And They Call Fred Thompson Lazy?

Reporters don’t even raise their own eyebrows these days

Today, The New York Times’ Patrick Healy brings us a story about Something Bill Clinton Said and how it, like virtually all things Bill Clinton Says, is a Really Big and Meaningful Deal (at least to reporters and certain presidential campaigns). The headline: “That Clinton Boy Defends His Wife and Raises Eyebrows.”

But whose eyebrows did Bill Clinton actually raise when, during a recent speech to college students, he said of Senator Clinton’s competitors, “Those boys have been getting tough on her lately”? Well, he raised Healy’s eyebrows, for sure. Probably he raised eyebrows within some presidential campaigns. But what about voters? Are their eyebrows really raised over this?

But wait. Before we get to that point, let’s back up for a moment.

Turns out, Healy had his eyebrows raised for him by the Republican National Committee (realizing it could keep the “Hillary campaign plays gender card - no fair!” concept afloat for another day by flagging this Bill Clinton quote for reporters). And Healy confesses as much right in the middle of his article.

While some Clinton advisers say they would like to move on from the discussion of the candidate’s sex, Mr. Clinton’s use of the word “boys” caught the attention of the Republican National Committee, which alerted reporters to it, and of the campaigns of Senator Barack Obama and John Edwards. Operatives in all three camps argued that the Clintons were keeping a “boys vs. girl” story line alive to try to stoke sympathy for Mrs. Clinton — something Clinton advisers emphatically deny.

I suppose readers are better off knowing where Healy’s (non-)story idea originated, but have we really come to this? A point where there’s no shame in admitting that the RNC (or the DNC or any powerful partisan group) more or less wrote your story for you? (Plus, “boys vs. girl storyline”? Are we in kindergarten? Imagine how many eyebrows Bill Clinton could raise if he suggested that some of Hillary’s “boy” opponents have cooties!)

Yes, campaign-trail reporters face an impossible set of circumstances: captive to the candidate and his/her advisers, editors back home demanding a steady stream of copy, voracious Web operations that never go to bed, etc. So some of the blame for making such dubious and spoon-fed stories irresistible must be laid at the feet of those editors and the often-unfortunate priorities of our modern news operations. And still.

Bill Clinton is going to say lots of things between now and November 2008 (and well beyond). Will reporters dutifully dissect and freight with meaning every last word?


Now back to the voters. I’m guessing that The Latest Thing Hillary’s Husband Said isn’t raising the eyebrows of too many people who don’t regularly ride on (or frantically e-mail press releases to those who ride on) campaign buses.

UPDATE (Healy responds):


Re: “And They Call Fred Thompson Lazy” As it happened, I learned about President Clinton’s “boys” remark from a wire story; we were not staffing him in S.C. that day, so, like many reporters, I was following the wires for coverage of his campaign swing on Senator Clinton’s behalf. I talked to my editor and decided to do a short item. Soon after, the RNC sent its rocket email to its media list, and I also heard from the Edwards and Obama campaigns via IM. I included reference to the RNC to underscore how the Republicans were circulating information about President Clinton’s remarks.

Since you did not contact me for comment about this, I would appreciate you correcting the record, or at least posting this email so readers can learn how the reporting process unfolded.

Thanks, Pat

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.