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Caveat lector

25 September 1998

Our current howler: Timmy, tell us true

Synopsis: We hate to stay on the Big Dog’s case, but Tim Russert gives miserable paraphrase.

Commentary by Tim Russert, Matt Lauer
The Today Show,NBC, 9/22/98

Poll Finds Clinton Is On The Rebound Since Video Airing
Richard Berke, The New York Times, 9/25/98

Commentary by Matt Lauer, Bob Dole
The Today Show,NBC, 9/25/98

You’re going say we’re picking nits, as we complain about Big Tim again--specifically, his appearance on The Today ShowTuesday morning to discuss reactions to Clinton-on-tape. Sorry--Russert again showed the lazy habits he often displays when he has to paraphrase, or interpret data. Yes, it’s true, as we’ve told you before--Big Tim gives miserable paraphrase. It shouldn’t happen this high on the news ladder.

Matt Lauer asked Russert what “Americans” now thought about the Clinton grand jury appearance:

LAUER: So when Americans had a chance now to sleep on it, will they still respect the president in the morning? What did your poll find out?

To start, Russert reacted to two sets of data on the screen, and he immediately explained them--poorly:

RUSSERT: It’s quite striking, Matt. The vast majority of Americans believe the president is lying--about two out of three--and yet the same number want him to remain in office. They believe that he has been an effective president and what he has done, as much as they don’t believe him and don’t agree with it, it does not disqualify him in their minds from remaining in office at this time.

Russert displayed an extraordinary amount of knowledge about the thoughts of “Americans,” based on the two bits of data he was reviewing. These are the data that were shown on the screen at the same time he made his remarks:

Did the president tell the whole truth? No: 60% Yes: 26%
Can the president still lead the country? Yes: 65% No: 32%

Sixty percent is hardly a “vast majority,” by the way, but other problems with Russert’s analysis were apparent. The poll had notasked if people “thought the president was lying;” it had asked if they thought the president “had told the whole truth.” And, at the risk of being accused of parsing too closely, the two questions are hardly the same. One can fail to “tell the whole truth” in a deposition without ever actually “lying” at all; Russert is describing response to a question that NBC did not ask. Given Russert’s penchant for ratcheting things up, “60% believe that Clinton did not tell the whole truth” has now become “The vast majority believe that Clinton is lying.” This is miserable, sloppy, incompetent paraphrase. But hang on folks, it’s gonna get worse.

Back on the set, Russert’s careless account of what “Americans are saying” provoked a troubled response from Matt Lauer:

LAUER: So what they’re saying is, telling the truth is not an important aspect of leadership.

Tim was troubled too:

RUSSERT: It’s quite striking, Matt. Not only telling the truth but whether he has the morality and integrity, whether he’s a role model for children...They’ve said his effectiveness as president should be separated from his moral behavior.

But it’s not clear that “they” had said that at all. First of all, if 60% think Clinton has not told the whole truth, and 65% think that Clinton can still lead, then as few as 25% may hold both beliefs. (We trust you to work out the math.) Lauer and Russert speak as if the “vast majority” of people are saying both things; this is plainly not shown by the data. (More on this “overlap” problem in today’s “Smile-a-while,” 9/25/98.) And what is so surprising about the fact that the data doshow--the fact that somepeople think Clinton has not “told the whole truth,” but still “believe he can lead?” Here’s what Richard Berke writes in a New York Times article on reactions to the Clinton testimony--an article distinct from Russert’s commentary in that its deductions are careful and measured:

BERKE: Six out of 10 people who watched Mr. Clinton’s testimony said he mostly tried to avoid answering the questions. But, by the same margin, Americans who watched said it was appropriate for him to refuse to answer questions about his sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

Is it surprising that somepeople will feel that Clinton has the authority to lead, when they believe he was rightin trying to avoid “telling the whole truth?” The Times data reveal an outlook on the part of some Americans that isn’t reflected in Russert and Lauer’s narrow focus. Russert and Lauer imagine only one mind-set on the part of “Americans”--a mind-set that clearly is notspelled out by the limited data they spin into a Bigger Story.

