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14 April 2000

Our current howler (part III): Review no evil

Synopsis: The Hunting of the President describes astounding misconduct on the part of the press. Lewis knew enough not to tell you.

Conspiracy Theories
Neil Lewis, The New York Times, 4/9/00

The Hunting of the President
Joe Conason and Gene Lyons, St. Martins Press, 2000

Gore Says He's Been Consistent On Elian
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 4/13/00

Goe Tells Students Of His Vietnam Tour
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 4/14/00

Forget the headline on the Lewis review ("Conspiracy Theories"). How do you get that synopsis? Here's the first thing the Times told its readers about Lyons and Conason's book:

NEW YORK TIMES: Two reporters contend the campaign to discredit the Clintons was a plot.

Surely, Lyons and Conason know the common term "plot." They could have used the word had they wanted. But instead, they called what they found a "loose cabal"—and the Times, in its exciting synopsis, improved the news just a wee bit. Do you doubt why the synopsis didn't say this?

POSSIBLE SYNOPSIS: Two reporters contend the actions against the Clintons involved a loose cabal.

That would be what they said—what they literally "contended"—but it wouldn't be exciting or silly enough. Did the word "plot" show up to make the authors seem silly? Or did "plot" turn up to give the tale extra zest? One rarely can say in these matters. But at any rate, two writers who explicitly rejected a key word ("conspiracy") found that word and a surrogate hung around their book's neck. In the Times, the first thing readers were told about this book was something its authors explicitly rejected.

So it goes in this modern age, the one that's about information. And things didn't get a whole lot better once Lewis got into his piece. In paragraph 4 of his Hunting review, Lewis described the authors' central claim. For clarity, we reprint this from yesterday (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/13/00):

LEWIS (4): ...If not quite a conspiracy, they say, they have uncovered a "loose cabal," a "great crusade" hatched years ago in places like the Republican National Committee. It can be said to include Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist (not for his bland role in the impeachment sessions but because he chose the other judges on the panel that selected Kenneth W. Starr as independent counsel) on the one hand and the loopy Clinton-haters who have produced poisonous videos accusing the president of having been involved in drug-running, murder and whatnot in Arkansas on the other.

But they also say, as we've noted before, that the mainstream press was a major part of the story. The press corps, you'll recall, was "credulous" and "dishonest," and produced work that was "error-filled" and "heavily biased," "bestowing 'mainstream' prestige on what was often little more than a poisonous mixture of half-truth and partisan malice."

Are these assertions accurate and insightful? If L & C's book is worth reviewing at all, it's worth reviewing right. This book, like Lyons' Fools for Scandal, makes remarkable assertions about the mainstream press corps—assertions which are never mentioned, not one word, in the course of the Lewis review. And some of these assertions involve Lewis' paper—its handling of the Pillsbury Report, let us say. L & C begin that discussion with an overview of the report:

CONASON AND LYONS (page 199): A moment of truth intruded in the midst of D'Amato's hearings on December 13, 1995 with the release of the second volume of the Resolution Trust Corporation's $3.6 million Pillsbury Report...[T]he San Francisco law firm of Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro was obligated to deliver its conclusions about the Clintons and Whitewater by December 31.

The RTC had commissioned the firm to investigate and report on the Whitewater matter. The authors describe the report's contents:

CONASON AND LYONS (page 199): The firm's findings could hardly have been more favorable to the White House. Based on the Clintons' sworn interrogatories, interviews with forty-five other witnesses, and some two hundred thousand documents, the report concluded that the president and first lady had told the truth about their Whitewater investment: The Clintons were passive investors who were misled about the actual status of the project by Jim McDougal from the start. The report failed to challenge their account on a single substantive point.

The writers quote from the text of the report:

CONASON AND LYONS (page 199): The Pillsbury Report found no evidence that Whitewater's losses had been subsidized by taxpayers in the savings and loan bailout. But even if they were, it concluded, the Clintons were not at fault: "There is no basis to assert that the Clintons knew anything of substance about the McDougals' advances to Whitewater, the source of the funds used to make those advances, or the sources of the funds used to make payments on the bank debt..."

