29 August 1998
Life in this celebrity press corps: Stephanopolous burning
Synopsis: We hadnt watched Chris Matthews lately. Guess what? Things have just gotten worse.
Greetings no one forgets
Chris Matthews, The Washington Times, 8/29/98
George Stephanopolous, Newsweek, 8/31/98
Commentary by Chris Matthews
Hardball, CNBC, 8/21/98
Regular readers of THE HOWLER will well remember the halcyon days of last April and May, when the analysts almost daily would come halloing in with new reports of depredations on Hardball. We rarely knew whether to laugh or cry over the pandering conduct of ring-master Chris Matthews, the two-fisted former-journalist-turned-TV-tabloid-talker, who was making his inventive program theplace to go to watch a celebrity press corps pretty much run amuck.
Well, we gave the analysts a solid month off, as we began to hit the warm summer months, and by the time they returned from their various retreats, we could see a real problem was brewing. Liberated for a month from the nightly chore of watching the talkers creative show, the analysts all grumbled and complained, on return, when wed post them for Hardballassignments! What had once seemed amusing now seemed merely grim, and the analysts insisted they deserved better treatment; what could we still have to prove, theyd complain, about what transpires on the fanciful program? And so, our Hardballcoverage has noticeably dwindled, as our readers must surely have noticed of late--a reflection of the things todays editor must do if he wants to retain expert help.
But today the talker caught our eye with this article in the Washington Times op-ed section. We thought it gave an excellent example of the liberties that talkers will now take with the truth--the liberties theyll take when theyre all lathered up in the effort to prove Clintons A Liar. As readers know, nothing tickles us at THE HOWLER more than talkers-who-lie-to-prove-Clintons-a-liar; nothing so warms our ironists heart, or so sends our sardonic soul soaring. And, though absolutely nothing of consequence ever will turn on the liberties that are taken in todays Matthews piece, we thought wed review it because its errors are so mundane--because it shows how completely routine is the practice, in this press corps, of fibbing-to-bring-down-the-fibber.
Chris is concerned at the start of his piece about the feelings of poor George Stephanopolous:
MATTHEWS: George Stephanopolous says hes still burning from the first time Bill Clinton got him to lie. It was back in 1992 when the then-Arkansas governor was being grilled about his Vietnam draft record.
Its no wonder that George is so upset. Billwas getting grilled; six year later, hesburning! Its so typical of what happens to those noble aides who try to help This Crazy Guy Clinton. And, on Matthews end, its all just a part of the two-fisted prose we used to associate with a guy like Mike Barnicle.
Anyway: Matthews quotes from Stephanopolous current Newsweek piece in which Stephanopolous whines, laments, weeps and cries about how Bill Clinton lied about boffing Monica. You know--instead of running out to the networks and detailing his trysts, the way most sitting presidents enjoy doing? We agree with George that it was reckless and stupid for Clinton to engage in this nitwit affair; but were baffled that George, like so many other pundits, seems to have no idea why hed cover it up. But thats a question well explore later on. (Also, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/20/98.) Back for now to the work of the talker.
Reviewing Georges Newsweek piece, Matthews recounts Stephanopolous discomfort, back in the 1992 campaign, when he was first shown Clintons 1968 draft notice. Stephanopolous had been repeating the candidates claim that hed never received an actual draft order; and George says in Newsweek that it was the worst day of the entire campaign when the draft notice actually surfaced.
Clinton told George that hed forgotten about the notice, when Stephanopolous asked Clinton why hed denied its existence. And heres how Matthews tells his readers what Stephanopolous thought about that:
MATTHEWS: What bothered Mr. Stephanopolous was that Mr. Clinton could so calmly lie, so cold-bloodedly get his people to lie for him.
All of which makes for a pretty good story, if youre the type of person who enjoys playing Hardball. The problem is, it isnt the story George Stephanopolous tells in his piece! Its a pleasing fabrication by a two-fisted talker, the kind that has recently bought journalists a whole lot-o-mess. Heres what George Stephanopolous actually says, in the Newsweek article Matthews claims to be describing:
STEPHANOPOLOUS: I forgot about it, Clinton said...It was a hard story to swallow, and even if it was accurate, reporters would rightly accuse us of dissembling because we hadnt revealed its existence before...Unable to face the world, I stayed in bed that morning...By afternoon, I was back on the front lines. Clinton had told me his story, and I had made a choice to believe himand defend him. Whatever doubts I had were overwhelmed by his word,my own ambition and my belief in our common work. (Our emphasis throughout)
Stephanopolous says nothing that even dimly resembles the talkers two-fisted account. He quite plainly does notsay that he drew the conclusion that Clinton had been lying about the draft notice. While he says he had doubts about Clintons story at first, even then he believed that it mighthave been accurate; and by the next afternoon, he has made a decision to believe the boss, and gets back out on the trail. And, for the record: nowherein the Newsweek piece does he ever conclude that Clinton lied about the draft order. He goes on to discuss Clintons recent behavior, and never returns to the past.
The idea that Stephanopolous, back in 1992, had perceived his boss as a cold-blooded liar; the notion that a troubled Stephanopolous concluded that Clinton had lied to his staff--nothing resembling this appears in the article that Matthews pretends to be describing. The Matthews account is a ginned-up misstatement of what Stephanopolous actually said.
