Editor's Desk

Blinded by the Light

The story of Bill Clinton and the quote that wasn't.

By 4.18.05

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When Bill Clinton speaks, people listen. Or so you would think. But sometimes they just hear what they want to hear. Especially if they're the New York Times. And if the Times didn't hear it, was it spoken?

Let's go to the videotape. Actually, I would if I could but I've only seen transcripts. And they're confusing enough, though less so than what the Times started out doing. Let's take it a step at a time.

Last week Clinton accused Republican political operative Arthur Finkelstein of "self-loathing," all because he was openly opposing Clinton's wife while having recently let it be known that he'd married his long-time partner. Clinton's comments set off a political tempest that is now entering its second stage, with Finkelstein now being seen as a victim of Clinton bigotry. Stage three will probably have Finkelstein loathing Hillary more than himself. In any case, we're getting ahead of ourselves.

What's important here are Clinton's actual words: Here's how they read on CNN's transcript from "Judy Woodruff's Inside Politics" of last Tuesday, April 12:

I was sad. I mean, there were two stories. One is that he went to Massachusetts and married his longtime male partner, and then he comes back here and announces this, which means, I thought, one of two things: Either this guy believes his party is not serious and is totally Machiavellian its position, or, you know, as David Brock said in his brave book, "Blinded by the Right," there are [sic] some sort self-loathing there.

CNN's "Crossfire" included a corrected portion of that above in its transcript from that same day's show. "This guy believes his party is not serious and is totally Machiavellian in its position -- or, you know, as David Brock said in his great book 'Blinded by the Right,' there's some sort of self-loathing there." Note that in this corrected version Brock's book is now being called "great," and not "brave."

Meanwhile, the Associated Press in its April 12 dispatch, included a very similar quote, which also went with "great" instead of "brave" in reference to the Brock book.

"Actually, I was sort of sad when I read it," he said.

"I thought, one of two things. Either this guy believes his party is not serious and is totally Machiavellian in its position, or you know, as David Brock said in his great book 'Blinded by the Right,' there's some sort of self-loathing or something. I was more sad for him."

But compare all that to the New York Times's report in its April 12 edition, which apparently set the "self-loathing" story in motion. Here's how reporter Raymond Hernandez (or perhaps Donald G. McNeil Jr., who "contributed reporting for this article") captured Clinton's comments:

"Either this guy believes his party is not serious and he's totally Machiavellian," Mr. Clinton said, or "he may be blinded by self-loathing."

The Times simply erased Brock and his book from history. On top of that, it took the "blinded" from the book title and gave it to Clinton to use as a descriptive. All of this inside a quote attributed to Clinton. How the paper could have done so, given that Clinton's comments presumably exist on videotape, is anyone's guess. What we end up with, in any case, is a wildly distorted quote. Have their been any repercussions? You've got to be joking.

The Times has run no correction. Its "public editor" ombudsman took the week off. Brock's own MediaMatters.org, which jumps at the merest hiccup that might disadvantage the liberal position and trumpets every sign of Brock's public stature, has remained silent on this public humiliation of its main man. (Talk about self-loathing.) Meanwhile, the virus that the Times released into the news bloodstream has infected more than one newspaper. The "blinded by self-loathing" wording was repeated in a number of stories, including in such august outlets as London's Sunday Telegraph and Greg Pierce's "Inside Politics" column in the Washington Times.

Just to show how journalistic sloppiness can take on a life of its own, New York Daily News gossip columnist Lloyd Grove ran a shorter version of the accurate CNN quote, but Daily News commentator Michael Goodwin relied on the New York Times fabrication.

In the larger scheme of things this little exercise reminds us how easily -- readily -- news reports get things wrong. Brock watchers will in addition find new evidence of what transpires whenever David Brock is excluded.

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About the Author
Wlady Pleszczynski is editorial director of The American Spectator and the editor of AmSpec Online.