The recitation of the report's text continued. The Clintons had no primary, secondary or derivative liability for misdeeds in the case, the report said. "There is evidence that the McDougals and others may have engaged in intentional misconduct." But "on the evidentiary record," the Pillsbury Report said, there was no sign that the Clintons were liable for that conduct.

Most American adults have never heard of the Pillsbury Report; have no idea what it pertained to or said; and would surely be surprised, more than four years later, to learn of its detailed findings. Lyons and Conason explain why the report is unknown; the press corps buried the info. Are Lyons and Conason mixed-up or delusional? If not, they have quite a story. Here is what their book says:

CONASON AND LYONS (page 200): On December 18, the Wall Street Journal ran a straight, clear summary of [the report's] findings, written by Viveca Novak and Ellen Joan Pollock. But other newspapers with a substantial investment in Whitewater virtually buried news of its contents. The Washington Post stuck a brief mention of the report's existence into a story devoted to the battle over William Kennedy's notes. The New York Times waited until Christmas Eve, then hid Stephen Labaton's perfunctory summary on page 12.

And what did Labaton say in his summary? Conason and Lyons limn it:

CONASON AND LYONS (page 200): Judging by [Labaton's] dismissive tone, no reader could imagine that the Pillsbury Report answered every one of the accusatory rhetorical questions the Times had urged the president and first lady to come clean about for years. Labaton's story ignored the passages pointedly exonerating the ClintonsFor the great majority of the Washington press corps, and thus for their national audience, the Pillsbury Report and the facts and conclusions its authors had painstakingly assembled didn't exist.

Are Lyons and Conason deranged? Incompetent? If not, this is just one of the astonishing episodes contained in The Hunting of the President. (The episode takes up just two pages of a 373-page book.) For the record, this may be one of those familiar-old-stories about which the recumbent Peter Jay bitterly complained, because the burying of the Pillsbury Report also was described in Fools for Scandal, in substantial detail—in 1996! And how did the New York Times explain its odd coverage of the Pillsbury Report, back when Fools for Scandal first described it? What has the press corps come to believe about the report since that time? The answers: The Times didn't explain its conduct at all, and the press corps sent the Pillsbury Report down the memory hole, and never came to any conclusions about a report which it never discussed. In 1996, the Washington Post didn't review Fools for Scandal—didn't acknowledge the book at all—and the Times review scolded Lyons for his rude ideas, without citing a single example, not one, of errors in the books' actual presentations (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/1/99). Along with everything else in Fools for Scandal, Lyons' remarkable account of the Pillsbury Report was completely ignored by the press—swept aside. So it goes when the national discourse is in the hands of a group like our press corps.

As we've mentioned, the Lewis review doesn't mention—not once—this aspect of the L & C book. There isn't a word to let readers know that this sort of episode is described between its covers. What does Lewis have to say when he gives his judgment of this book? On Monday, we'll take a look at that—and we just may emit low, mordant chuckles as we see how the Times conducts business.


Monday: We see how the Times conducts business.

Note—reading assignment: Oh, happenstance! Oh, fortuity! Yesterday, speaking to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, President Clinton made a direct reference to the Pillsbury Report. A reasonably full transcript of the POTUS remarks is in today's Washington Times (boxed transcript, page A6: 'I'm not interested in being pardoned'). On Monday, we'll look at the way our five major newspapers—especially the Times—reported what the president said.

Nine-pound hammer: Thursday morning, we awakened quite early, roused by the sounds of banging and hammering. Our valet nervously stole in with the news—it was Ceci Connolly banging and hammering, trying to make events of the day fit into her templates and scripts. Vice President Gore had opened his mouth about Elian, and Connolly was torturing his words at the Post. Here was her opening salvo:

CONNOLLY (paragraph 1): Vice President Gore reasserted yesterday that his position on the fate of Elian Gonzalez has not changed, prolonging a controversy that has knocked the presumptive Democratic nominee off his campaign agenda.

