The 21-year-old intern (and other urban legends)
Synopsis: From the "21-year-old-intern" to internal combustion, the press corps makes stories more exciting or pleasing. "Liberal bias" isn't always the key. Five examples from recent reporting.
(Four anecdotes follow the text. For links to past reporting, see postscript.)
WE ALL HEARD IT SAID AGAIN AND AGAIN, over the course of impeachment year. Here is Mark Shields, the Washington Post columnist, writing on December 29, 1998, eleven months after his paper first reported President Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky:
In his three public statements since admitting to an "inappropriate relationship" with a 21-year-old White House intern, President Clinton has revealed a political tin ear.
And here is Mary McGrory, the Washington Post columnist, writing in the very same month:
Others involved in the scandal have done stupid things, including the president, who in the middle of fighting a court case on sexual harassment, embarked on an affair with a 21-year-old intern.
That "21-year-old-intern" was a constant presence in newspapers over the impeachment yearroutinely cited as a marker of President Clinton's inappropriate conduct. She was cited by Republican counsel David Schippers as he addressed the House Judiciary Committee, asking them to impeach the president. She was cited by Rep. Jim Rogan (R-CA) as he asked the Senate to remove Clinton from office. Her tender age was cited by Kenneth Starr at the start of the Starr Report. She was a constant presence in the nation's papers, on news and opinion pages.
But the fact is, Monica Lewinsky celebrated her 22nd birthday on July 23, 1995; when her relationship with Bill Clinton began the following November, she was almost 22 and a half! That "21-year-old intern" was a year-long invention, a myth created by savvy spinnersand repeated by the obedient press corps over the course of the next thirteen months.
Obviously, it doesn't really matter if President Clinton's partner was 21 or 22 when their affair began. But it mattered enough for determined ideologues to misstate the truth for a year. It just sounded so good to say "21" that they were willing to add a small fib to their story. And the Washington press corps, playing along, displayed what is becoming its most striking characteristicits willingness to improve on the news with a lie, and its fondness for getting itself spun.
That's right. For thirteen months, reporting the biggest political story of the decade, the Washington press corps misstated Lewinsky's agein a story where her age was constantly cited as relevant.
I don't know when the press corps decided it was OK to novelize newsto improve the facts of news stories a bit, to make them more exciting or pleasing. But it is now a routine part of press conduct, often in stories that do matter a great deal. Routinely, the Washington press corps improves the newsmakes stories more exciting by rearranging basic facts. The practice is rotting our national news coverageour very ability to conduct a public discourse.
VISIT, IF YOU WILL, WITH VICE PRESIDENT GORE, just after the Clinton impeachment was over. On March 16, 1999, David Yepsen of the Des Moines Register published his account of an interview with Gore, in which Yepsen asked Gore to detail his life experiences outside the Washington context. Gore named a variety of experienceshis service in Vietnam; his seven years as a Tennessee journalistand then described his youthful experiences on his family's Tennessee farm.
Almost immediately, the Washington press corps spilled over with news of the Gore farm chores "gaffe." Dozens and dozens of columns appeared, discussing Gore's alleged deception. While different writers explained the gaffe different ways, Donald Lambro of the Washington Times put the basic spin right out front. "We saw the deeply dishonest side of Al Gore," he wrote, when Gore "told farmers how he had hosed hog waste and plowed 'steep hillsides' with a team of mules in the hills of Tennessee." Like a parade of other writers, Lambro told readers that Gore had actually grown up in a fancy Washington hotel, not on some farm in Tennessee.
The notion that Gore had lied or embellished became conventional wisdom within the press corps. This notion was repeated, again and again, all through the national press. Bruce Morton did a scathing profile on CNN's "Inside Politics." The conservative journal The Weekly Standard attacked Gore's comments in several editorials. The Washington Post published a scathing parody, "Farmer Al," by columnist Michael Kelly. According to Michael Medved in USA Today, Gore's "fanciful recollections of a rustic boyhood" showed he had a "delusional view of himself."
For months, reference to the "farm chores gaffe" was a standard part of Gore campaign coveragecoverage that almost always attacked or impugned the vice president's honesty and integrity.
