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Caveat lector

7 September 1999

Our current howler: The story they like

Synopsis: Why did Carter and O’Connor support FALN commutation? We don’t know--we’ve been reading the press corps.

Commentary by Chris Matthews, Mike Barnicle, Michael Barone, Katrina vanden Heuvel
Hardball, CNBC, 8/31/99

Puerto Rico Surprise
Michael Kelly, The Washington Post, 9/1/99

Commentary by Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL)
Meet the Press, NBC, 9/5/99

A tabloid talker was back from vacation, and he was barking out brio at a standard brisk pace. Surrounded by scribes he trusted most, he questioned Clinton's offer of FALN clemency:

MATTHEWS: Why do we want to be on the side of terrorists all of a sudden in a political situation here? Why would anybody want to be on the side of terrorism?

But nobody wanted to be on the terrorists' side, not on Hardball's panel. And everyone knew Clinton's motives. Mike Barnicle spoke next, nicely recovered from his grieving on the Kennedys' lawn:

BARNICLE: This has nothing to do with the administration of justice. It has to do with the administration of politics, and the behavior of both the president and the first lady, erstwhile candidate for the United States Senate, is totally repulsive.

Wow! Michael Barone shook his fist also:

BARONE: For the president of the United States to use the release of terrorists to try to help his wife in the United States Senate race, that has happened, the denials of it are totally unconvincing. It's despicable.

With Deborah Orin on hand to offer irrelevant factoids, it really did make quite a scene.

But our analysts, quite frankly, were puzzled. Earlier in the exciting scrum, Katrina vanden Heuvel had offered this observation, which seemed to undercut the confident analysis the lock-stepping pundits had proffered:

VANDEN HEUVEL: [T]his is an issue that has been underway, a mobilizing issue in the Latino community for many years, and you have thousands of people, Nobel laureates, a former president, Chris, you worked for, Jimmy Carter, religious leaders, human rights activists who have lobbied for the release of these prisoners.

Really? Jimmy Carter? You'd think someone would ask why Carter supported clemency, but no one remembered to do so. Indeed, over the next few days we saw it written that Carter and Desmond Tutu had "strongly urged" clemency (Washington Post), and Cardinal Richard O'Connor's name was also mentioned as someone who supported the motion. On the August 31 Watch It!, sons of a slain New York city policeman argued that O'Connor did not support clemency, but their evidence was far from conclusive. Did O'Connor support the clemency or not? Our tireless analysts kept watching and reading, but all throughout the Washington media, no one ever bothered to say.

Michael Kelly's September 1 column heightened our analysts' frustration. Writing about Clinton's motives in the case, Kelly said this:

KELLY: Why not give Clinton the benefit of the doubt here? A legitimate case could be made for commutation, and it was asserted that the timing [of the offer] reflected the wish of retiring White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff, who desired to push the pardon through as his last act.

There was a "legitimate case for commutation," Kelly said. But nowhere in the column did Kelly try to explain what that case might be.

Here at THE HOWLER, we have no way of knowing why Clinton proposed commutation. But we've been waiting now for over a week to learn why Carter and Tutu support the idea; we've been waiting to learn what Cardinal O'Connor's position on the matter might be. But apparently our analysts may become old and gray before they get answers to these obvious questions, because the press corps' treatment of this thrilling story has never moved past Hardball's standard. Again and again, pundits say that President Clinton gave the offer to help his wife's Senate campaign; the possibility that there may be other, good reasons for the action is simply never discussed. To date, we have not seen a single story or discussion that tries to explain the wider case for commutation.

Why has the story been covered this way? At THE HOWLER, we try not to guess motive. But we've certainly seen this pattern before, in which obvious questions just don't get asked. As the Hardball panel roared and declaimed, we couldn't help thinking we saw an old practice. The panel was telling the story it liked—and leaving out other obvious elements, that might have drained all the fun from the tale.

On Sunday, we threw in the towel. On Meet the Press, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) opened the a lengthy discussion with this presentation:

REP GUTIERREZ: Ten Nobel Peace Prize winners have joined this effort. President Jimmy Carter. The Cardinal of New York, Mr. O'Connor, Cardinal O'Connor. The Archbishop of Puerto Rico. Clearly, this is a movement of peace and reconciliation...

Really? Is it true that those figures support commutation? And what are the reasons for that? In the lengthy discussion, we never found out, because host Tim Russert never asked. There was plenty of rumination on Clinton's motives, with Russert offering ham-handed lead-ins to guests. But no one ever was asked to explain the motives of people like O'Connor and Carter-people who obviously were not trying to get Mrs. C in the Senate.

With our great nation gone back-to-school, we only hoped the school kids weren't watching theshow. Is this the way they should pen their reports—just telling stories the way that they like?


Tomorrow: Bungling the basics.