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4 November 1998

Life in this celebrity press corps: The celebrity press corps talks back!

Synopsis: Finally! Sally Quinn is fighting back hard, defending the views of the press corps.

Not in Their Back Yard Sally Quinn, The Washington Post, 11/2/98

Finally! That celebrity press corps is fighting back hard, expressing itself on the Bill Clinton Hoo-Hah, thanks to a lengthy article in Monday’s Post by D.C. docent Sally Quinn.

Indeed, we’ve long shaken our heads here at DAILY HOWLER World Headquarters, wondering when the celebs would fight back, just marveling at their self-restraint in the face of the attacks on their judgment.

Well, now the poobahs have spoken up, and explained their view of the whole Clinton matter. Maybe now the smart alecks and nabobs who have nattered and cried will settle down and accept the corps’ outlook!

But we can’t help but notice a few minor problems with the glowing self-critique that the press corps presents. We’re forced to mention a couple of flaws with Quinn’s intriguing exegesis.

Why does the press corps feel so strongly about Clinton? Quinn tells us “the lying offends them.” And believe-you-us, she’s not making this up. The punjabs themselves have all said it’s true:

QUINN: “We have our own set of village rules,” says David Gergen...“Sex did not violate those rules. The deep and searing violation took place when he not only lied to the country, but co-opted his friends and lied to them. This is one on which people choke.”

Even Chris Matthews, of all people on earth, has his shorts in a wad about the president’s lying. “ I resent deeply being constantly lied to,” he says. And David Broder drives home to point to Quinn. “The judgment is harsher in Washington [than out in the country],” he told her. “We don’t like being lied to.”

We do not doubt that most of Quinn’s subjects are sincere in the portrait they offer. But self-knowledge is always the hardest to gain, and the corps may be having some problems. As we have pointed out in recent weeks, the press corps has been exceptionally tolerant of apparent lying, when the apparent lying is done by accusers; the corps has broadly tolerated apparent deception, when deception is coming from them (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/28/98). And we can only chuckle as the talker Matthews tells us how much he hates the lying; Matthews’ Hardball has been a long-simmering cauldron of misinformation, and journalists have repeatedly embarrassed themselves on the show, sitting by mutely as egregious, groaning howlers are sent out over the air. Where’s the hatred of Big Fibbing then? (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/2/98, for a look at what happens when a scribe breaks the rules by correcting misstatements on Hardball.)

But the press corps’ apparent lack of self-knowledge doesn’t end with their views about lying. Quinn also tells us that this whole thing has never much been about sex:

QUINN: For reasons they cannot understand, Washington insiders come across to the public as judgmental puritans, shocked and horrified by the president’s sexual misconduct...[T]hey say this was not what has outraged them. Of all those interviewed, not one mentioned sex or adultery as a matter of concern. “Sex,” said Gergen, “is acceptable as long as it’s discreet.” As [Roger] Wilkins puts it, with a chuckle, “God knows, most people in Washington have led robust sex lives.”

Again, we do not for a minute question Gergen or Wilkins as they speak to this particular question. But the fact that no one mentioned sex to Quinn? It’s a perfect example of why folks roll their eyes at the celebrity press corps itself! If Quinn had watched Matthews critique the Starr Report, for example, she’d have seen him repeatedly urge viewers to read the footnotes, because that’s where the really good stuff could be found. Quinn cites several others who have clucked on the air about the age of Clinton’s amorata; the notion that they were only offended by the lying is simply impossible to credit. But that doesn’t stop the straight-faced Quinn from repeating this part of the tale.

But if the press corps really wants to know why it is sometimes not held in high esteem by the wider public, it ought to read Quinn’s brief, stunning section on independent counsel Kenneth Starr. The press corps, of course, is offended by lying; and Quinn tells us it reveres the presidency itself. But despite the innumerable red flags about Kenneth Starr’s conduct, Quinn’s subjects aren’t worried about him, says Quinn; indeed, Quinn’s piece finally shows us why the corps has gone so easy on Ken. Quinn’s passage follows the one quoted above, about how D.C. folks lead such robust, swingin’ sex lives:

QUINN: Similarly, independent counsel Ken Starr is not seen by many Washington insiders as an out-of-control prudish crusader. Starr is a Washington insider, too. He has lived and worked here for years. He has a reputation as a fair and honest judge. He has many friends in both parties. Their wives are friendly with one another and their children go to the same schools. He is seen as someone who is operating under a legal statute, with a mandate from the attorney general and a three-judge panel, although there are some lawyers here who have questioned some of Starr’s most aggressive tactics.

Stunning, isn’t it, when you hear it straight--when you finally see the press corps’ view? Starr’s wife is friendly with their wives, says Quinn! So of course they’re inclined to trust him! It’s so obvious! How in the world could you harbor doubt, when his kids go to school with your children!! But of course, the very notion that this could shape the press corps’ view of so controversial and important a public figure--this is exactly what makes the wider world roll its eyes at the celebrity press. Quinn seems to explain the lazy approach the celebrity press corps took toward Starr, when he became independent counsel under such shaky and questionable circumstances. (See tomorrow’s treatment of Starr’s appointment, “The press corps investigators.”)

Just for the record, we have said that we think it is perfectly reasonable to believe that President Clinton should leave office. We have said his conduct with Monica Lewinsky was so reckless to be disturbing. We think it is perfectly reasonable to say that a United States president just doesn’t get to behave in the way he has done. We would have no objection if someone spoke up and said they were appalled by the sex.

But we have also said, and we say it again: we think it will eventually take a psychiatric explanation to understand the baffling Clinton Critique--the odd discourse that has gone on, without end, since Gennifer Flowers first showed up in public. We cheered Joe Klein when he finally offered such an explanation in his New Yorker piece September 7. We think it takes an effort like the one Klein makes to explain the strange discourse of the past seven years. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/4/98, for a review of Klein’s approach.)

Quinn’s piece seems to show how hard it can be to get straight talk from the celebrity press corps--to get them to explain their views of the ongoing Clinton mess. They claim to hate lying, but accept it from accusers. They “revere the presidency,” but give a pass to Ken Starr. They talk about sex on the air all the time, but swear to Quinn that it ain’t on their mind. We’re forced to believe: something’s still not explained. The press corps simply those accusers. We’d still like a chance to learn why.

Tomorrow: If the press corps is going to accusers, it has to inquisitors too. Read on tomorrow to see how the corps looked away when Ken Starr was appointed to office.

Read on: If the press corps hates lying, it’s a newly-acquired taste. See Read on, 11/4/98.