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8 September 1999

Our current howler (part II): The story they like

Synopsis: Lock up the children! Tape and view later! A singing professor helped continue Hardball’s FALN-flam.

Commentary by Professor Ken Jowitt, Chris Matthews, Tish Durkin, Howard Fineman
Hardball, CNBC, 9/8/99

Commentary by Geraldo Rivera, Juan Gonzalez
Rivera Live, CNBC, 9/8/99

Commentary by Michael Barone, Laura Ingraham
Watch It!, MSNBC, 9/8/99

Lock up the children! Tape and view later! The carnage continued as a tabloid talker explored that clemency deal. A singing professor had joined the scrum, and he critiqued the president's offer. Clinton has said the Puerto Rican nationalists would have to agree to renounce violence:

PROFESSOR JOWITT: It's amazing. If you look at this husband and wife, it's extraordinary. He's adopted a Brenda Lee policy toward terrorism! All you do is say [SINGING]: "I'm sorr-r-ry; so sorr-r-ry; please ac-cept my a-pol-o-gy-y." [SPEAKING] It's utterly extraordinary.

We'll admit it. We thought it was too.

But parents, if you have school kids at home, just keep them away from this program. You don't want your kids to know, just yet, the way our public discourse really works. Because the gong show continued on Hardball last night, with the program telling the story it likes. If your sixth grader wrote a report this way, you'd pray that his "prof" would return it.

Last night, we compared the story Hardball told with facts that emerged just an hour later, as Rivera Live assembled a varied panel that was willing to get past preferred tales. Right away, Geraldo mentioned those prominent people who have supported the FALN deal:

RIVERA: Now whether or not you think that president's offer is a travesty or not, I must tell you, folks, that most people of Puerto Rican descent, including yours truly, agree with peace-makers ranging from Jimmy Carter to Desmond Tutu, from Nelson Mandela to New York's own Cardinal O'Connor, that the president was right in trying to close this violent chapter in American history.

The news was slowly emerging. On Fox News Channel's Special Report last night, viewers were told that O'Connor supported the deal. But you still haven't heard it on Hardball. To say that the conservative O'Connor supports the move kills the program's favorite tale—that only Senate politics could ever explain the deal that the president offered.

But then, there's a lot you aren't hearing if you're still playing Hardball—and a lot that you're hearing that's wrong. What sort of crimes did these individuals commit? Last night, we heard two different stories:

RIVERA: I covered the awful bombing of Faunces Tavern back in 1975. While absolutely sympathetic to the innocent people killed and maimed in that and other cowardly acts, I point out again that none of these separatists still behind bars were found guilty of any violent acts.

But here's what you heard on Hardball:

MATTHEWS: Why did it take [Mrs. Clinton] three weeks to have this realization...when she realized, "Oh my God. My husband is letting killers free in my home, in the state I want to call home?"

"Willie Horton," the helpful host pondered. "This seems like a lot of that." (For a sample of other factual problems, see our postscript below.)

And why were we hearing these errors on Hardball? Because on Hardball, they novelize news. Unhelpful facts will be spun or discarded, to help make a new, improved story. The preferred story here is that President Clinton offered clemency to help his wife's Senate campaign. And any fact that could support other stories will quickly be hustled from view.

But sometimes unwanted facts turn up, with new cast members making big errors. Last night, Howard Fineman brought up ol' reliable Jonathan Pollard, saying other-groups-now-want-favors-from-Hillary. It's become a nightly part of the story, recited robotically all over the dial. But last night, newcomer Tish Durkin slipped up, and an ugly new fact came to light:

DURKIN: Wait wait wait! Hello hello! That's an interesting point. Because none other than Mayor Rudy Guiliani has had some very generous things to say about Jonathan Pollard.

Darn it! Why did she have to say that? Now Fineman had to say what he knew:

FINEMAN: Yes, he wants him released, I think. He wants him released.

Really! Guiliani wants to pardon Pollard! We hadn't heard that fact mentioned all week! And just like that, we quickly saw why. It led on to his brutal heresy:

DURKIN: In fairness to the first lady, ethnic political pandering is not unknown to politics [in New York].

Tish Durkin has a lot to learn. On Hardball—singing professors aside—only the First Family panders.


Compare and contrast: Last night, it was a tale of two stories for anyone who watched both Hardball and Rivera Live. On Rivera Live, we learned that the FALN members were not being released in New York (as Matthews had said); had committed their crimes and been imprisoned in Illinois and Connecticut; were already in prison when bombings injured New York City policemen; and had renounced violence in a letter to a congressman more than two years ago (the delay in accepting clemency had involved a dispute over other provisions of the clemency). All of this was hard to square with what we'd been hearing on Hardball. Meanwhile, does Michael Barone ever get anything right? Here's an exchange from Rivera Live about Puerto Rican public opinion:

RIVERA: Juan Gonzalez of the [New York] Daily News, am I correct when I say that most people of Puerto Rican descent favor the president's action and are baffled by the first lady's?

GONZALEZ: Overwhelmingly. I think every major Latino elected official, Puerto Rica elected official, in New York held a press conference supporting the president's action, virtually all the leaders on the island. Among the 6.6 million Puerto Ricans here and on Puerto Rico, virtually unanimous support for closing the chapter in relations of Puerto Rico and the United States.

Which certainly seemed to square with the conduct of Puerto Rican office-holders in New York. But we were a bit surprised to hear this said, because Barone told us different on Hardball last week. He was still on yesterday's Watch It!:

BARONE: I do not believe that most Puerto Ricans in New York state or the United States generally are standing around saying, "We want terrorists released—one of the most important things to us is that these terrorists be released." I think most Puerto Ricans are law-abiding people and want the law to be carried out, not to be flouted the way the Clintons propose to do it."

But then, Barone was still describing the individuals in question as "terrorists who have killed innocent people," and saying they haven't renounced violence.

Oh yeah. On Watch It!, Laura Ingraham said to this to Barone: "The amazing thing is, Guiliani's strongest point, as you know, Michael, is law enforcement." No one mentioned that Guliani wants to pardon Pollard. That's the amazing thing to us: they always know which key facts to leave out.


Tomorrow: Back-to-the-basics meets the budget. Can you explain "lockbox," boys and girls?