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22 August 1998

Life in this celebrity press corps: Reporting the tie that blinds

Synopsis: A bright, blinding necktie seemed to dazzle the press corps--and sent some signals about theirlack of character.

Did President Send Lewinsky a Signal With His Necktie?
Don Van Natta Jr. and James Bennet, The New York Times,8/19/98

Clinton’s admission may mean the infamous dress is irrelevant
Kevin Johnson and Judy Keen, USA Today,8/20/98

The Tie That Binds
Roxanne Roberts, The Washington Post,8/20/98

Fakery in a gift tie
Tony Snow, The Washington Times,8/21/98

We all know how members of this celebrity press corps just hate any hint of a lack of character, and quickly report any indication or sign that public figures may fall short in this area. That’s why we’re puzzled by one thrilling story the press corps quite widely reported this week--in reporting so shoddy it almost seems to suggest that the corps may have flaws of its own!

The story wasn’t that hard to report. USA Today nailed it on Friday:

JOHNSON AND KEEN: Because of Lewinsky’s early arrival at the courthouse that day, about 8:30 a.m., she could not have seen Clinton wearing the tie on television before she testified.

That’s right--it’s the exciting new story that ran all through the press about President Clinton’s Sartorial Signal To Monica, the exciting suggestion that Clinton wore one of Monica’s ties to send her a signal before her grand jury appearance. The suggestion: that by wearing her tie, Bill would melt her young heart, and she’d then keep things cool in her grand jury gabfest.

The suggestion, of course, made no sense at all, as Johnson and Keen had no trouble establishing. Why not? Because Clinton hadn’t appeared in public until 12:30 p.m. on the day of Monica’s grand jury session (August x); and Monica, therefore, couldn’thave seen him wagging his tie before beginning her morning appearance. But guess what? That didn’t stop other miscreant types from milking the story for all it was worth. How’d they do it? By omitting the facts that would have let readers know the exciting story was a big, silly fable!

The Washington Post clearly wallowed the most, in an “Essay” by Roxanne Roberts (also Friday). Roberts tried her darndest to limn whether Bill had been Signaling With His Necktie To Monica:

ROBERTS: Was he or wasn’t he [signaling Monica]? That’s the question that tied up Washington yesterday.

Roberts described radio stations conducting necktie drives; “a bored city had found yet another way to indulge its passion for psychosexual debate.”

Except, when it comes to indulging psychosexual debate, Roxanne Roberts does all right by herself. She spun out a disgraceful, fact-free debate on Whether Big Bill Was Calling Out To His Monnie:

ROBERTS: Clinton has a hard-won reputation as a Don Juan, which means it is possible that he wore the tie as a secret symbol of his enduring passion for Lewinsky. But it is equally possible that he behaved like Bubba; promptly forgot who gave it to him, placed no special significance on it, and wore it because it was the first one he laid hands on.

“Equally possible”--we love the precision!

Roberts couldn’t quite figure it out. She ended up in a state of uncertainty:

ROBERTS: But the message in Clinton’s tie? Hard to say.

But only “hard to say” because Roberts omitted the info that would have made it all too easy to say--didn’t mention, throughout the course of her lengthy piece, that Clinton’s first public appearance, on the day in question, had come long after the start of Mo’s Kenklatsch. Isn’t it rich: that newspapers who constantly assail Clinton’s character--who score him for withholding the truth from the public--are willing to wallow in nonsense like this, implying there may be a big story brewing when it’s quite clear that the rumors make no sense?

No, folks--it wasn’t “possible” that Bill Signaled Monica at all! And Roxanne Roberts, and her editors, failed to mention the fact that would have shown that to her bored, misled readers.

But then, maybe the folks at the Post just weren’t quite as bright as Johnson and Keen were at USA Today--maybe it just didn’t occur to Roxanne Roberts to check Clinton’s schedule on the morning in question. But then again, the story had already been reported the day before, on page one (page one!) of the New York Times, and Van Natta and Bennet of the Times had spelled it all out--well, they’d spelled out the facts somewhatclearly...

VAN NATTA AND BENNET: Was the tie a sign, a plea for solidarity? If it was, it did not work. Ms. Lewinsky did not learn of Mr. Clinton’s choice of neckties until she turned on the television that evening and saw a clip of him in the Rose Garden, her friends said.

Van Natta and Bennet at least managed to tell us that Monica hadn’tseen the president’s “sign.” But throughout the length of their page one story, they didn’t mention the scheduling facts that would have made it quite clear that she couldn’thave seen the obvious non-signal!

Some of you sticklers for detail may well be saying: Maybe before the Times runs a story like this, a couple of newshounds could check that stuff out--could determine whether it even was dimly possiblethat the Big He Was Sending A Signal. On the other hand, it kills a fun story if you find out the truth, and it turns out the Big He wasn’t obstructin’ at all. It’s much more fun not to seek out the truth, and to let your readers do a little daydreamin’. (And maybe, just maybe, when you knowthe real truth, you don’t bother to put the truth in your article...)

But shame on our old friend, Tony Snow, for getting the matter all mixed up. Hey, Tony--you gotta do better!!

SNOW (two paragraphs): Deep in the heart of this presidency, lurks cynicism. Dick Morris reports that on the day the Lewinsky story broke, the president commissioned a poll to figure out whether he should tell the truth. The results indicated he should. So he waited, and waited, and waited--till Americans surrendered their sense of shame.

Then came the speech, and he allegedly wore a tie that had been given by none other than Monica Lewinsky!

Tony, Tony, Tony me lad--that’snot the way the fable goes! My gosh--when this celebrity press corps makes up a tall tale, can’t they at least get it wrong in the right manner?

Postscript: For the record, the real fun in the way the press played this story lies in the original source of the info. According to most reporting, this episode was given to the press by the White House, to show just how nutty that Starr Gang can be. The White House wanted the public to ponder the goofy questions the Ken Crewe had pursued with the president.

So what does the celebrity press corps do? With the exception of Johnson and Keen in USA Today, they type up the story the White House handed out, omitting the part that makes the story so silly. Result: a story that might otherwise have made the Starr Gang look dumb ends up raising plainly unjustified, exciting new questions as to whether Clinton Was Trying To Hush Baby Monica! It’s perfect!

Remember, folks: these are the people who just love to rail about President Clinton’salleged lack of character! But then again, as we’ve tirelessly told you, right from the start--it’s all just a part of what we do love to call: “Life in this celebrity press corps.”