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17 April 2000

Our current howler (part IV): Good example

Synopsis: Neil Lewis’ one example of error is a perfect example—of the way today’s press corps does business.

The President, Right or Wrong
James Bowman, The Washington Post, 3/29/00

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

Ironically, the review of The Hunting of the President that has taken the most flak is James Bowman's effort in the Washington Post. The problem? Bowman writes for the American Spectator, a significant player in the Clinton scandal stories. (Bowman's review also concerned Jeffrey Toobin's recent book, A Vast Conspiracy.) Howard Kurtz did an item in his weekly Post column, questioning the paper's selection of Bowman. Kurtz's challenge was perfectly appropriate, but a bit ironic; Bowman's review at least gives a reasonable picture of what The Hunting of the President is actually about:

BOWMAN (paragraph 1): Both these books have something important to say...Joe Conason and Gene Lyons have a serious point to make about the assumptions underlying the whole enterprise of investigative journalism since Watergate and a kind of uncritical public acceptance they give rise to.

Clearly stating that Hunting concerns the press corps' performance, Bowman went on to say this:

BOWMAN (1, continuing directly): If even a fraction of the allegations against President Clinton laboriously charted by Conason and Lyons are indeed as false and fanciful as they are represented as being here, then there is powerful evidence that the siren song of a possible "cover-up" enticed a great many journalists, politicians and others into error.

Bowman clearly knows what several others seem not to—that The Hunting of the President critiques major journalists.

There are obvious problems with Bowman's review, however. To start with, Bowman cleans up the charges a bit; he talks about journalists being "duped" and led into "error;" Conason and Lyons make it clear that they allege not just error, but outright dishonesty as well. And Bowman has other failings. He never explains how vast the alleged "errors" are; doesn't try to say if Lyons and Conason's analyses are accurate; and makes minor criticisms of minor points, again failing to convey the degree of wrong-doing that the authors actually describe. Like some other reviewers, he is drawn ineluctably to a pleasing old chestnut—maybe Conason and Lyons are, "in their own way, just as duped as those they expose." Bowman can tell that the authors are "unashamedly partisan," because their use of the word "destroy" in the book's title "proclaims an adherence to the Clintons' cause." (So too does Toobin's use of the word "conspiracy." You can judge a book by its cover.)

In this and several other ways, Bowman's review is a bit underwhelming—except when compared with Lewis' much more influential review in the Sunday Times. As we discussed on Friday, Lewis' readers are never told what this book is even about (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/14/00). The Hunting of the President is full of episodes of press error and misconduct like the one we described Friday, in which—according to Conason and Lyons—the mainstream press chose not to convey the contents of the Pillsbury Report. But Lewis' readers have no way of knowing that claims like this are made in the book. As we noted last week, Lewis does tell readers, in his third paragraph, that Lyons' previous book, Fools for Scandal, said that reporters had been "gulled," and had acted "dishonestly," in coverage of "the Whitewater real estate venture." But there isn't a word—nada; none; nil—to tell readers that Hunting makes similar charges. Readers surely have no way to know the seriousness of the book's allegations.

Indeed, Lewis' attempt to evaluate Hunting borders on outright parody. In it, the intellectual buffoonism of today's New York Times is put on full public display. As we noted last Friday, Lewis starts his critique, in paragraph 2, with a nugget assertion; The Hunting of the President is "essentially a brief in support of Hillary Clinton's assertion," Lewis says. Unfortunately, in paragraph one he has listed three such assertions, and we have no way of knowing which one he now means. Could a high school student pass in writing like this? One prays he'd get it back, with red markings.

But so it goes when today's New York Times attempts to lay out an argument. In paragraphs 4 and 5, Lewis offers his second appraisal of the authors' case:

LEWIS (paragraph 4): If not quite a conspiracy, [the authors] say they have uncovered a "loose cabal," a "great crusade" hatched years ago in places like the Republican National Committee...

(5): It would seem that the authors' minimal task, after having propounded such a striking theory, is to make it plausible. It would be hard to overstate this: they do not succeed. But there will be readers who will savor this book nonetheless. Conason and Lyons are correct that there are people who dislike the Clintons so much they will believe anything negative about them on the flimsiest of evidence. There are also Clinton supporters who will accept any theory to absolve them no matter how unsupported...