It all made for exciting, entertaining press coverageand for an assault on the national discourse. The fact is, no one dimly familiar with Gore's life history would have been surprised by what he told Yepsen that day. In fact, over the previous dozen years, the Washington press corps had written a host of Gore profiles, almost all of which described the very same farm chores they now derided. Gore had worked on his family's farm every summer, the profiles said, because Gore's father wanted to teach him the value of work. Here is Gail Sheehy, in Vanity Fair (March 1988), with a sample of what had been written:
[T]he senator was not going to have his son alienated from his southern heritage, either. "Mr. Gore always had him to get up early just like the farmhands," says Mattie Lucy Payne, who works for the Gores. Al Senior laid down the law: "I'm not going to have a boy who lays up in the bed!" Steve Armistead, a boy from a poor holler up the road, became young Al's best friend. "He didn't have any privileges," recalls Armistead, who spent many a twelve-hour day hoeing and weeding the Gores' tobacco fields right beside their son. "I guess I was a little severe," reflects Albert senior today, "but I didn't want my son to have the easy tasks."
Repeatedly, Washington writers had described this part of Gore's life in major publications. Andadding to the press corps' disgracejust as the farm chores flap was heating up this past March, former ABC correspondent Bob Zelnick published his biography of the vice president, Gore: A political life. The book was published by the conservative Regnery press, and Zelnick criticized many aspects of Gore's career. But in the early chapter describing Gore's childhood, Zelnick described the farm chores in detail. One example:
Al, Sr., raised his son on stories about the hard-scrabble years of his own youth...Young Al would spend long weekends, summers, holidays, and his entire seventh year on the Carthage [Tenn.] property. The senior Gore said it would build his character to live with the plain people who raised crops and livestock...And there was always a special summer-long assignment.
Rememberthis widely-discussed book was published and reviewed in March 1999, just as the chores flap was getting started. The material quoted is from Chapter Twothe least assiduous reader would have seen it. But RNC chairman Jim Nicholson was sending out daily faxes, saying that Gore had lied about the choresand the Washington press corps ran to their desks, and typed up the new, improved story.
Make no mistakeno one ever argued that the long-established facts had actually been wrong or misleading. To my knowledge, no one writing about the farm chores this year ever mentioned the previous profiles. The press corps threw its previous work down the memory hole, and chose to ignore what Zelnick published. As in the case of the 21-year-old intern, the press corps showcased an important new truth: the simplest facts may well disappear in the search for a more pleasing story.
SUCH EPISODES CONTRADICT ALMOST EVERYTHING we think we know about the Washington press corps. Civics textbooks long have told us that a hard-working press corps labors mightily to describe our public institutions. And conservatives have argued that, when the press corps fails, it does so due to "liberal bias."
But over the course of his two terms in office, President Clinton plainly lost the respect of the Washington press corps. The Lewinsky matter cemented a judgment about Clinton's character that had been developing for some time in the press. And, as the press corps came to feel that Clinton had mistreated his office, it apparently came to feel it could simply invent stories about him and his principal associates.
Because sometimes the press corps doesn't just improve news. Sometimes it makes the news up. Take the case of Sidney Blumenthal. The White House aide became a controversial figure during the year of impeachment. On November 15, 1998, the New York Post published a story in which Ronald Rotunda, a Ken Starr associate, made a remarkable set of charges. According to Rotunda, Blumenthal had lied to the press corps the previous February about his questioning before Starr's grand jury. Here is a four-paragraph sample of Brian Blomquist's Post article, reporting Rotunda's charges:
"You remember last February, Blumenthal came out of the grand-jury room and announced how he was mortified and felt dirty because he'd been asked [by the investigators] who in the press he had been contacting," Rotunda said.
