Media misrepresentations of Clintons are nothing new
Alas, this is pretty much where I came in. Starting in 1994, when your humble, obedient servant was approached to contribute weekly political columns, I found the behavior of the national political press shocking and alarming.
Today, it’s even worse.
Even so, it’s not every day a TV talker apologizes for broadcasting a doctored video misrepresenting something Bill Clinton said about President Obama. So it’s definitely worth taking note.
MSNBC’s Chris Hayes did that the other night, at least temporarily persuading me that the network hasn’t yet gone full Fox News.
But first, some ancient history on a theme directly relevant to today’s Democratic primary campaign: Hillary the Big Liar.
See, by 1994, I’d been writing professionally for years, mainly as a literary journalist and monthly magazine reporter. The publications I’d written for employed assiduous fact-checkers. Opinions were expected, so long as they were grounded in fact. After all, what’s the point of winning an argument if you’ve got to cheat to do it?
However, that’s not how Washington journalism works. One incident in particular astonished me.
In April 1994, Hillary Clinton had given a press conference about the make-believe Whitewater scandal. She answered every question the press threw at her for a couple of hours. The immediate effect was rather like last fall’s Benghazi hearings: Her detailed answers calmed the storm. Having previously given sworn testimony to Treasury Department investigators probing Jim McDougal’s failed savings and loan, she was on solid ground.
Two years further on, ABC’s “Nightline” dug up a video clip of an answer she’d given about a specific issue and seamlessly deleted two sentences by substituting stock footage of journalists taking notes. Then they pretended she’d been asked a much broader question, and accused her of lying about the information they’d subtracted.
Specifically, Hillary acknowledged signing a letter “because I was what we called the billing attorney” for the Madison Guaranty account. “Nightline” charged her with concealing exactly that fact. Jeff Greenfield said no wonder “the White House was so worried about what was in Vince Foster’s office when he killed himself” —a contemptible insinuation.
Within days, the doctored quote was all over ABC News, CNN, the New York Times and everywhere else. Almost needless to say, Maureen Dowd ran with it. William Safire predicted her imminent criminal indictment.
In short, the theme of Hillary Clinton as epic liar began with an instance of barefaced journalistic fraud.
Everybody involved should have been run out of the profession. It wasn’t exactly an obscure mystery. Video of the press conference existed. The New York Times had printed the full transcript.
But there was no Internet. Beltway pundits covered for each other like crooked cops.
So anyway, last week Bill Clinton made a campaign appearance for his wife in Memphis. If you’d only seen it on MSNBC or read about it in the Washington Post, you’d think he made a political blunder, trashing President Obama as a weak leader.
On Chris Hayes’ program “All In,” the host chided the former President for going “a bit off message.”
MSNBC aired this video clip:
“BILL CLINTON: She’s always making something good happen. She’s the best change-maker I’ve ever known.
A lot of people say, ‘Oh well, you don’t understand. It’s different now. It’s rigged.’ Yeah, it’s rigged — because you don’t have a president who is a change-maker.”
Ouch! To the Washington Post’s Abby Phillips, “it sounded like he was agreeing with one of (Bernie) Sanders’s central arguments about income inequality —but blaming the sitting president for it.”
Older and thinner, Mr. Yesterday was clearly losing it.
Except he wasn’t. The real villain was, once again, creative video editing. Tommy Christopher at Mediaite.com restored the full context.
So here’s what Bill Clinton actually said about President Obama:
“Yeah, it’s rigged —because you don’t have a president who is a change-maker with a Congress who will work with him. But the president has done a better job than he has gotten credit for. And don’t you forget it!”
“Don’t you forget it! Don’t you forget it!”
“Don’t you forget it. Let me just tell you. I’ve been there, and we shared the same gift. We only had a Democratic Congress for two years. And then we lost it.
“There’s some of the loudest voices in our party say —it’s unbelievable— say, ‘Well the only reason we had it for two years is that President Obama wasn’t liberal enough!’
Is there one soul in this crowd that believes that?”
Judging by the crowd response, there was not.
Mediaite.com’s Christopher put it succinctly: “This is an edit so egregious, it rivals the worst in dishonest political ads, and surpasses them.”
Greatly to his credit (and my surprise), Chris Hayes subsequently rebroadcast Bill Clinton’s remarks in full. “We shouldn’t have done that,” he admitted.
No, they certainly should not.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” St. Martin’s Press, 2000. You can email Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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