Welcome to the world of misdirection, a staple of modern journalism. Having said that the authors do not make their case, Lewis immediately begins explaining away those who will say something different. He does this before offering any evidence that what he has said is actually right. The abiding love of ad hominem argument is almost instinctive with some modern scribes; Lewis still has not offered any evidence to support his claims about C & L's abject failure. Lewis goes on, in the rest of this paragraph, to say that the book not only "does not succeed on its own terms," but is also laboriously written.

At this point, our analysts were growing restive, asking themselves, "Where's the beef?" More than halfway through his review, Lewis had offered several stinging claims, but still had offered no argument or evidence to show us that his claims might be true. But, just as rebellion began sweeping the ranks, Lewis finally accepted his burden. The analysts leaned forward, expectant:

LEWIS (6): Besides being tedious, the authors are sometime brazen in their efforts to be generous. One example should suffice...

We'll admit that we were a bit surprised by Lewis' statement of purpose. One example was supposed to suffice? That's all we would need? One example? Evaluating a 373-page book, Lewis tells us that one example of error will suffice to show us how "brazen" the authors had been. It had better be a darn good example, the analysts now were openly muttering. Starved for evidence, they fell on each word as Lewis began-and-ended his case:

LEWIS (continuing directly): Hillary Clinton had been criticized for her ambiguous answers about her work as a Little Rock lawyer for the savings and loan associations run by the Clintons' partner in Whitewater. She had said that the account had been brought in by an associate, Richard Massey, who also did almost all of the work. Massey was called before the Senate Whitewater committee by Senator Alfonse M. D'Amato of New York amid press speculation that his testimony could be damaging. The authors write: "All such expectations were dashed when the first lady's soft-spoken, balding former partner Rick Massey appeared before the D'Amato committee on Jan. 11. Not only did Massey fail to contradict Hillary's testimony; any tighter fit between their recollections would have been suspect." This is an astonishingly misleading account. Massey did, in fact, contradict her on the most important points of her story, although he took great care to do it gently.

No doubt you will think that, at this point, Lewis showed us how Massey contradicted Mrs. Clinton. You'd almost think he would quote the words where FLOTUS was flummoxed by Rick. But that is the end of the Lewis "example"—he provides no text to show that his claim is correct. You have just read Lewis' full "example" of error in the two authors' work.

Readers, we think this "example" is a good example of the outlook of our celebrity press corps. What is Lewis telling his readers? It's wrong because I say that it is! Listen up! There is no evidence provided—no evidence; none—that Massey ever contradicted Mrs. Clinton. And this is the "one example" Lewis tells us will somehow "suffice" for rejecting this book.

But as it turns out, this example is a perfect example—of what's wrong with today's New York Times. As any reader can see, Hunting quotes Massey in some detail on both of the points Lewis raises. According to Lewis, Mrs. Clinton had said two things. She had said "that [1] the account had been brought in by...Massey, who [2] also did almost all of the work." Let's start out with that second point. Did Massey contradict the first lady on that? Who did Massey actually say had done "almost all of the work?"

CONASON AND LYONS (page 206): As to who had done all the work on the preferred stock matter, Massey was unequivocal. Based upon his review of the billing records, he told Senator Connie Mack of Florida that "these were primarily one-man jobs, and I did primarily all of the writing, drafting, research, and so forth. Mrs. Clinton had a role in these matters. I view it as a supervisory role. In terms of who was in the trenches and doing the work, Senator, it was me."

If that is "contradicting Mrs. Clinton, but taking great care to do it gently," Alan Alda has just gone out of business. No one has ever been quite so gentle. Meanwhile, Conason and Lyons also quote Massey's testimony as to who had "brought in the account:"

CONASON AND LYONS (page 206): As a twenty-six-year-old associate at the Rose Law Firm, Massey said, he had taught a night course in securities law at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock. Among those enrolled was a Madison Guaranty officer named John Latham, whom Massey had known in college. During the semester, Latham began staying after class to ask Massey's advice about raising new capital for the thrift.

"I should say for the record," Massey testified, "that I asked him to lunch one day and I pitched the business, asked for their work. They were a growing S&L. We liked working for companies like that, so I pitched the work...I think the pitch was basically, 'Gee, you're asking me all these questions. Why don't you hire us and put us to work on these things?" (Lyons and Conason's deletion)

Conason and Lyons quote Massey seeming to agree with Mrs. Clinton on both of Lewis' points.