Over the course of the next several months, the two-part charge was widely repeated, now stated as fact. According to repeated press accounts, Blumenthal had lied when he said he'd been asked about his White House press contacts. And the grand jury forewoman had been so upset, she scolded him at his next appearance. For example, ten weeks after the New York Post story, the Wall Street Journal said this in an editorial (2/3/99):
[E]veryone, and most of all the press talking to [Blumenthal], should remember his performance when he emerged from the Starr grand jury last February. He charged that prosecutors had "demanded to know what I told reporters and what reporters had said to me." Mr. Blumenthal lied about that line of questioning, and the press fell for it.
Later that day, on MSNBC's Watch It, Laura Ingraham made the same presentation. After running tape of Blumenthal's statement on the courthouse steps, Ingraham said this:
I seem to remember, on our network and others, people saying, "Oh, how could Ken Starr, how could Ken Starr, be actually asking questions about contacts with the media? That intrudes on the First Amendment rights of reporters." Well, it turns out that actually didn't happen.
The charges were repeated that same night on Special Report with Brit Hume, on the Fox News Channel. Here is the transcript as Hume, Fred Barnes, and Mara Liasson go on about Blumenthal's alleged lying:
BARNES: We know Sidney is willing to lie. Remember when he testified before the grand jury he came out, spoke to television cameras in public, and lied about what he'd been asked about.
The original charges were recited perfectly. Insult was added to significant injury in the March 1 issue of The Nation. Christopher Hitchens savaged Blumenthal for his statement about the questioning, saying Blumenthal had "falsified his testimony."
There was only one problem with these widely-repeated charges. A review of Blumenthal's grand jury transcripts reveals they are totally false. At his February 26 appearance before the Starr jury, Blumenthal was asked, again and again, to describe his White House press contacts. Here's a small sample of the questions he was asked concerning his White House duties:
QUESTION: [Did] you disseminate the talking points that you received from the Democratic National Committee to any news organizations?
The transcripts of the Blumenthal appearances had become public property on October 2, 1998, as part of Starr's widely-publicized "document dump." Incredibly, these documents had been in the public domain for a full six weeks at the time of Blomquist's New York Post story. Anyone who spent ten minutes reviewing this material would have seen that the charges made in the Post article were false. The plain truth is, Blumenthal was asked, again and again, about his White House press contacts.
Yet Blomquist reported Rotunda's remarkable charges without a word of comment on their accuracy, and they were repeated as fact in the press corps for months. When Hume, Barnes and Liasson gave voice to the charges, the transcripts had been public property for exactly four months. The Fox News trio completely ignored themif they had ever reviewed them at all. This was not a case of improving the news. This was a case where the news was made up.
THE NOTION THAT "LIBERAL BIAS" uniquely distorts our reporting is impossible to square with episodes like these, in which the press corps misreports simple fact in plain obedience to conservative spin. In the case of the embarrassing "farm chores" matter, it is clear that the press corps was recycling spin faxed out daily from RNC headquarters; and the Blumenthal case, which can only be called slander, was unambiguously initiated by the staff of Kenneth Starr. But then, at least since the Republican victory in the 1994 congressional elections, the press corps has shown an egregious willingness to bow to GOP influence and power. Conservatives have driven a string of scandal stories, designed to prove that Clinton Lacks Character. And the press corps has often swallowed them wholesometimes leaving the public hopelessly misinformed about crucial policy questions.
In the policy arena, the press debacle of the decade was the coverage of the two-year Medicare debate that followed the 1995 GOP take-over of Congress. And it is this case that produced the best reporting about GOP influence over the press.
When Newt Gingrich became Speaker in early 1995, the GOP offered a remarkable budget plan; it promised to balance the budget for the first time since 1969, while offering a sizable tax cut. The White House said that, to achieve this end, the GOP was proposing unacceptable cuts in the Medicare program. The GOP said it wasn't cutting Medicare at all, it was simply "slowing the rate at which Medicare would grow." And so was born a two-year debate that became an embarrassing indictment of the Washington press corpsand an unambiguous, textbook example of the new power of GOP spin.
Were Republicans "cutting" the Medicare program? Gingrich insisted there were no cuts, and that Clinton was lying when he used the term. Here's how Gingrich made his familiar case on the PBS NewsHour in November 1995:
President Clinton talked about Medicare cuts [in the Republican budget]. There are no Medicare cuts. We increase Medicare from $4800 per senior citizen [in 1995] to $6700 per senior citizen [in 2002]...That's an increase, that's not a cut.
