12 August 1999
Our current howler (part IV): Reading problems persist
Synopsis: The pundits finally read the Talk piece. It didnt seem to help.
Commentary by Fred Barnes, Brit Hume, Morton Kondracke
Special Report with Brit Hume, Fox, 8/2/99
The Intimate Hillary
Lucinda Franks, Talk, 9/99
Hillarys Twinkie Defense
Ben Wattenberg and Daniel Wattenberg, The Washington Times, 8/5/99
Commentary by Andrea Mitchell
Meet the Press, NBC, 8/8/99
Commentary by Dee Dee Myers, Robert Woodward
Larry King Live, CNN, 8/2/99
When the Sunday talk shows discussed the Franks piece on August
1, the pundits hadn't yet read the article. They were working
from excerpts that had just appeared in a London Sunday Times
piece. Normal caution would suggest that scribes refrain from
interpreting an article they haven't read. But as we've seen,
pundits offered colorful descriptions of what the First Lady had
supposedly said. The descriptions turned out to be largely inaccurate,
butgiven the press corps' love of Group Thinkingwere soon repeated
by one and all as if martial law had them under its influence.
But even when pundits had read the piece, it didn't
seem to help. The simplest parts of "The Intimate Hillary"
continued to escape comprehension. For example, on Brit Hume's
Special Report of Monday night, August 236 hours after
the story brokeFred Barnes expressed concern about one part of
the article. The conversation that followed displayed a tendency
common now among some punditsthe tendency to joke and clown about
public figures, while baldly misstating what they've said:
BARNES: Look, one of the things I wondered about is, she said
there were ten years in which he was faithful. Now, I don't know
if she meant ten consecutive years, or ten cumulative years, you
know, a year here and a year there [Laughter]
BRIT HUME: Or maybe an hour here [Laughter]
BARNES: An hour there. But there are not ten years. If it's
ten years starting in 1999 back to 1989, well there are plenty
of stories which I think have been verifiedyou know, the woman,
pre-dawn visit of another woman to the governor's mansion just
before he came to Washington...So there was no ten years, which she
had to know.
Barnes' ignorance of the text was striking. Here is the segment
of the piece to which the jesting scribe referred:
FRANKS: "You have to know the real quality of the person,"
[Mrs. Clinton] says thoughtfully. "You have to be alert to
it, vigilant in helping. I thought this was resolved 10 years
ago. I thought he had conquered it, but he didn't go deep enough
or work hard enough."
It's hard to know what could be unclear about that simple segment.
Mrs. Clinton is explicitly referring to the ten-year period
beginning in 1989, a point on which Barnes was uncertain. She
clearly says she thought Clinton's sexual problem was resolved
at that time, but now is aware that it wasn't. Is Mrs.
Clinton speaking candidly here? At THE HOWLER, we have no way
of knowing. But all of Barnes' jesting can't hide a plain fact.
Thirty-six hours into this story, he is completely unfamiliar
with one of the simplest points laid out in Lucinda Franks' piece.
Sadly, Barnes was not alone. Listen to what came next:
MORTON KONDRACKE: Well, she doesn't necessarily have
to have known it, but my guess is that she did know it. I think
HUME: Well, she certainly must know it by now!! [Hume's
Hume also didn't know what Mrs. Clinton had said. In this group,
Kondracke's willingness to offer a guess made him the King of
It's remarkable that pundits would discuss such sensitive matters
without understanding basic points in the text. But this kind
of lazy textual ignorance was commonly seen in the press corps.
In the Talk article, Mrs. Clinton makes one other comment
about a past stretch of fidelity, and it also produced confusion
on the part of major pundits. It happens to be one part of the
article that begs for factual clarification by Franks:
FRANKS (Mrs. Clinton is speaking): "People are mean. I
think it's a real disservice, the way we strip away everybody's
sense of dignity, of privacy. People need support, not disdain.
"And you know we did have a very good stretch," she
adds later, referring to the period after Gennifer
Flowers. "Years and years of nothing."
