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22 October 1998

Life in this celebrity press corps: State-of-the-artful dodgers

Synopsis: It wasn’t easy to get straight on the Paula Jones case, thanks to weak work by a pair of top hosts.

Commentary by Katie Couric, Roy Black, Gil Davis
The Today Show, NBC, 10/20/98

Commentary by Keith Olbermann, Lanny Davis, Barbara Olson
White House in Crisis, MSNBC, 10/19/98


Paula Jones got her most recent day in court Tuesday morning, before a panel of judges from the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. She was asking to have her case against President Clinton reinstated; the case, of course, had been thrown out of court by Judge Susan Webber Wright earlier this year.

What issues would the court consider in deciding whether the case should be tried? It wasn’t all that easy to find out this week, due to miserable work by a pair of major moderators.

Defiantly failing to pursue basic points, Katie Couric and Keith Olbermann frustrated viewers. They allowed a pundits to wander far from the point--dooming their programs’ discussions.

On The Today Show, former Jones attorney Gilbert Davis was trying to make a simple point. According to Davis, a recent Supreme Court decision had changed the rules under which the Jones claim would be judged:

DAVIS: ...In the civil rights claims, there’s been some recent Supreme Court decisions, most particularly Burlington v. Ellerth, that would I think justify a remanding of the case for trial...

The Ellerth case had been widely discussed when it was decided earlier this year, specifically because experts claimed it might have an effect on Jones’ case. Couric asked Davis to clarify:

COURIC: Let’s dissect that for a minute, Mr. Davis. Explain how Burlington v. Ellard [sic] is going to help Paula Jones.

It wasn’t a great sign that she got the name of the case wrong, but Davis spelled out his position:

DAVIS: ...[J]udge [Wright] said that [Jones] had to show tangible job loss, and Burlington v. Ellerth I think indicates that that’s not necessarily the case. [Jones] can show the outrageous conduct and there would be some presumed emotional distress which she could testify about, but you don’t have to show any other damages.

Is Davis right, or is Davis wrong? Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t have a clue. Like almost everyone else watching The Today Show on Tuesday, we don’t happen to be legal scholars, and we haven’t studied Ellerth. It ought to be the business of a show like Today to carefully examine Davis’ assertion, but legal pundit Roy Black had a better idea. Asked by Couric about Davis’ claim, Black spoke all around it:

COURIC: All right, Roy Black, what do you think? Does the Jones side have a case legally, in your view?

BLACK: Not at all. Judge Wright wrote a 39-page opinion setting out all the claims, examined all the evidence, sifted through every claim they made and found it was without merit, particularly on the job detriment. She went through everything right down to not receiving flowers on Secretary’s Day in 1992, and found it was totally without merit.

Which of course begs Davis’ question. According to Davis, Judge Wright was operating under old rules, before the Ellerth case changed the standard. Couric failed to challenge Black, and asked two unrelated questions. But when Davis got his next chance to speak, he went right back to his original point:

DAVIS: ...I do think, and I respect Mr. Black’s opinion very greatly, but this court delayed this hearing for the very express purpose to receive the Court’s opinion, of the Supreme Court, in Burlington v. Ellerth. I think it felt that that case, the issues in it, were important and might well justify a review.

Couric gave Black another chance. Black just wasn’t buying:

COURIC: What do you think of that, Roy?

BLACK: Not a chance. I mean the only reason you have a trial is if there’s contested facts. The judge said even if you accept every single fact that Paula Jones says is true, there’s simply no case.

Yep, that’s what she said, all right--under the pre-Ellerth rules! Black again failed to address Davis’ claim, and Couric wandered on to other topics.

The night before, on White House in Crisis, it had been conservative legal pundit Barbara Olson refusing to speak to a Lanny Davis point, and host Keith Olbermann failing to force her to address the issue in question. If you want to relive that frustrating exchange, we invite you to do so (see “Read on,” below); but we take a break now to make a point about the miserable work that was done by these moderators.

We often hear comments about media bias, and we often hear TV personalities, like Couric, criticized for alleged political leanings. But we rarely hear any discussion of the technical incompetence so many TV hosts display. There is no point in discussing the Ellerth case if one pundit will be allowed to evade the matter at hand; and Couric made no effort whatever to force Black to address Davis’ point. It has long been claimed that Ellerth helps Jones, and many viewers were likely wondering whether Davis was right. But they didn’t get much of a chance to find out, given the worthless “debate” that followed.

As we’ve said, on White House in Crisis, the roles were reversed, with a conservative pundit refusing to speak to a point that was raised in support of Clinton; but as with the discussion on The Today Show, the key assertion was never addressed. Couric and Olbermann are both making big bucks to moderate shows with very high profiles. Is there some reason why the networks can’t get themselves hosts who are able to do better than this?

Read on: Keith Olbermann also has a very high tolerance for guests who won’t speak to the point. See “Read on,” 10/22/98.