Viewers called in to talk-TV shows, saying they didn't need that big an increase. But in making his familiar presentation, Gingrich offered just two parts of a three-number story. At the time that he appeared on the NewsHour, for example, the Republican-directed Congressional Budget Office was officially estimating that it would cost around $8000 per recipient, in 2002, to maintain the existing Medicare program. Even if the GOP could make the program more cost-effective, it wasn't likely that they could maintain existing services at the $6700 per person they proposed.
But during a pitiful two-year "debate," the press corps ignored that crucial third numberalmost never mentioned what the Medicare program would actually cost by 2002. I saw the third number cited only onceby David Maraniss and Michael Weisskopf in their invaluable book, "Tell Newt to Shut Up," published in early 1996. (The book was excerpted in the Washington Post in December 1995.) Again and again, Gingrich made his two-part presentation, almost always accusing Clinton of being deceptive or lying. And in all the TV appearances that Gingrich madeon Meet the Press; on the NewsHour; on This Weekno one ever brought up the third number. No one ever stated the seminal fact: that the GOP would spend far less in future years than the existing Medicare program would cost. (And this, by the way, is a type of proposal that has always been described as a "cut.")
This hapless performance by the press corps was stunningbut it hardly had happened by chance. In their book, Maraniss and Weisskopf detailed an aggressive GOP campaign to shape the way their budget plan was reported. In early 1995, polling had shown that the public was troubled to hear that the GOP wanted Medicare cuts. So Republican pollster Linda DiVall conducted focus group sessions to find less disturbing ways to describe the proposal. Her report to GOP leaders listed the phrases they should use in describing their plan. Most important of all, she told Gingrich and the other leaders, they must never allow the troubling word "cut" to be associated with the GOP program.
There followed an aggressive lobbying campaign to influence the Washington press corps. Maraniss and Weisskopf, given interviews by GOP leaders, described the extensive effort:
[House Budget Committee chairman John Kasich] pounded away fiercely on the issue, calling reporters late at night or early in the morning to warn them off the dreaded word. "I worked them over," he said. [RNC chairman Haley] Barbour was equally adamant. He called the anchormen at ABC and NBC and a correspondent at CBS and chided them for using the word. He held breakfasts and lunches with reporters at his conference table at the RNC to go over the difference between cuts and slowing the rate of growth.
Over the course of the following the year, the word "cut" virtually disappeared from press reports on the GOP Medicare plan. Reporters engaged in an orgy of euphemism, avoiding the upsetting word. (Republicans were said to "nibble at," "curb," and "squeeze" the program, but almost were never said to be "cutting" it.) And Gingrich's fury at Clinton grew, as Clinton kept using the forbidden wordalthough Clinton and his associates frequently used the word "cut" to describe the their own Medicare program. Clinton argued that the Republicans were cutting Medicare too muchmore than was needed to balance the budget. But Clinton was repeatedly assailed as a liar, without a word of comment from the presscalled a liar for using a traditional term to describe a program, which he also used to describe his own plan.
The coda to all this? In 1997, Medicare adjustments were finally passed as part of the Balanced Budget Agreement. The spending adjustments were roughly half what the GOP had proposed in 1995. And this June, Gail Wilensky, Republican head of the Medicare Payment Advisory Committee, reported to the Congress about the effect of those cuts. She recommended that some of the Medicare cuts be restored, because of the loss in services to Medicare recipients. (The Washington Post had reported, "The [new] spending limits have proved painful...[V]irtually every segment of the health care industry is begging Congress to retreat.") Those misled callers to talk TV must surely have been surprised by this outcome. They'd been misled by Gingrich, and by the press corps. Each had misreported Washington's biggest policy story for the course of two solid years.
DOES IT MATTER IF THE PUBLIC IS INFORMED about policy matters? If it does, then we have a big problem. The press corps' two-year failure to clarify the Medicare discourse was an example of utter technical incompetence. It was also an example of craven compliance to newly-won GOP power.