Did Mrs. Clinton herself refer to "the period after Gennifer
Flowers?" If so, we have some major news, for those concerned
with such matters. President Clinton testified under oath in the
Paula Jones deposition that he had one sexual encounter
with Flowers, in 1977 (not intercourse). If Mrs. Clinton said
something different in these interviews, that would be a Major
Sex Breakthrough. More likely, Franks herself added this bit of
interpretation, embellishing something Mrs. Clinton said, but
it is impossible to tell from the text. But in all the interview
shows on which we saw Franks appear, no one ever asked her to
clarify this point. Meanwhile, various pundits leaped into action,
asserting what the ambiguous passage meant, although they plainly
had no way of knowing:
WATTENBERG/WATTENBERG: Mrs. Clinton now candidly acknowledges
there was an affair with Mrs. Flowers.
The Wattenbergs are reliable anti-Clinton spinners. But other
pundits, on TV shows, were flummoxed by this passage too. Andrea
Mitchell was still unclear on Meet the Press a week later:
MITCHELL: [Mrs. Clinton] refers to what may have happened after
the Gennifer Flowers incident ten years ago. There are all
sorts of implications that there was some therapy back then.
Mitchell suggests that Mrs. Clinton referred to Flowers (highly
unlikely), and conflates the two passages we have quoted above.
Nowhere in the article does Mrs. Clinton, or anyone else, say
that "the Gennifer Flowers incident" ended in 1989.
Franks was sitting beside Mitchell as she spoke, but Mitchell
never asked Franks to clarify what Mrs. Clinton said. Dee Dee
Myers, on Larry King Live, also failed to ask Franks, while
giving this passage a completely different reading:
MYERS: There's some time-line problems. [Mrs. Clinton] said
there was a period after Gennifer Flowers when for ten years she
thought they had no problems. Well, the president said he had
a physical relationship with Gennifer Flowers once, in 1977. So
that leaves a long period of unexplained time. And so I think
there's a lot of contradictions as you go through her quotes about
Myers knows what the president said, but she doesn't know what
is in the Franks article. Mrs. Clinton clearly, explicitly says
the "ten-year period" began in 1989. And Myers also
assumes that Mrs. Clinton mentioned Flowers, which we regard as
highly unlikely. Bob Woodward spoke immediately after Myers, and
he had clearly read the article. But he did obey a basic pundit
lawpundits never call attention to other pundits' errors:
KING (continuing directly): Bob, what questions in your mind
does this article leave loose?
WOODWARD: Well, there's that question, what happened in 1989
that seemed to end this?
Woodward, who knows when the "ten-year period" began,
has contradicted what Myers just said. But no one said a word
about it, or tried to resolve the contradiction, although Franks
was sitting right there on the panel, and could have explained
what Mrs. Clinton really said.
It is truly remarkable that these major commentatorsMitchell;
Myers; Hume; Barneswould go on TV without understanding the simplest
things that this article said. This situation is truly remarkable
for at least a couple of reasons. First, the commentators were
discussing a major public figure, and talking about very sensitive
issues. One would think that a modest sense of professional responsibility
would lead them to read the text carefully.
But the ignorance displayed is especially striking because
the text under review is so short. As we mentioned on Monday,
there are at most ten to twelve paragraphs in this article that
concern the president's family background and sexual history.
In terms of length, one could barely coax an op-ed piece out of
what Franks wrote on the topic. The fact that these commentators
couldn't even be bothered to read thatcouldn't even get straight
on a handful of paragraphsraises a point of professional malfeasance
that simply must be addressed.
Is there any other professional sector where one can imagine
such total incompetence? If engineers conducted their business
like this, there wouldn't be a bridge in this country still standing.
And we're not just complaining about minor technical points. The
pundits' ignorance produced substantive, critical comments about
Mrs. Clinton, wholly based on the commentators' ignorance. Myers,
for example, told Larry King's viewers that there were "timeline
contradictions" in what Mrs. Clinton had said. That is simply,
totally false, based on Myers' ignorance of the article's clear
text. To Barnes and Hume, Mrs. Clinton's basic story doesn't make
sense. That is falseand they plainly haven't read the text either.
Mitchell implies, and the Wattenbergs state, that Mrs. Clinton
has endorsed Gennifer Flowers' claim of an affair lasting through
1989. That is almost surely false, and can't be derived from the
It's hard to find a way to describe the incompetence of this
performance. It's hard to imagine another sector in which conduct
like this could persist. Why is such conduct so routine in this
sphere? We offer a thought on the morrow.
Tomorrow: The word from a scribe's beauty parlor.