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Caveat lector


14 May 1998

A Howler postscript: In which we ask our Nightline viewers: are you going to believe your lyin' eyes? Or do you believe what you hear on the tapes?

Synopsis: Nightline viewers could believe what they pleased when the transcript and the tape didn't match.

Report by Chris Bury
Nightline, ABC, 4/30/98

Listen For Yourself, G.O.P. Leader Says Alison Mitchell, The New York Times, 5/5/98


We know many readers think we're just too tough on the people who run our network news programs--expecting them to use punctuation and all, and expecting them not to mangle basic evidence. But let's see what you think when we go through this story. Again, it's drawn from Nightline's April 30 show about the Hubbell phone calls.

One of the phone calls that Nightline presented was a call between Hubbell and his accountant, John Schaufele, about an apparently trivial billing matter concerning Hillary Clinton. The item has totally dropped from the news as treatment of the Hubbell tapes has unfolded; but Nightline producers apparently heard the first lady's name, and the blood began to race through their veins as if they'd just double-dosed on Viagra.

This also happened to be one of the calls where that naughty crew at the Burton Committee had decided to have some fun with the transcripts. As Alison Mitchell pointed out in The New York Times May 3, the committee had gimmicked up the transcript of this call to make the situation sound worse for the first lady.

You'd almost think that's the sort of thing a network news crew would notice, when they had the actual phone call to listen to, and all. But Nightline, showing a bipartisan flair, decided to play the call both ways. Here's what they did: they ran the actual phone call on the air, using the actual, undoctored tape; and, at the same time, they superimposed the doctored transcript--the one the Burton gang had gimmicked up to mislead!

Seriously, folks, we're not making this up. Nightline viewers heard one phone call, and saw another, as we show directly below. In the phone call, Hubbell is trying to figure out why Mrs. Clinton apparently billed some work for Seth Ward--work that Hubbell had actually been doing:

WHAT VIEWERS HEARD HUBBELL SAY: ...It's highly possible that he (Ward) walked into Hillary's office when I was out of town and said, "I need an option," you know, and got her secretary to pull up the form.

In short: Mrs. Clinton wasn't even involved in the scenario that Hubbell had actually envisioned.

But that isn't what Nightline viewers saw, superimposed on their screens. Here's the transcript viewers saw, direct from that naughty committee:

WHAT VIEWERS SAW HUBBELL SAY: ...It's highly possible that he walked into Hillary's office when I was out of town and said to Hillary, "I need an option," and she had her secretary pull up the form.

You see? For people who were reading the transcript on the screen, Hillary was right in the thick of the action! What a gal!

It's embarrassing enough that the Burton Committee engaged in such ham-handed distortion of evidence. And, given the committee's well-deserved reputation, it's embarassing enough that newspapers printed their transcripts, without comparing them first with the taped record.

But in this case, Nightline actually had the real tape, and even then they didn't fix up the transcript! We really think that sets a new standard for ineptitude in handling these tapes.

Did they fail to notice the transcript didn't match? Or did they notice the mismatch, and just not care? Either way, reader, does it make you feel good, knowing these are the people at the head of the discourse? And do we even have to remind our viewers--that it's all a part of what we do love to call, "Life in this celebrity press corps?"

POSTSCRIPT SQUARED: This is one of those ham-handed doctorings of the Hubbell transcripts of which Sam Donaldson still seems blissfully unaware. For our reviews of Donaldson's This Week efforts, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/4 and 5/11/98.