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1 October 1998

Life in this celebrity press corps: All I (don’t) know is what I (didn’t) read in the papers

Synopsis: Dick Morris admitted he didn’t know what he was talking about. The press corps kept right on pretending.

Commentary by Bill Press
Crossfire, CNN, 9/30/98

Commentary by Chris Matthews
Hardball, CNBC, 9/30/98

Commentary by Keith Olbermann
White House in Crisis, MSNBC, 9/30/98

Publication Of Material From Starr Is Delayed
Susan Schmidt and Juliet Eilperin, The Washington Post, 9/30/98

We’ll have to admit, even we were surprised, when we heard Bill Press pose the question last night, interviewing James Carville on Crossfire:

PRESS: James, I want to ask you about a good friend of yours. According to Republican sources who have seen some of these extra documents that are coming out at the end of the week, Dick Morris testified that the White House maintains an operation known as “secret police”--that’s what they call them--to intimidate women who have had affairs with the president. I mean, do you approve of that kind of operation?

We were surprised to see Press ask Carville the question because of something we’d read in the Washington Post just that morning. We’d gone off as usual for our early bagel, returning to headquarters sometime before eight; but already excited analysts were standing by with a clip from Susan Schmidt and Juliet Eilperin. Schmidt was writing about the new materials the Starr Gang would soon be releasing:

SCHMIDT: [The materials] also highlighted testimony by former Clinton adviser Dick Morris, ousted after his own sex scandal in 1996. Morris confirmed in an interview yesterday that he told the grand jury...that the White House maintains “a secret police operation to go around and intimidate women” linked to Clinton, and he pointed to (Bruce) Lindsey as well as two private investigators as participants in that effort. He said yesterday that his information came principally from news reports, not from any White House source. [Our emphasis]

Over the past few months, Morris’ reports about this “secret police” had floated through the various venues where the oily ex-adviser is still booked to appear; and we now chuckled to see that Morris’ exciting “reports” had been based on things that he’d read in the newspapers.

And we knew just how we’d handle it. We barked out orders to the eager analysts, directing them to gather transcripts of TV appearances in which Morris had made these exciting charges. We could have a littler fun, we craftily thought, with the questioning done by excited hosts, in which Morris was never pressed to explain if he had any first-hand knowledge. (We’ll let you know when we get the transcripts.)

But when you’re dealing with this celebrity press corps, they almost always will go you one better. And, based on what we saw on TV last night, we’d have to say that only Dick Morris, among Washington pundits, seems to be spending much time reading newspapers. Despite the reporting by White House nemesis Schmidt, Morris’ “charges” were all over the networks last night, repeated by excited TV hosts--yep, the very charges he’d apparently admitted he couldn’t much vouch for as fact! And the talkers repeated the charges without giving any warning that Morris apparently had no first-hand knowledge. Viewers never were told of the disclaimer that Morris had now made to Schmidt.

No, folks, it wasn’t just Bill Press. Tabloid talker Chris Matthews led off his show with a teaser about Morris:

MATTHEWS: ...Former Clinton adviser Dick Morris told the grand jury a White House secret police force worked to intimidate women linked to Clinton. As House members work out details for an impeachment inquiry, will new revelations change public perceptions?

And there was Keith Olbermann, with Lanny Davis, also popping the exciting new question:

OLBERMANN: ...I don’t want to try to assess or address Dick Morris’ credibility here. But would he go before a grand jury and make this stuff up out of whole cloth? And if so, why would he do so?

On three major shows, viewers had heard Morris’ charges repeated--had heard it alleged that the White House was running a “secret police force.” And on none of the shows did anyone say it: that Susan Schmidt had reported, just that morning, that Morris claimed no first-hand knowledge of the alleged operation.

We couldn’t help wondering how these three Big Dogs could possibly be so careless. Schmidt has been a major reporter through the course of the Clinton scandals; and one would think that the Washington Post is a fairly well-known news source. Even with our little band of analysts, we were aware of Schmidt’s new report before eight o’clock yesterday morning.

But there were the TV hosts, twelve hours later, proving again the true source of real bliss. Ignorant, or skillfully feigning the same, the three went ahead with the exciting new story. Dick Morris doesn’t know what he’s talking about? Why should that trouble this celebrity press corps?

Did the Three Amigos not know what Schmidt had reported? Or did they know, and simply not care? We, of course, have no way of knowing; but as we watched them spin their casual slander, and spread this latest exciting new tale, we thought again of the simple message we’ve delivered to you so many times in the past. Do you remember? How it’s all just a part of what we do love to call: “Life in this celebrity press corps?”

Read on, Part I: Why should The Amigos have been more careful? See Read on, part I.

Read on, Part II: When it comes to spreading exciting new stories, no one does it better than Chris. See Read on, part II.