Part 4—That lecture just wasn’t real sharp: Again and again, the people in our celebrity press corps just aren’t especially sharp.
Last night, brain cells died all over the land as Rachel Maddow staged her latest blatantly faux DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS report.
In fairness, a similar number of brain cells had died the night before. On that occasion, Maddow offered a lengthy, pointless rumination on the canisters in the closet at her MSNBC office, the rumination which occasioned last night’s CORRECTIONS charade.
We often wonder how anyone can watch Maddow’s show without noting the oddness of what she does. But in truth, we the people just aren’t very sharp, and none among us is any less sharp than the people who make up our “press corps.”
This brings us back to Ben Bradlee’s lecture from 1997.
On Sunday, the Washington Post reprinted the lecture on the front page of the high-profile Outlook section. It was printed as part of the self-celebration which always occurs in the press when one of its iconic members dies.
Bradlee had an enormously important career at the Post. As far as we know, he was every bit as principled as his colleagues say.
That said, the lecture which the Post reprinted was massively lacking in smarts. Almost eighteen years later, the Post didn’t seem able to see that.
Bradlee directed the Watergate journalism which brought down President Nixon. He also invented the Post’s Style section. This helped advance a journalistic culture in which a bunch of people who aren’t very sharp are invited to ruminate, speculate and obsess about presidential contenders, quite routinely in ways which just aren’t very smart.
Next week, we’ll examine three decades of silly stories about our White House campaigns—silly stories which, in some cases, have changed the history of the world. For today, let’s review the late Ben Bradlee’s lecture, noting why it’s such a bad idea to give our “journalists” free rein.
Bradlee delivered The Press-Enterprise Lecture at Cal-Riverside on January 7, 1997. The address was called, “Reflections on Lying.”
Earlier this week, we noted a possible problem with the lecture. Bradlee denounced the lying and spin which suffused all segments of the society—all segments except his own, which he portrayed as involved in a high-minded search for the truth.
Many people in the press corps were involved in a search for the truth. But all too often, they weren’t especially sharp, as is clear all through Bradlee’s lecture.
Bradlee was very careless this night in his ascription of “lies” to major political figures. Must we tell you that President Clinton was one of the figures so charged?
Sometimes, politicians do tell “lies,” of course. That said, journalists often aren’t very sharp when they try to discuss such matters.
How sharp was Bradlee that night? In the lengthy excerpts from the lecture published in Sunday’s Post, this is the way he started:
BRADLEE (1/7/97): Newspapers don’t tell the truth under many different, and occasionally innocent, scenarios. Mostly when they don’t know the truth. Or when they quote someone who does not know the truth.In politics and government, had there ever been a time when a sensible person could believe the first version of the truth?
And more and more, when they quote someone who is spinning the truth, shaping it to some preconceived version of a story that is supposed to be somehow better than the truth, omitting details that could be embarrassing.
And finally, when they quote someone who is flat-out lying. There is a lot of spinning and a lot of lying in our times—in politics, in government, in sports and everywhere. It’s gotten to a point where, if you are like me, you no longer believe the first version of anything. It wasn’t always that way.
I guess it started for me with Vietnam, when the establishment felt it had to lie to justify a policy that, as it turned out, was never going to work...
In that passage, Bradlee seemed to say there had been such a time—the age before Vietnam. That strikes us as a shaky idea, though Bradlee went on to offer a long, penetrating passage about the reams of official lying which accompanied the war in that foreign land.
We were more struck, in that early passage, by Bradlee’s jumbled thoughts about the notion of “telling the truth.” If a newspaper quotes someone who doesn’t know the truth, would you say that the newspaper who quoted that person “isn’t telling the truth?”
To our ear, that’s an odd way to put it. This first step helps lead Bradlee to disaster as he continues along.
As the lecture continued, Bradlee offered his detailed review of official lying about Vietnam. Eventually, though, he shifted gears.
The reader may wish to cheer him on. But this is puzzling work:
BRADLEE: Even the very best newspapers have never learned how to handle public figures who lie with a straight face. No editor would dare print this version of Nixon’s first comments on Watergate, for instance: “The Watergate break-in involved matters of national security, President Nixon told a national TV audience last night, and for that reason he would be unable to comment on the bizarre burglary. That is a lie.”Modern liberals may want to cheer. But that passage is a jumble of highly illogical statements. It doesn’t make any real sense.
