Part 1—Like Shipp and Krugman before him: Bill Clinton said it. Not us!
It seems he said it back in April, although his remarks went undiscussed. In a recent blog post for the Washington Post, Chris Cillizza reported the former president’s deeply unpleasant comments:
CILLIZZA (9/25/14): “If a policymaker is a political leader and is covered primarily by the political press, there is a craving that borders on addictive to have a storyline," Bill Clinton said in a speech at Georgetown University back in April. “And then once people settle on the storyline, there is a craving that borders on blindness to shoehorn every fact, every development, everything that happens into the story line, even if it’s not the story.”Say what? Did Bill Clinton actually say those things? Are such comments even permitted?
Apparently, Clinton did say that! Cillizza linked to an April 30 on-line report by CNN’s Dan Merica. In that report, the young scribe quoted the former president making those very remarks.
It looks like Clinton actually made those remarks! But can his claims possibly be true? It seems he said these things about the upper-end press corps:
What Bill Clinton seems to have said:Might we make an obvious point? In that passage, Clinton is accusing the press corps of gross misconduct—of journalistic malfeasance.
1) With a craving which borders on addiction, the press corps establishes “storylines” about major political figures.
2) Once they’ve adopted a storyline, they will work, with “a craving which borders on blindness,” to “shoehorn every fact into that storyline.”
For reasons which are blindingly obvious, journalists aren’t supposed to behave in the ways Clinton described. Their editors aren’t supposed to permit it. For reasons which are blindingly obvious, the journalistic conduct Clinton described should never be allowed to exist.
According to Merica’s report, Clinton seems to have offered a wider context for his unpleasant remarks. He seems to have said that this adherence to “storylines” is offered in lieu of serious coverage of serious policy issues.
Clinton seems to have linked his remarks to the way Obamacare was reported in 2010. That said, it’s somewhat hard to tell from Merica’s report. Adopting a time-honored storyline, Merica spent more time explaining how boring Clinton’s speech was than fleshing out the actual context of his actual charges.
Can President Clinton say those things about the national press? Apparently, he can! Indeed, several other folk have said the same things in the past.
In March 2000, the ombudsman for the Washington Post described the same sort of journalistic misconduct. In a short but brilliant Sunday column, she blasted the way the Post was covering the four major candidates in Campaign 2000.
We’ve often cited E. R. Shipp’s brilliant 600-word column, “Typecasting Candidates.” Needless to say, her remarks were completely ignored by the rest of the press corps:
SHIPP (3/5/00): Typecasting CandidatesThis is the best we can do for a link.
There is something not quite satisfying about The Post's coverage of the quests of Bill Bradley, George W. Bush, Al Gore and John McCain to become our next president.
[R]eaders react...to roles that The Post seems to have assigned to the actors in this unfolding political drama. Gore is the guy in search of an identity; Bradley is the Zen-like intellectual in search of a political strategy; McCain is the war hero who speaks off the cuff and is, thus, a "maverick"; and Bush is a lightweight with a famous name, and has the blessings of the party establishment and lots of money in his war chest. As a result of this approach, some candidates are whipping boys; others seem to get a free pass.
As she continued, Shipp described the way the Post’s reporters had invented some facts, and discarded some others, to maintain these preferred storylines.
(One of the invented “facts” was a deeply damaging misquotation the Post had put in the mouth of Candidate Gore. Shipp boiled her paper’s misquotation down to its appalling essence. The misquotation “fits the role The Post seems to have assigned him in Campaign 2000.” For details, see below.)
All the way back in March 2000, Shipp described the very process Clinton described last April! Ironically, her critique was completely ignored for an obvious reason:
It didn’t fit a key storyline—the storyline the national “press crops” maintains about its own work!
Major journalists almost never say the sorts of things Shipp said in that column. But uh-oh! In a column in 2004, Paul Krugman described the same process:
KRUGMAN (8/3/04): Reading the ScriptIn that passage, Krugman used the same language Clinton would use ten years later. According to Krugman, the press corps will often adopt “a story line.” Once they’re adopted, such story lines will often “shape coverage, often in the teeth of the evidence.”
