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19 November 1998

Life in this celebrity press corps: Getting a charge from her work

Synopsis: NBC’s Lisa Myers is always right there to vouch for accusers’ stories.

Commentary by Lisa Myers
The Today Show, NBC, 11/19/98

We have to compliment The Today Show this morning for the way they led their impeachment report. Here’s Ann Curry, at the top of the day’s news, reporting Starr’s visit to Congress:

CURRY: Good morning, everybody. Today, as you just heard, Kenneth Starr testifies before the House Judiciary Committee and for the first time Starr will say that he did not find sufficient evidence to refer charges against the president in the Whitewater case, the firings at the White House travel office, or the alleged misuse of FBI files. But he will accuse the president of trying to obstruct some inquiries, especially the one into his affair with Monica Lewinsky. NBC’s Lisa Myers is in Washington with more on this story.

We have to compliment Curry for leading with the news--that Starr was exonerating Big Bill in several areas. You’d think that when Clinton is exonerated in major probes after years and years of accusation, that would be the news of the day. But the major newspapers led with dog-bites-man. For example, “Starr to Accuse President of Obstructing His Inquiries,” read the headline in the New York Times. The paper was headlining information every reader surely already had. Even the subhead gave the reader no sign that a six-year-long story had ended.

But Lisa Myers just those accusers. Here’s how she followed Curry:

MYERS: Good morning, Ann. In his prepared statement Starr reveals for the first time that he almost sent the House charges against the president a year ago, before anyone ever heard of Monica Lewinsky. The report was drafted. The charge: perjury in the Whitewater investigation. But Starr pulled back, concluding that evidence was not strong enough to justify impeachment proceedings. He makes an impassioned argument that evidence in the Lewinsky matter is. (Myers’ emphases)

First, a simple, obvious point about reporting. According to Myers, Starr “reveals” that he almost sent up charges, but she offers no evidence that this is the case. If she wishes to be accurate, she should be reporting that Starr says that he almost sent charges, which is all that she can vouch for.

But accuracy has long since stopped being the goal of Myers’ reporting; excitement is her stock in trade. Long-time readers will recall the analysts’ horror at her reporting last May on the Hubbell phone tapes (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/3/98 and 5/12/98). And in her Today Show report this morning, Myers faithfully put out the OIC line, right down to the last jot-n-tittle.

The first problem with Myers’ report, again, is that she cannot possibly know it is true. Did Starr come close to a referral on Whitewater? He says he did, but how can she know it? If Starr did come close to a Whitewater referral, was there good evidence against Clinton, or was Starr’s judgment bad? Myers has no way of knowing. But she leaps to commit a cardinal sin, familiar to lap dogs in press corps worldwide: she reports as fact what may simply be spin, willingly broadcasting, without qualification, what may just be a self-serving line.

After all, in the statement Myers parrots, Starr tars Clinton with the image of guilt, although he will be making no referral. In telling the public that he almost referred Clinton, he winks at the public and suggests guilt in a case where he will not even make a charge. He presents himself as a calm, careful guardian, pulling back from a charge when he’s not really sure. And he uses the case to suggest a contrast--to suggest that the present case must really be strong, if a man as judicious as he brings it forward.

Any good journalist would be slow to vouch for a presentation as baldly self-serving as that. But remember, the press corps those accusers. Myers knew just what she should do.

The news here, of course, is what Myers can vouch for: Starr is not bringing charges on Whitewater. At the end of a four-year-long probe of a six-year-long story, one would think that would be major news. But, because it’s the type of news the press corps hates--news that says that someone’s not guilty--Myers subjugates facts, for which she can vouch, to a claim, for which she can offer no proof. Instead of telling us there will be no charges, she reports that there was almost a charge. She can’t possibly know if it’s true, of course, but it’s negative, so Lisa’s gonna say it.

Lisa Myers is a miserable reporter. She proved it again this morning.

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We cringed in May as she doctored those tapes. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/3/98 and 5/12/98.