Since Sunday could be described as Clinton Blew Up On Tape Day, it reminds me that the CBS "Public Eye" site was inspired by the BBC to remember this week in history, 1998. As they prepared for the release of Clinton's grand jury testimony from mid-August, Team Clinton had told everyone in Washington that Slick Willie blew a gasket before Ken Starr's prosecutors in the Lewinsky case. He was going to be red-faced and furious. CBS's Hillary Profita asked reporter Sharyl Attkisson to remember that time. The headline was simply: "On This Day in the 'Ultimate Spin Zone.'" Apparently, "ultimate spin" is a polite way to say you were duped, conned, fooled. But they never seemed to mind. Attkisson recalled:
My main memory of this day is how effectively the media had been "spun" in advance of the grand jury testimony video being released.
Before the video was made public, leaks had sprung up all over saying that those who had viewed President Clinton's testimony in advance said he "lost his temper," actually uttered cuss words, and stormed out of the room ... all captured on videotape. Rumors of the cucumber-cool president losing his temper on camera permeated all of Washington, D.C., and were even reported before the tape was ever shown.
Then, the tape was released. President Clinton was clearly uncomfortable at times. He certainly didn't come off well explaining about differing ideas of the definition for "is." But there were no outbursts, no cuss words, and he never stormed off camera.
So where did the bad information come from?
Well, without naming names, suffice it to say the advance leaks had come from allies of President Clinton's. The question is why would they mislead us as to the content of the video ... preparing us for a much worse performance by President Clinton than what we actually saw?
We may never know for sure. But the best we journalists could figure, the Clinton allies knew he didn't come off looking good in the testimony. So their strategy was to prepare the public for a worse scene ... a horrible scene. Then, when that scene never materialized, the public would think, "Hey, he didn't do so badly." And that was precisely the reaction I heard most among the public.
Washington, D.C.: The Ultimate Spin Zone.
In our old newsletter MediaWatch, we also noticed the CBS reaction at the time. Our headline was "Clinton Didn't Yell, But Aides Didn't Tell: Again, White House Benefits from Misleading the Media."
The media created widespread expectation that the videotape of Bill Clinton's grand jury testimony would show Clinton exploding in profanity and storming out of the room. When that prediction did not come true as the tape aired nationwide on September 21, Clinton's approval rating rose. The media began talking of a backlash, that the Republicans had overplayed their hand.
Left out of this triumphant spin: who fed the media this dishonest line? And would anybody care if the White House lied to them again? The day after Clinton's testimony aired, CBS's Bob Schieffer told The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz that "his sources were on Capitol Hill, not the White House. But, he said, 'I got it from Democrats who'd been talking to the White House. I do not believe the people I talked to would deliberately mislead me."
Kurtz added: "White House officials acknowledge that they knew this negative spin would eventually help Clinton. But they say they offered accurate guidance to reporters once they were briefed by the President's lawyers last Friday." If that was true, why were expectations so high on Monday? (One exception was NBC's Lisa Myers, who specifically reported before the video aired that Cinton did not storm out.)
On CNN's Reliable Sources September 26, Time reporter Karen Tumulty claimed many reporters got their information from Clinton aides who weren't lying, just misinformed: "I am told that he was quite angry from having sort of held it in and I think that is where the spin came from and it was one of the cases that we've had all along in this story, is that the people who really have the information are the people who aren't talking."
But on CNBC's Tim Russert the same night, Schieffer changed his mind about being misled: "By accident or design, we were deliberately misled on this. I'm absolutely convinced of that. Now whether this was done this way in the beginning, purposely and deliberately, I don't know. But I do know this for a fact: Once I went out with that story I got no call from the White House telling me 'Bob, you've gone too far.' I got no call from any Democratic official telling me, you know, that story is just wrong. They let it stay out there because they knew what was happening was it was building up expectations."
By focusing on expectations, the media made Clinton's performance -- not the truth of his testimony or the spin of his aides -- the biggest story in town.