But then, fabrication is pretty much what you get when you tune in to watch the TV-tabloid-talker. A recent, sad episode on his inventive show Hardballneatly illustrates that inescapable, sorry fact.
* * * * * * *
Dateline: Friday evening, August 21. It has now been some two-and-a-half days since the New York Times ran its silly story about how Clinton Was Wagging His Necktie At Monica. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/22/98.) Journalists have now had two full working days to absorb the plain fact that the absurd page-one story was basically fiction--that Clinton could not possibly have been signaling to Monica with his necktie on the day in question. Clinton had not appeared in public on August 6 until he made a TV appearance shortly past noon, and Monica had begun her grand jury gabfest at 8:30 that morning. As youll recall, USA Today explained the story on Thursday, 36 hours before Friday nights Hardball:
USA TODAY: Starrs prosecutors reportedly wanted to know whether Clinton had intended to send Lewinsky a message by wearing [the tie] two weeks ago, on the day she was summoned to testify before the grand jury...Because of Lewinskys early arrival at the courthouse that day, about 8:30 a.m., she could not have seen Clinton wearing the tie on television before she testified.
And unless Bill Clinton is an absolute moron, he could not imaginably have been wagging-the-tie on TV at 12:30, trying to get a Message To Monnie. Except for folks who just liked the story, the story was dead as a dog.
Hardballliked the story. Heres Matthews, talking to body language savant Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, keeping a great tale alive:
MATTHEWS: Jo-Ellan, it seems like there were three pieces of apparel that have made the news this week with regard to the president, first of all this soiled dress which will eventually yield evidence positive or negative of the presidents sexual involvement with Monica Lewinsky, secondly theres the strange story that was in the New York Times the other day of the tie he wore, apparently a tie given to him by the young intern, to signal her in a positive way, one way or another, of solidarity I suppose, some sort of solidarity, and third theres this beret which seems to be the funniest thing in the world because if you saw the movie Wag the Dog,the young teeny-bopper the president in that movie had an affair with and got himself into trouble with wore a beret and...
Well, well spare you the blood-churning ruminations on Wag the Dogsluscious teeny-bopper. (Her beret had not been in the news this week. But on Hardball,its a form of viagra.) But lets take a look at what Matthews said about the discredited Clinton wag-the-tie fable. Thirty-six hours after the responsible press has stopped pretending this event could have possibly happened, its still an unquestioned, lip-smacking fact on CNBCs creative show Hardball:
MATTHEWS (continuing): ...What do you make of these? I guess we could start with the tie. What you do make of a guy who sends signals to a friend in the moment of great crisis through, by sporting a flag?
No sign of doubt, on the creative show Hardball,that the discredited event actually happened. And, in skillful talking-head-fantasist fashion, Dimitrius first protects herself with a nod to the subjunctive; then launches into a flight of fancy about the meaning of what hasnt occurred:
DIMITRIUS: Well, I think if thats an accurate report, that this is not just an affair and I would tend to believe more Monicas story that this was something that was much more of an emotional commitment between the two of them--
MATTHEWS: And they have an entre nousrelationship, in other words, something going on thats still going on--
DIMITRIUS: Right. Absolutely. That it didnt end there and simply because of Ken Starrs persistence theyve had to keep their distance but hes making a very strong signal to her.
MATTHEWS: Fascinating. Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, please come back. Youre watching Hardballon CNBC.
And you probably should go take a shower. This conversation starts with Dimitrius acknowledging that she doesnt know if Matthews premise is true; and elsewhere, in the respectable press corps, the entertaining, silly premise has been dead for two days. But, despite that, she is willing to spin a thigh-rubbing account in which Two Young Lovers (Absolutely!) are being Kept Apart By Persistent Ken Starr; and a tabloid talker (Fascinating!) laps up her inane, sad performance.
We cant stop marveling--Mike Barnicle gets canned over a feel-good cancer story; but a former journalist-turned-TV-tabloid-talker keeps churning out nonsense like this!
Anyway: late last night, we spoke to the analysts, after reviewing this miserable work, and we did have to scold them, gently but insistently, for their recent aversion to sitting through Hardball. We certainly understand why they hate it so much when we force them to watch the creative cable program. People of conscience will be offended every time, when talkers lie-to-prove-public-figures-are-liars. But then, they got into this business to perform public service, and to try to force talkers like this into line. In a world where other talkers are out on the street because they lifted a couple of silly, lame jokes, its their duty, we chided, to sit through the mess that a former journalist likes to call playing hardball.
Postscript--what George said: We do not suggest here that George Stephanopolous defends President Clinton in his piece. He quite plainly expresses distress over Clintons affair, and over Clintons misrepresentations. (Stephanopolous is quite careful throughout his piece, by the way, notto use the naughty word lying.) And, by the way, we happen to share Stephanopolous disgust over the recklessness of the presidents sexual conduct--though were dissatisfied with what we consider the simplistic way he critiques Clintons lying about it. (See DAILY HOWLERS to come.)
But the account Matthews gives of the 92 campaign? Its simply not present in the Stephanopolous piece. And the time has come to hold the celebrity press corps to the standards they demand of their targets. Matthews could have written an interesting column about what Stephanopolous actually did choose to say. He chose to write an easier, plainly false column, putting pleasing accusations into Stephanopolous mouth.
We ask again a simple question. If a guy like Mike Barnicle is out on the street, why does a tabloid talker get to keep doing this?