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18 May 1998

Our current howler: In which we summarize the Hubbell brou-haha

Synopsis: It's time to move on to other stories. But first, we summarize the embarrassing mess that was the coverage of the Webb Hubbell tapes.

What a time for a bout of illness! We were just at the point where we wanted to move on from the embarrassing matter of the Hubbell tape coverage, when a vicious flu swept DAILY HOWLER World Headquarters and laid our vaunted analysts low. We want to move on to other stories--we've been mightily amused by executive privilege coverage--but first, an overview of the embarrassing, egregious work that was done on the Hubbell tapes.

The tapes were released on April 30; they were first covered by Nightline on that evening, and by all major papers the next day. The errors in coverage were universal, and disgraceful. Here's a brief summary of the carnage--a brief look at what the press corps did:

  1. They rushed doctored evidence into print. Handed edited transcripts of the Hubbell phone calls by a House committee with a reputation for loopy partisanship, the press corps did exactly what you knew they'd do--they rushed the transcripts into print without checking them against the tapes first. It has become fairly clear now that, had they wanted to do so, journalists could have compared the Burton transcripts with the unedited tapes. In a uniform display of inexcusably bad judgment, the press corps sacrificed accuracy for speed. They rushed bogus transcripts into print--systematically misinforming their readers.

  2. They drew worthless conclusions about what the tapes "meant." The Hubbell tapes were cryptic and murky. (Private conversations between intimates are always like this.) It was often hard to tell exactly what was being discussed. The Hubbells made references that they understood, but were almost completely unclear to outsiders. Careful analysts would proceed with a great deal of caution before making deductions about evidence like this.

    But the press corps leaped to endless conclusions about what the conversations on the Hubbell tapes meant--conclusions that were rarely supported by the documentary evidence. When Hubbell implied he had "rolled over" before, what exactly did he mean by that? To what previous behavior did the remark refer? Did this mean he had done something inappropriate in the past for the Clintons? There was absolutely no way to tell from the tapes, but the press corps drew the darkest conclusions--about remarks whose actual, verifiable meaning was essentially impossible to determine.

  3. They ignored exculpatory material. Mrs. Hubbell told Hubbell on March 25, 1996 that she thought her job was being threatened. The remark was repeated again and again. Marsha Scott denied this to Hubbell, the very same day. Guess what? Her explanation was completely ignored.

  4. They doctored up the unedited tapes. The networks played edited segments of the tapes on the air--segments that sometimes egregiously altered the meaning of the phone calls. Inexcusably, the networks virtually never indicated to viewers that the tapes had been edited at all--used no ellipses or other indications of where editing had occurred. These are technical requirements that high school students understand. The press corps uniformly ignored them.

Doctored-up evidence rushed into print, accompanied by endless faulty deductions? There it was, for all to see, in the coverage of the Hubbell phone calls. The endless presumption of some sort of guilt, helped along by doctored evidence--it's all a part of what we're sadly forced to call: "Life in this celebrity press corps."