27 August 1998
Smile-a-while: For a while, they even had usgoing!
Synopsis: We couldnt help chuckling when a three-scribe panel made us marvel at Ken Starrs reams of evidence.
COVER STORY: Starr report to contain reams of evidence
Judy Keen, Kevin Johnson, and Tom Squitieri, USA Today, 8/26/98
For an hour or so, they really had us going, those enterprising scribes down at USA Today, with their breathless report about the reams of evidence Ken Starr would send along to the Congress. Though we knew that Starrs report to the Congress would be, until proven, just an advocates untested charge; and though we have little real confidence in the Ken Crewes great judgment; the three scribes had us reeling over the sheer mass of evidence Conscientious Ken would be sending to Congress.
Thats why we couldnt help chuckling when we finally stepped back and took a dispassionate look at the three scribes reporting--why we shook our heads in disbelief at the way we had gulped down their line. This page-one report in the nations paper is just a real good example of real bad reporting. Its just empty PR cranked out by the IC, fawningly turned into a big page one story.
What is the theme of the three scribes report? Ken Starr has a mountainof evidence! Hell present reams of evidence, the headline shouts; and the first paragraph tells us hell hold nothing back! The third and fourth paragraphs talk about the mound of evidence and the sheer mass of the information that hell be producing.
By paragraph six, the theme is summed up with a statement from a Ken Starr adviser:
KEEN/JOHNSON/SQUITIERI: If there is a report, People can be assured that it will be done very carefully, says Ronald Rotunda, a University of Illinois law professor who advises Starr on ethics and constitutional law.
No countervailing concerns, from any source, were offered up in the breathless report.
So at first, well admit, we were pretty much reeling, at the sheer weight of evidencethe IC would present! Then reason invaded our ruminations, and a new view of this story held sway.
One of the analysts excitedly shouted, Take a good look at paragraph 2 there, me maties! Curious, we did as he asked:
KEEN/JOHNSON/SQUITIERI: With his report, Starr intends to send to the House of Representatives reels of audiotape, physical evidence, thousands of pages of grand-jury transcripts and Clintons videotaped testimony, people with knowledge of Starrs plans say.
Our minds flashed back to college term papers we had padded with big fat wide margins. Was thisthe evidence the scribes had trumpeted in their excited, page one headline? The notion that Starr would send grand jury transcripts didnt actually seem that surprising to us. Is it really worth a big COVER STORY, with a big screaming headline, to give readers information like that?
The fact is, nothing in the three-scribe-panels posting tells us anything of substance about Ken Starrs report; and nothingin the three-scribe-panels posting supports the clear inference the story suggests. Does Starr have reams of evidence to support his conclusion--that Clinton committed an impeachable offence? Are there reams of evidence to support Ken Starr where the facts are still in dispute? The fact that the transcripts make a really big pile doesnt tell us that much about what the transcripts may mean--but that didnt keep our excitable scribes from engaging in some big image-building.
Yep, it must have been a slow news day indeed when this mess turned into a page one report--when USA Today cranked out a big COVER STORY because Starr would be sending some transcripts to Congress. And we had to chuckle, over here at THE HOWLER, at how badly wed been fooled at the start. Wed read about reams of evidence--a mound of evidence--and how Starr and the Ken Crewe would hold nothing back. We hadnt realized, reading quickly, that all that this meant was that Starr would send transcripts to Congress.
But you know what? We didnt feel all that stupid, when we thought it all through, and we bet lots of others got taken in too. Because whod ever think that such pointless PR would be turned into a big page-one screamer?
Discourse on evidence: Conscientious scribes should be careful indeed when they find themselves talking about evidence. Colloquially, to say that Starr has reams of evidence implies that he has lots of material that establishes his case. But absolutely nothing in the three-scribe report attempts to sustain that conclusion. The inference most readers will draw from this headline is not argued in the panels meager tale.
The crafty scribes get lots mileage out of use of the highly evocative (and ambiguous) term evidence. For example, imagine that the paper had written a headline that simply stated what the scribes report says:
|Starr will send large
piles of transcripts to
Congress with his report
That is, literally, removing spin, what the three-scribe story actually says. Can anyone imagine a page-one COVER STORY announcing a big bunch of hoo-hah like that?