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22 August 1998

Smile-a-while: De(con)struction derby

Synopsis: Those (de)constructive editors at the Post Outlook section really know how to tear up a text.

Words Chosen for the People, From the People
The editors at Outlook, The Washington Post,8/23/98

Follow The Wording
Jeff Leen and Loraine Adams, The Washington Post,4/26/98

We thought of Mark Twain’s famous lynch mob again when we pondered this effort in Outlook this morning, in which the thoughtful editors provided some insight into the text of Bill’s Monday Night Speech. As we mentioned yesterday, anything goes when this celebrity press corps finally get its hands on a good skein of rope. But, with the hound dogs baying and the prey on the run, and with the mob growing louder every time we look up, Outlook’s effort today brought some comic relief to The Struggle To Bring Down Big Bill.

Under the ironic subheading “Taking Liberties”--and using a format neatly Barnicleized from the pages of Harper’s--the insightful editors reprinted and annotated the text of Big Bill’s Monday Speech. The purpose? To show us how Big Bill’s Big Monday Night Speech was shamelessly, relentlessly poll-driven. The editors highlighted six key phrases from the text of the speech; and then they told us what national polls had previously shown that the given statement from the speech would “work.” It’s all part of the effort by this celebrity lynch mob to prove You Can’t Trust A Thing This Guy Says.

Unfortunately, the deconstruction is a bit hard to buy in the context of Big Bill’s Oration. The speech, it turned out, was a total flop. And why was the speech such a total disaster? Because Clinton quite clearly did notsay the things that everyone wanted to hear. According to pretty much all the reporting, Clinton rejecteddaintily-crafted, politically-correct texts his finger-to-the-wind speechwriters had tried to urge on him. Indeed, almost all the commentary has asserted that Clinton pretty much said what he felt when he decided to rip into Ken Starr in his speech; and it was that lack of discipline--his angry defiance--that was the source of his ultimate problem.

But, when this celebrity lynch mob gets its hands on some rope, all logic goes right out the window. The press corps recycles its own time-tested stories, and makes events fit their long-cherished theories. The press corps long has argued that Insincere Bill can’t even brush his teeth without checking the polls; and that was the familiar, heart-warming refrain served up to Post readers this morning.

One final point, just to state what should be obvious: anyspeech by a public official can be critiqued in the manner employed here. Speeches by public officials inevitablyhave elements with which the public has somewhere been shown to agree. Public officials don’t get those great jobs by going around making statements with which no one agrees. And of course, the fact that the public agrees with what’s in some pol’s speech doesn’t show that the pol doesn’t mean it.

But never mind all that fol-de-rol--at Outlook, they just liked this story. At Outlook, they’re pretty much the way Bill used to be--they’ve got a good story, and they plan to stick to it! Everything Bill Says Just Comes Straight From The Polls, and That’s Why You Can’t Trust A Thing This Guy Says. It’s so simple and satisfying to keep on singing old refrains, even when the facts don’t seem to bear out your fable.

Postscript: How silly can they get at Outlook, when they work up some big Sunday steam deconstructin’? For one of the most embarrassing major articles ever put into print, look back at “Follow The Wording” by Jeff Leen and Lorraine Adams (4/26/98), in which Outlook critiqued the president’s Paula Jones deposition using the brilliant new tool, “content analysis.” Apparently, area sooth-sayers, second-sighters, and ouija board specialists were all working out of town this particular weekend, so the editors decided to fill up their space with this mind-boggling new form of analysis. Just to give you a bit of the flavor, here’s a part of the article where one content analyst had decided Big Bill was being truthful:

LEEN AND ADAMS: In analyzing Clinton’s responses [in the deposition], [content analyst Gerald] Brown found areas in which he felt Clinton was obviously being truthful. One concerned questions about whether Kathleen Willey had given him permission to kiss her and initiate sexual contact. “No, she didn’t,” Clinton responded. Asked if he had sexual relations with her, Clinton’s response was equally terse and committed. “No, I didn’t.” The second area where Brown felt Clinton was obviously truthful was when he was asked if he had paid money to Lewinsky. “No, sir,” Clinton said.

Are you wondering on what possible “analytical” basis Adams could have determnined that these answers were “obviously truthful?” Here ’tis: he thought that these answers were obviously truthful because the answers in question were short:

LEEN AND ADAMS: Analysts consider simple answers to be the most truthful.

As longnovels tend to be boring. There was only one reassuring sentence in this whole crazy mess--the sentence in which the authors wrote:

LEEN AND ADAMS: The findings of content analysis are not admissible in court.

Meanwhile, if you’re anything at all like us, dear friends, you’re wondering why these “findings” are admissible in the Washington Post! But after today’s deconstruction of Big Bill’s Monday Speech, the answer has become all too shockingly clear. Respectfully, it’s all just a part of what we dolove to call: “Life in this celebrity press corps.”