Savor every one of those words. Only in Connolly's world could this happen—a candidate somehow "prolongs a controversy" by "reasserting that his position has not changed!" Connolly, swinging her nine-pound hammer, banged out the meaningless news:

CONNOLLY (paragraph 2): In a brief campaign question and answer session with newspaper editors, Gore said he has maintained for several months that the Cuban boy's case should be resolved by a family court. More recently, however, he endorsed legislation granting the boy and family members permanent legal resident status. Yesterday he added that perhaps the Gonzalez family could reach an agreement on whether the child remains here or returns to his native Cuba.

That last sentence actually involved the staggering comment Gore had made earlier this week (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/12/00). If the disputants can work out the dispute for themselves, maybe they won't have to take their dispute to the courts! Incredible! It takes a big hammer to make that fit the press corps' templates of "shading" and "controversy." But James Dao had made the meaningless point two days before, and Connolly—now grunting with each mighty swing—was danged if she was going to be cheated.

For connoisseurs, here was Gore, quoted in Connolly's third paragraph. Remember, folks—this is offered as news:

CONNOLLY (paragraph 3): "If the family members can get together without any people from either the United States government or the Cuban government or even the lawyers from either side and just talk among themselves, then it looks to me like both sides are trying to resolve this," Gore said.

If that's quoted accurately—Connolly has a bit of history in that arena—that isn't exactly perfect prose. But the suggestion is so obvious that the Post might as well run an extra edition to report that Bush and Gore ate their breakfast this morning.

Connolly took up six paragraphs of her 13-paragraph story on this exciting prolonged controversy. (In paragraph 7, she found a way to remind her readers that Gore's "childhood home" was "the former Fairfax Hotel." Bang! Wham!!) Meanwhile, here was paragraph 10:

CONNOLLY (10): In his morning address, Gore described what he sees as sharp contrasts with GOP rival George W. Bush. But the newspaper editors were more interested in Cuba, China, Columbine and Clinton.

Yesterday's New York Times devoted a large story to what Gore had said about Bush's policies. But this paragraph was the entire account Post readers got from their correspondent.

We might as well tell you—we received a visit, not much later that morning, from our internationally-acclaimed Task Force on Classical Allusions. They too had been awakened by all the commotion, in the sumptuous halls where he keep them housed and honored, and as the banging continued, an image had come to the greybeards' incomparable minds. And then, of course! The team had it at last! It was Hephaestus whom the scribe's pounding evoked. You know—Hephaestus, the famous crippled Smith, visited by Thetis of the flowing robes, and commissioned to forge Achilles' great shield? We think Professor Fagles has it just about right as the god sets about his deathless labors:

With that he left her there and made for his bellows,
turning them on the fire, commanding, "Work—to work!"
And the bellows, all twenty, blew on the crucibles,
breathing with all degrees of shooting, fiery heat...
Bronze he flung in the blaze, tough, durable bronze
and tin and priceless gold and silver, and then,
planting the huge anvil upon its block, he gripped
its mighty hammer in one hand, the other gripped his tongs.

"There he made the earth and there the sky and the sea and the inexhaustibly blazing sun," Professor Fagles instructs, of the god's great work of invention. Such images fill our greybeards' minds when construction noise won't let them sleep.

Homer: The Illiad
Translated by Professor Fagles, Viking Penguin, 1990


Today's Post-script: From this morning's Post! Yesterday, Gore told a middle school class about his Vietnam service:

CONNOLLY (paragraph 2): Even though he and his parents opposed the war, Gore said he volunteered for the Army because he "thought it was the right thing to do."

(3): Co-teaching Sandy Simpson's history class, Gore described his months as a military journalist but said he could not remember his lottery number. (It was 30, a number that would have guaranteed being drafted had Gore not volunteered.)

We'll let you decide why those last pointless facts are in this morning's paper. What Connolly absent-mindedly forgot to mention: Gore signed up for the army on August 8, 1969. The lottery came in December. When he volunteered, Gore had no way of knowing what his number would be. It's not all that clear what it means to say that he even had a lottery number. Careful readers, though, can read the inferences in Connolly's latest creation.