Are Conason and Lyons ultimately right in their interpretation of Massey's overall testimony? We offer no judgment on that. But understand: To Lewis, this is the one example from a 373-page book that is supposed to show how "brazen" its authors have been! The one example—"astonishingly misleading"—that is supposed to show how hopelessly the authors have strayed! Are you struck by the oddness of this, as we were—the idea that this is the point where the book just breaks down? That this is the place where Lewis threw up his hands at the brazen way the authors spun fact?

As we've said, this review could not stand in a middle-rank high school; starting from its haplessly ambiguous paragraph 2, it is a perfect case study of the slapstick standards of the modern celebrity press corps. But this is the outcome of the Code of Silence, in which the press will not comment on the press. Protected by the Code of Silence—knowing their work will never be criticized—scribes like Lewis have long since learned they can produce any mess that they like. They can say what they please—they can "argue" at will—because they know their hopelessly compromised peers will never (it's the law) contradict them. Will not do it! And when two writers do—call them Lyons and Conason—their work will be presented as it's been presented here. The headline and synopsis will introduce terms the authors have explicitly rejected. A hopelessly ambiguous opening passage will suggest their support of that explicitly rejected theme. The author will present ad hominem argument explaining away those who disagree with him. And when he finally gives one example of error, he simply tells us the authors are wrong; provides no evidence supporting his claim; and fails to explain (or mention) the detailed contrary evidence which the authors provide in their book.

Lewis' "one example" is a perfect example—of the way today's press corps does business. But there is one final point we ought to make about the Lewis review. We have mentioned throughout that Lewis' readers aren't ever told what this book is about. Lewis' readers never are told that Hunting attacks the mainstream press corps. But let's get a bit more specific about that: New York Times readers weren't ever told that this book is about the New York Times itself! Bowman self-identified in his Post review; he appropriately said that his employer, the American Spectator, is a significant player in Hunting. Lewis, by contrast, makes no such statement. Lewis' readers never are told that the book concerns the great Times itself.

In this failure to say this, Lewis behaves exactly as Conason and Lyons describe in Hunting. You may remember the passage, from that well-thumbed preface, where they describe the press corps' conduct throughout the scandal era:

CONASON AND LYONS (page xv): [This] is also the story of important journalists and news organizations succumbing to scandal fever...Some conducted themselves as if their mission were less to inform the public than to guard their institutional prestige by protecting their own erroneous reporting from correction.

The Hunting of the President accuses the Times of misconduct and error all throughout the Clinton scandals. Lewis' readers are never told that. It's a good, if somewhat brazen, example of what Conason and Lyons had said.


Tomorrow: Glossing Clinton.

For amusement purposes only: Lyons and Conason have both cited the way their book addresses the points in the Lewis "example." (Lyons in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Conason in the New York Observer.) But wait! For amusement purposes, it gets even better. The original Times report of Massey's testimony appeared on January 12, 1996. According to The Hunting of the President, the Stephen Labaton article failed to convey the degree to which Massey corroborated Mrs. Clinton. But don't take Lyons and Conason's word for it. The next day, the Times ran an "Editor's Note." Conason and Lyons quote it:

CONASON AND LYONS (page 208): On the evening of Massey's testimony, Nightline aired key portions that made its real import clear...Ted Koppel made a point of emphasizing that few, if any, of Senator D'Amato's dire predictions had turned out to be accurate. On Saturday, January 13, the New York Times ran an "Editor's Note" stipulating that Stephen Labaton's story on Massey's testimony "should have included testimony that seemed to support" Hillary Clinton—a halting clarification, but a clarification all the same.

In short, the "Editor's Note" said that the paper's coverage left out information supporting the first lady.

Let's see, now. According to Conason and Lyons, the Times buries evidence supporting the Clintons. And what is Lewis' one example of how "brazen" the authors have been? In his one example, New York Times editors said that the Times buried evidence supporting the Clintons. Lyons asked in his Democrat-Gazette column, "Can't these guys get anything right?" The answer is yes, we think they could. But when you have a Code of Silence, the truth is, you don't have to bother.