A message to my fellow journalists: check out media watch sites like campaigndesk.org, mediamatters.org and dailyhowler.com. It's good to see ourselves as others see us. I've been finding The Daily Howler's concept of a media “script,” a story line that shapes coverage, often in the teeth of the evidence, particularly helpful in understanding cable news.
In April, Clinton used that term—“storyline.” Ten years earlier, Krugman used identical language, even as he cited our own “helpful” term: “script.”
Shipp used a different metaphor in her earlier column. She said the press corps was assigning “roles” to the candidates in “a political drama” they were inventing, often in the face of the actual facts.
But everyone was describing the same basic process—a process Clinton described again this April. The press corps adopts a storyline, then tortures the facts to maintain it.
Clinton, Krugman, Shipp, ourselves? That’s an impressive lineup! But you can be certain of one thing when someone describes this type of misconduct:
Their highly unpleasant comments will go almost wholly undiscussed! To the extent that their comments are discussed at all, they will often be derided.
All this week, we’re going to discuss this concept—the concept of a journalistic storyline, drama or script. We’ll do it as part of a new award-winning series, The Way We Are.
In this series, we plan to discuss the basic ways our “national discourse” actually works. Bill Clinton said a mouthful last April.
All week, we’ll discuss what he said.
Tomorrow: Cillizza, displeased
Concerning that completely accidental misquotation: In her short but brilliant column, Shipp described the deeply damaging way her paper misquoted Candidate Gore in December 1999.
Needless to say, the misquotation was completely accidental. Here’s what Shipp wrote about the incident, which turned out to be profoundly consequential:
SHIPP: Readers have questioned a Post article that portrayed Gore as delusional, thinking that he was not only the man who discovered Love Canal, a New York community contaminated by illegally dumped toxic waste decades ago, but also the basis for the character of Oliver Barrett IV in Eric Segal's "Love Story." Gore (Albert II) was, according to Segal, one of the preppies he had in mind in creating the character; the other was Gore's roommate, the actor Tommy Lee Jones. As for Love Canal, Gore said that after a high school student contacted him about a toxic waste site in Toone, Tenn., he sought information about other such sites, learned about Love Canal, and used the two as case studies in a hearing that led to legislation aimed at cleaning up such sites. As he put it: "I...had the first hearing on that issue, and Toone, Tenn.—that was the one you didn't hear of—but that was the one that started it all." That is a whole lot different from The Post's version, "I'm the one that started it all," which fits the role The Post seems to have assigned him in Campaign 2000.Wouldn’t you know it? Somehow, Shipp managed to misquote the original misquotation! Completely accidentally, Ceci Connolly had quoted Gore saying this:
"I was the one that started it all.”
As videotape made perfectly clear, that wasn’t what Gore had actually said to a high school class in Concord, New Hampshire. But the misquotation, which was completely unintentional, created the latest thrilling claim: Al Gore said he discovered Love Canal!
In turn, that thrilling but inaccurate claim revived a powerful storyline: AL GORE, LIAR. That storyline had been dying on the vine. That completely unintentional misquotation revived it.
After the hubbub surrounding that misquotation, that powerful storyline never died. It kept reappearing, again and again, right through November 2000, as the press corps kept inventing new “lies” by the highly Clintonesque Candidate Gore.
Plainly, that storyline sent George Bush to the White House. People are dead all over the world because of the storyline that misquotation revived and set into stone.
Without any question, that misquotation was completely and wholly accidental, of course. That said, for a full account of the astonishing episode Shipp tried to discuss in that very short passage, see Chapter 6 at our companion site, How He Got There.
People are dead all over the world because of what you will read in that chapter. We’re now in our second war in Iraq because of the way the Washington Post (and the New York Times) unintentionally misquoted Gore, completely by accident of course.
A quick point of personal privilege:
When we posted that detailed, astonishing chapter, it was met with total silence among the careful, corrupt career players who pretend to be part a “press corps.” It’s a key aspect of Hard Pundit Law:
The type of conduct Bill Clinton described simply cannot be discussed. Our recent history can’t be discussed. Dearest people, it just isn’t done!