spelled out in various contexts again and again, the Jones definition listed many types of conduct that fell far short of sexual intercourse. In saying that he’d had one instance of “sexual relations” with Flowers under the terms of this Jones-supplied definition, Clinton quite plainly did notever say that he’d had intercoursewith the shapely chanteuse. And according to Time magazine’s web-site, Clinton later told friends that the sexual encounter to which he referred was a grope-and grab session in a Little Rock night club--notan act of sexual intercourse, and notan act that would have contradicted Candidate Clinton’s repeated 1992 claim that Gennifer Flowers was “a woman I didn’t sleep with.”

One would think these facts have been spelled out so often that it would be impossible for journalists not to know them by now; but they have somehow escaped Nichols, Hall and Herbert. In fact, it’s amazing to observe the press corps’ skill at ignoring the most basic facts of this case--all so they can pen the pleasing, false tale that Nichols, Hall and Herbert are spinning. Talk about ignoring (or making up) basic facts: in its August 17 editorial, USA Today takes the whole mess one step further:

USA TODAY: What of all the public denials [by Clinton, about Flowers]? Oh, they’re still true, White House spokesmen insisted. Clinton was merely denying a 12-yearaffair.

Really! We invite USA Today to find anyexample of a White House spokesman having made such a statement. While Mike McCurry continually stated, without elaboration, that the president’s deposition did not contradict his 60 Minutesremarks, he never made the sort of assertion that USA Today invents in this editorial. Meanwhile, when spokesmen such as James Carville and Mandy Grunwald appeared on TV talk shows last spring, they repeatedly cited the Jones definition of “sex,” and the president’s reported subsequent statement to friends about the actual nature of the “encounter” with Flowers. (Carville explained this on Meet the Press. It’s a fairly well-known Sunday program.) It is blatantly false to say that White House spokesmen produced the construction USA Today invents. And why does the paper invent this new element? Because the account helps support the easy, false story the celebrity press corps just loves to tell--the story about how President Clinton Is A Big, Naughty Liar, As We’ve Seen So Many Times In The Past.

For the record, THE DAILY HOWLER does not know if Clinton and Flowers ever “had sex.” THE DAILY HOWLER has no way of knowing if Clinton was truthful in his deposition. But then, three other people don’t know if he lied--Herbert, Hall, and Nichols can’t possibly know, either. But, for celebrity journalists on the prowl for Big Bill, not having a clue what you’re talking about doesn’t keep you from writing the fable that suits you. But then, as we’ve faithfully said so many times in the past, whenever we run upon this kind of writing--it’s all just a part of what we dolove to call: “Life in this celebrity press corps.”

Postscript: We were tickled by Hall and Nichols’ peculiar account of how they learned about Clinton’s deposition. As quoted:

HALL AND NICHOLS: ...Clinton acknowledged a sexual relationship with Flowers but said they had sex only once, according to two lawyers and two other people with knowledge of his deposition.

We’re puzzled why our tireless sleuths worked so hard to learn What Big Bill Really Said. Why did they bother to get the word from four people “with knowledge of his deposition?” The text of Bill’s depo was released March 13. It has been printed in most major papers. If they wanted to know What Bill Said, they could have just sprung for the New York Times! Dag! Why does the press corps work too hard on some things, and fall down badly on so many others?