We won’t dare do that. But that is what it was, and, for better or for worse, we aided and abetted in publishing something that wasn’t the truth, something that was a lie. I hate to hedge this by calling them non-truths; I like to call them lies. And even the boldest editorial pages, where such a comment might be appropriate, are reluctant to strike that hard, that fast.
So we have to wait, searching aggressively for ways to prove the lie, and in the process, we alienate those who don’t believe or don’t want to believe the lie.
Consider the first part of that passage:
Bradlee refers to President Nixon’s “first comments on Watergate.” When Nixon made those initial comments, newspapers didn’t even know that his remarks were inaccurate.
But so what?
For unknown reasons, the person who wrote that passage seems to say that newspapers should have denounced Nixon’s comments, the very next morning, as “a lie.” Weirdly, he seems to be complaining when he says that “even the boldest editorial pages...are reluctant to strike that hard, that fast.”
Please! Newspapers shouldn’t strike that hard and that fast when they don’t yet know what they’re talking about. Those comments by Bradlee make no earthly sense.
As he continued, Bradlee seemed to say that newspapers had “aided and abetted...a lie” by publishing Nixon’s comments. Except as self-flagellation, it’s hard to see how that makes sense. Here's why:
When presidents make important statements, those statements constitute news. Bradlee seemed to be saying that newspapers shouldn’t publish such statements until they can prove that the statements are true. That would be a very strange way to run an American newspaper.
At the end of that passage, Bradlee roars a complaint: “So we have to wait, searching aggressively for ways to prove the lie.”
That’s right! You aren’t supposed to call something a lie until you can prove your charge! Everyone has always known that. The icon Bradlee seemed to be peeved by this restriction that night.
Here’s why this confusion matters:
Later in his lecture, Bradlee gave two examples of contemporary “lies.” First, he denounced some behavior by Newt Gingrich. Then, he turned to President Clinton.
His passage on Clinton was full of fiery denunciation, but it made little real sense. As Bradlee sets the scene, we see the level of his anger and invective:
BRADLEE: The other story, equally brimming with lies and equally dominating our front pages, of course, is the Democratic National Committee’s lurid fundraising problems.According to the fiery journalist, the story in question was “brimming with lies.”
This is currently my own favorite to illustrate the problems facing the public and the press as they search for the truth. You know the grand outlines:
Although the law forbids non-U.S. citizens and companies from contributing money to U.S. political campaigns, a motley crew of foreigners contributed hundreds of thousands of bucks to the Clinton campaign and the Clinton defense fund. (“Motley crew” hardly describes them: Suma Ching Hai, a slinky cult leader from Taiwan; Wang Jun, a weapons dealer from mainland China; and a couple of Indonesian millionaires named Riady—one of whom visited the White House 20 times. That’s just to name a few.)
These donors have had extraordinary access to President Clinton, including the odd sleepover in the Lincoln Bedroom.
The story concerned the DNC’s “lurid” fundraising problems. It involved “a motley crew of foreigners,” even including “a slinky cult leader from Taiwan.”
What was the truth about these matters? We can’t tell you that, because we simply don’t know.
We do know this:
As Bradlee continued, he made flamboyant accusations of lying. But his accusations didn’t really seem to make sense:
BRADLEE: The earliest comments described the visits as “purely social” by a White House spokesman. That was a lie. Financial donations were first defended as legitimate. That, too, was a lie, and $1.5 million was then returned.In that passage, Bradlee continued to thunder about all the lies and the lying. He included the mandatory comparison to Nixon, via press sec Ron Zeigler.
One day, December 22, 1996, three days before Christmas, the White House gave three distinctly different versions of a May 9th meeting between senior Clinton aides and officials of Clinton’s defense fund to discuss several hundred thousand dollars of questionable donations. All this behind closed doors, and we don’t know anything about it. An authorized White House spokesman said there was a debate at the meeting about whether to keep $378,999, with some White House officials suggesting that some of the money appeared to be legitimate and should be kept.