We’ve complained in the past about Russert’s sloppy paraphrase; it continued throughout this interview:

LAUER: Politics will be the big loser here. It seems that most people think the release of the videotape was partisan politics as usual.

RUSSERT: Overwhelmingly, Matt, as you can see. 70% of Americans think that’s what Washington now is filled with--politics, politics, politics, each side trying to score advantage.

But again, that goes far beyond what the data showed. Here are the data which Russert was interpreting:

Why did Republicans release the tape?|
Partisan politics: 70%
Public’s right to know: 23%

Respondents were asked nothing about whether “each side was trying to score advantage.” They were asked nothing about what Washington “now is filled with.” They were asked only about current Republican motives in one specific action--the rest is Tim Russert, philosophizin’.

Does it matter if pundits draw such lazy inferences? In our view, the answer is yes. At the end of Russert’s interview with Lauer, for example, he offered an interpretation of what Clinton could have done back in August; and it showed us how careless thought leads on to the simple, lazy stories the celebrity press corps often sells to its viewers:

RUSSERT: That speech on the 17th [of August] was a turning point, Matt. Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives--all were saying to the president: You come clean with the American people on the 17th and perhaps we can put this behind us. The president was rather defiant, went after Ken Starr, and the rest is history.

And so we see how lazy thought generates simplistic “conventional wisdom.” The notion that everyonewas sending Clinton this message before his August 17 testimony is absurdly difficult to square with the facts; though some prominent Republicans were delivering this message, it is absurd to suggest that all were. Was Dan Burton sending that message? Bob Barr? Tom Delay? Russert here creates lazy, false history--the kind we saw the press corps create in the immediate aftermath of Clinton’s August 17 speech (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/20/98). We inevitably get this kind of simplistic story-telling when we tolerate lazy, undisciplined reporting, in which careless habits of thought are routinely applied to even the simplest sorts of data.

No, nothing ever will turn on the comments of Russert on Todaythis Tuesday morning. But as we at THE HOWLER have asked before: in a nation of 270 million people, is this really the best we can expect at the top of the news chain? Can’t we demand a public discourse that is conducted with more skill than this?

Postscript: We want you to see the degree of speculation that was transpirin’ between Tim and Matt. Here’s a fuller transcript of one of Russert’s responses, early on in this exchange:

RUSSERT: It’s quite striking, Matt, not only telling the truth but whether he has the morality and integrity, whether he’s a role model for children. You know the president always uses the word “compartmentalize”--putting things in different compartments of his life. And the American public has done just that. They’ve said his effectiveness as president should be separate from his moral behavior.

But when did “the American public” say that? When did “the American public” say that Clinton’s “effectiveness as president should be separatefrom his moral behavior?” Clearly, many people feel that Clinton should continue as president, despite his conduct with Lewinsky and his subsequent testimony. But that does not necessarily mean that they feel his moral conduct is “separate” from, or irrelevant to, their decision to keep him as president. For many of these people. Clinton’s moral conduct may be relevant, but not dispositive--that is, they feel his moral conduct counts, but it isn’t the only factor they weigh in their decision. Nothing in the data that Russert interprets leads to the conclusion he dramatically states. It’s an exciting, dramatic, public-bashing story--one that Russert has essentially made up.

By the way, we have never heard Clintonsay he “compartmentalizes.” It’s the press corps (and Clinton staff) who often say that. Oh well--the press corps said it, Clinton said it...close enough for this celebrity press corps!

Read on: Katie Couric and Jack Ford had a strange perspective. They thought Clinton didn’t lie quite enough! (See “Smile-a-while I,” 9/25/98.)

Read on II: Friday morning, Matt Lauer was still ragging the American people. You’ll never guess who tried to cheer poor Matt up! (See “Smile-a-while II,” 9/25/98.)