I am not attempting to argue here that the press corps is uniquely driven by "conservative bias." I think a full review would show that the press corps is subject to various influences. But when stories can be mangled this way for any reasonover long periods of time, without a word of dissentthen something has gone badly wrong within our mainstream press. Read back through what was written about Sidney Blumenthal, for example, and then read what Blumenthal was actually asked. Ask yourself how such blatant falsehoods could be published even once, let alone for months on end. It is simply astounding that such an episode could occur, for any reason, due to any influence. If engineers did their work the way our press corps now does, there wouldn't be a bridge or a building still standing.
As the stories I have recited help show, today's press corps is technically inept; egregiously self-impressed; highly subject to influence; and devoted to its own interests. There is virtually no such thing as press self-critique; this surely explains the lazy incompetence writers confidently bring to their task. As the press corps' devotion to gossip grows, its technical competence steadily declines; for the past decade, for example, the press corps has displayed no ability to explain simple matters concerning the Social Security "trust fund." (Don't even ask how the "lockbox" now works.) The press corps' reliable GroupThink is breath-takingoriginal thought is routinely non-existent. The buffoonism found on our talk-TV channels would make a feature film all by itself. And the people who brought you the stories I've cited are the people still writing the news today. They'll be the people defining the issues we debate in the years ahead.
Let me cite one last example of the press corps' ability to be spun on important policy. This involves Vice President Gore's best-selling book, Earth in the Balance.
Soon after the book was published in 1992, Gore was selected to be Bill Clinton's running mate, and the RNC began portraying the book as an example of crackpot environmentalism. From then until now, party spokesmen have pulled stray quotes from the book, trying to demonstrate Gore's "extremism." A long-standing favorite is a quote concerning the future of the internal combustion engine.
"[I]t ought to be possible," Gore writes in the book, "to accomplish the strategic goal of completely eliminating the internal combustion engine over, say, a twenty-five year period." In context, it is abundantly clear that Gore is talking about replacing the IC engine with cleaner technology. But apparently that wouldn't sound silly enough, so GOP spinners have long pretended Gore wants to get rid of cars. In June of 1999, for example, RNC chairman Jim Nicholsonauthor of the farm chores hoaxpublished a full-page open letter to Gore in major newspapers, asking Gore to explain "why you want to eliminate the automobile as we know it." This followed press releases in which Nicholson explicitly accused Gore of trying to "do away with the internal combustion engine, the automobile."
One might think it the work of a serious press corps to clarify groaning nonsense like that. And this story is especially intriguing because of a little-noticed fact. On January 5, 1998, both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times presented page-one, lead stories from the Detroit Auto Show, reporting that world car companies now agree that internal combustion is on the way out. Rebecca Blumenstein, page one, Wall Street Journal:
[A]uto makers from Tokyo to Stuttgart to Detroit have reached a surprising new consensus on an idea deemed heretical not long ago. A fundamental shift in engine technology is needed. "We need to press very hard to increase fuel economy and lower emissions" of carbon dioxide, says John F. Smith Jr., chairman of General Motors Corp. He predicts a slow phase-off of the internal combustion engine in 20 to 30 years.
World auto-makers now explicitly agree with Gore's assessment in Earth in the Balance. One would think a press corps would make this a part of this important debate. But seventeen months after these page-one stories, Nicholson was still publishing his silly open letter, without a word of comment or criticism from anyone in the press. Indeed, here is Gloria Borger, U.S. News columnist (and Face the Nation panelist), writing in November 1998, ten months after the news from Detroit:
No doubt the GOP will caricature [Gore] as a goo-goo who once wanted to get rid of the internal combustion engine, because he did.
"Because he did." Borger was writing ten months after world car companies agreed that Gore had been right all along. But the GOP did continue to "caricature" Gore. Careless writers like Borger allowed it.