Reporters who went with that version were lying, apparently, because the next version said no one suggested keeping anything; aides were simply raising questions.
And later that was rendered “inoperative,” in Ron Ziegler’s immortal phrase. The questions raised concerned only how to explain to donors and the public that their money was being returned.
That said, consider the problems:
In that first paragraph, were the statements in question “lies?” Although he thundered, Bradlee showed no signs of having evidence to that effect.
Not every misstatement is a lie. Throughout this lecture, Bradlee seemed unclear on that basic fact.
That said, Bradlee’s account really brole down when he discussed the events of December 22, 1996. For the record, these events had occurred just two weeks before Bradlee gave his lecture.
Quite correctly, Bradlee says that a Clinton official “gave three...different versions of a May 9th meeting” that day.
He seems to refer to a news report by Ruth Marcus in the December 23 Washington Post. The best link we can give you is this.
That said, here’s the problem:
We see no reason to think that the official in question was “lying.” Here is the heart of the exchange, as described by Marcus:
MARCUS (12/23/96): A White House official, who was not present at the session but who is authorized to speak for the White House, at first said that there was a "debate" at the meeting, with some of the top officials questioning whether, given the Clintons' precarious financial situation, all the money needed to be returned.That was the basic account by Marcus. Let’s assume it’s basically accurate.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said some of the aides suggested keeping the checks that appeared to be legitimate—those written on actual checking accounts by donors who seemed to have the necessary funds.
In a second conversation, after checking again with one of those at the meeting, the official gave a slightly different version of events, saying that no one at the White House urged keeping the funds but that aides were simply "raising questions" about why some of the checks should be returned if they appeared legitimate.
"It was an obvious question to ask…because people were concerned that the Clintons needed as much money as was legitimate to raise," the official said.
In a third conversation, after checking again with the meeting participant, the official said he had misunderstood the nature of the discussion and that in fact the questions were not about whether to keep some of the questionable funds but how to explain to donors why the money was being returned.
Let’s also assume that the official in question was Mike McCurry. What made Bradlee feel so sure that McCurry was “lying” that day?
Marcus seemed to be describing a process in which McCurry, who wasn’t present at the meeting in question, kept checking with people who had been present to produce further information. If McCurry had been “lying” in his first account to Marcus, why would he come back, that very same day, with a revised account?
Effusively, upper-end journalists praised Bradlee’s character all through the past week. We know of no reason to think their judgments were faulty.
But at the time Bradlee gave that lecture, the press corps was settling on a “storyline” about what a liar Bill Clinton was. More disastrously for the world, the Washington Post was also revising an earlier judgment:
Within the paper, the Post was deciding that Vice President Gore was all tangled up in Clinton’s corruption. Within a few months, the hammer would fall:
Vice President Gore had bad character too! It wasn’t just President Clinton!
Bradlee flew to Cal-Riverside, where he mightily thundered. He was quite promiscuous in his charges and accusations that night. All through his lecture, his logic made little real sense.
That lecture was written by a man who, if we want to be truthful, wasn’t real sharp when he wrote it. People are dead all over the world because these people, who aren’t overwhelmingly sharp, like to get a snootful or two and thunder out their cadre’s view of the world, which is often less than impressive.
In that lecture, you see the early steps down the path which eventually took George Bush to the White House. We aren’t happy with how that turned out. We don’t think you should be happy either.
Coming next week: Three decades of silliest tales
Tales of the Lincoln Bedroom: Bradlee included the requisite comparison to Nixon. He also worked in a reference to the Lincoln.
Just for the record, the Washington Post and the New York Times engaged in a giant amount of flimflam about those Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers. You should also know this:
In 2005, USA Today’s Judy Keen reported that about fifty donors to President Bush had enjoyed Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers in the previous year.
Personally, we don’t care about that. This is the point:
When Clinton did it, it was vile. When Bush did it, the press corps yawned. For all Lincoln details, click here.
In his careless remarks at Cal-Riverside, Bradlee was very much part of that syndrome. Eighteen years later, the Washington Post still thinks his remarks were great.
Last Sunday, the thunder appeared in the Post once again! How odd! The Clintons are liars all over again.
We think you should be concerned about that, whoever you favor for president.