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28 December 1998

Life in this celebrity press corps: Maintaining scribal purity

Synopsis: CelebCorps wants to shun Larry Flynt. Sic semper with elites who hold power.

Commentary by David Broder, Ken Bode, Linda Greenhouse
Washington Week in Review, PBS, 12/25/98

Like a skunk at Sally Quinn’s New Year’s Eve fete, a second Vile Being had crawled into view. And the pundit dean had put out the word that Ben Bradlee was mightily worried:

BODE: David, you told me the other day that Ben Bradlee of Watergate fame said, “How can we keep Larry Flynt from defining our standards in journalism?” [Our emphasis]

And apparently, it wasn’t just Bradlee who was all out of sorts. Linda Greenhouse chimed in a bit later:

GREENHOUSE: You know, Ken, it seems to me that there’s two issues. One is the one that we’re talking about, which is what, the extent to which the press, the mainstream press, is going to become an enabler of Larry Flynt, allowing him to set the agenda...

Broder had shown the same concern in his response to Bode’s question:

BRODER: My old boss stopped by...and he is clearly worried about the way in which the mainstream press, of which we are all a part, are now having our agenda set by what I’d have to say is kind of the bottom-feeders in our business. Hustler magazine, a fairly pornographic magazine, publisher Larry Flynt said, “Frankly, I’m going to continue to expose these Republicans until they let up on the president because I think they’re a bunch of hypocrites...”

Phew! The pundits really were in a tight spot. By some process they couldn’t quite seem to explain, they were under control of the Vile!

The trouble is, it’s a little bit hard to limn the concern of the pundits. What exactly is it about Flynt that has them in such a blue funk? You’d almost think Flynt had shot his way into their newsrooms, and was forcing scribes to write what he said. The truth is: no one is going to force mainstream papers to report the vile things Flynt is saying.

No, the reason why papers are covering Flynt is because what Flynt has reported is newsworthy. Flynt’s reporting about Rep. Livingston was accurate, and sadly, it was relevant to a seven-year discourse. Flynt didn’t think some Republicans were being hypocritical; he showed they were, with accurate reporting. And if the white-shoes press doesn’t think that it matters; it the white-shoes press doesn’t think that it’s relevant; then nothing that Larry Flynt says or does is going to make them report it.

But compare the reporting that Larry Flynt did to current work being done by CelebCorps. CelebCorps still won’t tell its readers how House Repubs made up their minds on impeachment. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/20/98. We’ll revisit this topic this week.) CelebCorps is peddling unsubstantiated claims that Flynt is in league with the White House. (See tomorrow’s DAILY HOWLER.) And CelebCorps’ work on the seven-year sex chase? It’s been a total embarrassment from beginning to end--a virtual textbook of how not to conduct mainstream press discourse. To wit:

When Gennifer Flowers published her articles in the Star, they were riddled with factual howlers. It is still not clear what may/may not have occurred between Flowers and Governor Clinton. But it is abundantly clear that Flowers’ entertaining tales may have been invented by the shapely chanteuse.

CelebCorps’ response to the Flowers howlers set its standard for the next seven years. Did CelebCorps carefully examine the credibility of someone who was making serious charges against a White House contender? Did CelebCorps jealously guard the discourse against these paid-for tales? No, CelebCorps threw the obvious problems with Flowers’ charges right down a convenient memory hole. And, all through 1998, major pundits assured us, again and again, that “we now know that Flowers was telling the truth.” CelebCorps “knew” no such thing at all. But it completed a preordained story. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/28/98 and 10/29/98, for a partial critique for the embarrassing process by which CelebCorps endorsed Genny Flowers.)

Meanwhile, CelebCorps’ treatment of Kathleen Willey continues to be a an embarrassment. Linda Tripp’s detailed grand jury testimony--released by the OIC on October 2--severely contradicted Willey’s Sixty Minutes charges. Along with other evidence about Willey’s conduct, Tripp’s testimony suggested the possibility that Willey had concocted her charge of assault.

But, because the press corps accusers, Tripp’s testimony found a memory hole also. Although Willey’s charges are still widely bruited as providing a reason for Clinton’s removal, CelebCorps refuses to tell the public the things that Linda Tripp said. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, dates listed below, for details on this story.)

Sorry, pundits. By contrast with the work of CelebCorps, Larry Flynt is a beacon of light. And if CelebCorps don’t want to report what Flynt said, no one is going to make them. But they will report what Flynt has said, because what he said was true, and what he said was relevant. And they’ll continue to belly-ache about what Flynt has done. Sic semper with elites who hold power.

Larry Flynt is now driving the press corps’ agenda? Ten years ago, it would have seemed vile. But guess what, pundits? We hate to tell you. It’s not clear that he’s not an improvement.

Visit our incomparable archives: Click here for a listing of HOWLER articles about the Willey matter.

We repeat: We think, in general, it’s a bad idea to judge public figures by alleged private conduct. But we also think that, if a standard is going to be held up for one, it ought to be held up for all. Clinton has been chased around for seven years on the basis of alleged sex conduct. To us, it’s inconceivable: that the Clinton chase could last seven years, but it’s an outrage to chase after others.

Broder broadens our ken: To his credit, David Broder did say the problem began before Larry Flynt:

BRODER: The critical thing, I think, is what’s happened in our business, that we’ve decided that we’re somehow going to let money, paid-for interviews--this goes back, as you know, to Paula Corbin Jones, where all of this first began.

BODE: I think you mean Gennifer Flowers.

BRODER: Gennifer Flowers, forgive me.

But the problem is not simply money. Flynt’s paid-for stories were true. And Flowers’ paid-for stories--which may well have been false--were winked at, then certified by the press corps. The press corps those paid-for tales, as long as they vilify Bill.

Our advice to Broder is simple--report the story you’re dealt. For example, go back, even now, and explore the facts about Ms. Flowers’ story. The way to keep “bottom-feeders” from seizing the discourse is to punish them--expose them--when they say what’s untrue. There’s been no real effort to evaluate Flowers and Willey. It’s time to go do the work.