Does it matter if Americans understand policy questions? Does it matter how major officials are portrayed? If either one of these concerns does matter, we now have a serious problem. The 21-year-old intern and her many cousins tell us that something has gone badly wrong with our press. Inventive journalists now novelize news, as if news were a story to be made more exciting. Facts routinely drop from sight, sacrificed on the altar of story. And the distressing examples which I have cited are just the tip of a menacing iceberg. On story after story, large and small, the press corps spins and improves on the news. Almost surely, the news was improved in your papers today. It's time we told the press corps to stop.
Four amplifying anecdotes:
How striking was the press corps' incompetence in discussing the 21-year-old intern? You be the judge. This is what Tonight Show viewers heard from Jay Leno on November 9, 1998:
Guess you all know by now, Newt Gingrich has stepped down and will resign from the Congress. Boy, that Bill Clinton must be the luckiest guy in the world. He is so smart. He gets to have sex with a 22-year-old intern, and Newt loses his job over it!
That's right. Somehow, Jay Leno managed to get Lewinsky's age right, while Shields and McGroryand their colleaguesdid not. In this area, Tonight Show writers took more care with the facts than the entire Washington press corps.
Carefully plumbing opinion
On January 10, 1999, Richard Morinpolling director of the Washington Postwrote a lengthy article describing Post polling during the Year of Lewinsky. Morin explained how careful the Post had been:
Language problems have challenged pollsters from the very start of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Among the first: How to describe Monica herself? The Washington Post's first survey questions referred to her as a "21-year-old intern at the White House," as did questions asked by other news organizations. But noting her age was potentially biasing. Highlighting her youthfulness conjured up visions of innocence and victimhood...In subsequent Post poll questions, she became a "former White House intern" of indeterminate age.
Ironically, Morin neatly explains why conservative spinners wanted Lewinsky to be 21. But for all his worries and concerns, one full year into the Lewinsky story, he still was misstating her age.
The crowning absurdity of the farm chores flap occurred when Diane Sawyer interviewed Gore for 20/20. The interview was conducted on June 16, 1999three full months after the flap began, on the day Gore formally began his White House campaign.
Two minutes into the hour-long profile, Sawyer presented Gore with "a little pop quiz," designed to see if he had told the truth in his farm chore comments.
The absurdity could hardly be overstated. Sawyer was sitting with Gore and his wife on the family's Tennessee farm; as she spoke, producers showed photos of the ten-year-old Gore, posing with cattle at 4-H events. Despite these clues, Sawyer proceeded with her insinuative quiz, featuring questions composed by her uncles and her mother, apparently trying to figure out if Gore had ever been near a farm.
By the way, even given the incongruous setting, Sawyer's questions made little sense. In one of her four questions, she asked Gore the current price of cattle, as if he had claimed to be an active cattle trader.
At the time of Sawyer's pop quiz, by the way, she was reportedly making $7 million per year.
When the flap about the farm chores arose, the Washington press corps developed group amnesia, forgetting twelve years worth of profiles describing those very same chores. The most striking amnesiac was Michael Kelly, weekly columnist for the Washington Post.
In March, Kelly wrote a column, "Farmer Al," which ridiculed Gore's remarks on the chores. Kelly pictured young Gore waking in a fancy Washington hotel, then heading out to do his chores in the fields along Connecticut Avenue.
But in 1987, Kelly had written a profile of Gore which described the farm chores in detail. Here's Kelly in the Baltimore Sun:
[E]very summer, and during some congressional recesses, the Gores would head down to the family farm, in Carthage...Down at the farm, at the insistence of his father and over the objections of his mother, life was different. "In the summer I would have to get up and help feed the livestock," her son says. "Then I would have to clean out the hog parlors. Then I would go back for breakfast. Then I would work on the farm all day and feed the stock again at night before dinner." By all accounts, Mr. Gore was from early youth unusually serious and hardworking.
No sign of this surfaced in Kelly's "Farmer Al." It perfectly expressed the prevailing RNC lineGore had grown up in a fancy hotel, and was dissembling when he spoke of the chores.
Visit our incomparable archives:
For past reporting on the 21-year-old intern, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/4/99, with full links to prior reporting (see postscript).
Sidney Blumenthal's grand jury testimony: see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/24/99, with full links to prior reporting (see postscript).