“Nicest Guy,” “Vengeful Journalism”

Now can we talk about the piece, not Purdum?

I saw many journalists (on cable and elsewhere) rush to vouch for Vanity Fair’s Todd Purdum in recent days. Mostly as a person (counter to Bill Clinton’s “scumbag” insult). Often as a journalist (usually pointing to his long history at The New York Times). Less often as the reporter of this particular piece. When asked specifically about Purdum’s “Comeback Id” story and its journalistic merits, I saw reporters hedge and then try to quickly move the conversation back to the juicy Clinton stuff. (Is it wagon-circling? Not wanting to be the pot calling the kettle black? An inability to differentiate between criticizing the man and criticizing a piece the man wrote? Or, what?)

For example, Monday night on Fox News:

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN: [Is Purdum’s article a] cheap shot or not?

PAMELA GENTRY (BET NEWS): It’s unnamed sources. If there were one or two sources, that’s bad. To write an article that long and not name anyone, it’s questionable. But I think what amused me about the entire article was reading the rebuttal from the Clinton camp. It was just too much….

VAN SUSTEREN: Would you be proud if you had written that article, structurally and journalistically?

RICK KLEIN (ABC NEWS): I have a lot of respect for Todd Purdum as a journalist and it’s hard to judge unless you have conversations with the anonymous sources as to whether he is using them appropriately or not. But I think that it got at fundamental truths about Bill Clinton and this campaign and the self-centeredness…

VAN SUSTEREN: Here’s how it starts, “It was a wedding straight out of Sex and the City… “ a man who is “the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral he attends” …and it goes on and on and until about the fifth paragraph [after]… all sorts of innuendos and it says “in fairness, his entourage included his daughter Chelsea and her boyfriend…” Now there’s a group that you’re really going to be doing wild things with. I mean, that’s the problem with it, isn’t it?

JONATHAN ALLEN, CQPOLITICS.COM: That’s right and you get into this and not only is this [story] timed at the end of primaries but it’s timed for Sex and the City out in movie theaters now and you find in the end that there’s no proof of Bill Clinton engaging in any shenanigans at these events that are offered …

Sex and the City and the “amusing” Clinton camp response to the article being, clearly, more comfortable terrain for everyone than the journalistic soundness of the story in question.

In his defense of Purdum, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg wrote that “the arguments mustered against Todd are comprehensively unconvincing.” Easy to say when the only “arguments” you (laughingly) acknowledge are the over-reaching ones made by Bill Clinton’s spokesperson. (Interesting, too, that Goldberg phrases it as “arguments against Todd,” taking it all so personally on Purdum’s behalf. Bill Clinton’s slurs aside, there are, actually arguments to be made against Todd’s story as well).

But, more about Todd.

We now know that Purdum is “the nicest guy in journalism,” “the Platonic ideal of the Perfect Gentleman,” the guy whom, if you asked him “to feed your cat while you were out of town, you’d come back to discover that he’d also taken the creature to the vet and mowed your yard and sent your wrinkled shirts to the cleaners.” Which is great. But, like all the sexual innuendo from unnamed persons in Purdum’s piece, this “nicest guy” stuff—this rush to defend ex-Timesman Purdum from the “scumbag” smear—has distracted from related, important issues. Namely that Purdum’s piece, Gentleman though he is, was not, in the main, good journalism (and not good for journalism). (Yes, I know this is Vanity Fair. Still.)

I’m with James Rainey. Rainey says it more eloquently in today’s LA Times than I did in my insta-reaction to Purdum’s piece Monday. Writes Rainey:

Purdum, who could not be reached for comment, writes that Clinton and other former presidents should conduct themselves “in ways that do not seem to cheapen, degrade or exploit the high office they held.”

Fair enough. But what about journalistic conduct?

The writer concedes near the top of his story that there is no “proof of post-presidential sexual indiscretions on Clinton’s part.” He then races from that disclaimer to quote former aides, a “Clinton-watcher” and other unnamed figures, who vent plenty of suspicions.

Rainey quotes Mark Jurkowitz of the Project for Excellence in Journalism saying,”We are looking at a new, evolving standard. Now, if something raises to the level of concern for an aide or advisor”—a nameless one, I’d add—“then it passes muster for publication. I think you need a stronger standard than that.”

Agreed. But if story standards and anonymice don’t get your goat (Jack Shafer lists out thirty-nine unnamed sources in Purdum’s piece), there’s also the problem that, as Rainey writes, “the more substantive points in [Purdum’s] piece” (like the possible “source of Clinton’s recent explosions of temper on the stump…. potentially unsavory business associates…campaign missteps”) “will be lost on readers distracted by another round of sex talk about the man who has only himself to blame for making cigars and stained dresses symbols of excess.” Remember The New York Times’s front-page piece from February (the one, as Rainey writes, where the Times’s “suggestion of a McCain sex scandal distracted from worthy questions raised in the same story, most importantly: Is self-styled ‘maverick’ McCain truly free of special-interest influences, as he claims?” (Then there was that other front-page Times piece from two years ago —“For Clintons, Delicate Dance of Married and Public Lives”—that hit some of the same suggestive, anonymously-sourced notes as Purdum’s but didn’t actually have a larger point that its insinuations of infidelity could overshadow.)

Doug MacEachern, an editorial writer for the Arizona Republic writes:

The Clintons (Bill, especially) got a free media pass for too long. But there is something unhealthy in the current media backlash against them, notably in Todd Purdum’s profile of Bill in the current Vanity Fair. It is an epic guessing game about his post-presidential sleeping habits, based on unnamed sources. It is punishment journalism, intended not to enlighten, but to harm. And, as conservatives know, it can be turned against anyone, any time.

Note that MacEachern summarizes Purdum’s piece as “an epic guessing game about his post-presidential sleeping habits,” distracted, like the rest of us, from those other important issues like money and campaign missteps that Purdum also pursued, if less energetically, in his article. MacEachern—aptly, I think—dubs Purdum’s piece “vengeful journalism.” And actually, I remember one moment in the piece that came off as petty personal grudge-holding journalism (minus the journalism). The part where Purdum reported that as president “Clinton often could not show grace in the smallest ways” and provided, as proof, the complaint that Clinton “dithered about where and when to go on vacation, so that aides and Secret Service agents”—and White House reporters, presumably—“could not plan their own.” Similarly, Clinton “declined to release aides and reporters who had waited around all through a pointless Saturday of duty while he made up his mind whether to play golf (a game at which he has been known to cheat).” Is it possible to read those sentences and not also hear I’m still pissed that Clinton—that selfish, cheater-at-golf—spoiled my summer of 1996 Martha’s Vineyard weekend getaway?

Talk about “unhealthy.” Not to mention “distracting from worthy questions.”

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.