Wag the Finger

Angry Bill: From embeds' eyes to pundits' lips

It’s been a bumpy campaign season thus far, PR-wise, for MSNBC.

One potential bright spot: yesterday, MSNBC owned the story of Bill Clinton and the Hecklers! No other network devoted as many precious pundit-minutes to HecklerGate as MSNBC, where just about everyone whose mug appeared on the screen yesterday weighed in on the topic.

(Speaking of bright spots, MSNBC rolled out a most sophisticated technical effect for this story—a white circle around Bill Clinton’s head—to ostensibly highlight hard-to-see footage, which aired ad nauseam, of Clinton “taking on” one of the hecklers.)

In fact, MSNBC named “Bill Clinton Faces Hecklers in Ohio” the number one “Campaign Headline” of the day yesterday.

So, what happened?

On Sunday, as Bill Clinton campaigned in Ohio for Senator Clinton, he was interrupted—during two different speeches—by hecklers. Once, in Steubenville, anti-abortion protesters stood, held up signs, and shouted while Clinton was speaking. Here is how the local Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register (West Virginia) covered the exchange, in paragraph ten of its story:

Clinton was heckled at one point by pro-life movement members from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, who lifted anti-abortion signs during the rally.

He strongly defended his wife’s record on caring for children and unwed mothers…

“Tell the truth,” Clinton said. “If you were really pro-life, you would want to put every doctor who performs an abortion and every woman who has an abortion in jail for murder.”

…Clinton resumed his speech after responding to the heckler without losing his train of thought, which was on education at that point.

And this is how local NBC affiliate WTOV9 (Steubenville, Ohio/Wheeling, WV) reported it:

A local group of pro-life supporters took their message straight to former President Bill Clinton…

The group showed up with signs and were outspoken about the issue while Clinton was trying to address other issues.

Bill Clinton appeared to be open to address their issues saying, “It’s okay to hold up your sign, but let me talk and I’ll address that.”

Holding true to that promise, Bill Clinton did address the issue of pro-life.

“We disagree with you. You want to criminalize women and their doctors and we disagree.”

…Clinton ended the exchange by saying: “This is not your rally.”

Sounds pretty uneventful, right?

Not to the conflict-hungry campaign embed, eager for any crumb of excitement or mere variance in their otherwise Groundhog Day-esque existence, as they struggle to squeeze another something—anything—out of the same old stump speech.

One MSNBC embed wrote —in a post headlined, “And Bill Spars With Another?”—that Clinton “snapped hard at an anti-abortion protester who had interrupted him.” And it looked even more dramatic to an ABC embed who reported that after multiple interruptions by the protesters:

It appeared that Clinton had had his fill and erupted on the man as the rest of the audience applauded the former president. He was so angry, we, in the press, couldn’t keep up with what he was saying. Clinton made it clear that, as a man, he disagreed on this issue.

It’s hard to believe that these reporters were all describing the same scene—so much is in the eye (and mind) of the beholder. In addition to conflict, traveling campaign reporters are also ever on the lookout, consciously or not, for anything that feeds into their own conventional wisdom (about a particular candidate, strategy, primary, etc). And if the conflict appears to confirm the conventional wisdom, so much the better!

In this case, conventional wisdom has it that Bill Clinton is Angry—he’s the Angry Campaigner. And so, what looked to local reporters like a spirited but not particularly newsworthy exchange meriting mention toward the end of an article, looked like Headline Material to the traveling campaign press (and, great minds thinking alike, to Drudge, who yesterday had it: “Video: [Clinton] lashes out at pro-life students”).

But wait! Lest you forget: there were two Hecklings of Bill on Sunday. Before I get to MSNBC’s blowout coverage of it all—they rolled the Two Heckles into One Big Angry Bill Story—here is the background on the other heckle, which occurred while Bill Clinton was giving a speech in Canton, Ohio, on Sunday.

Per the Akron Beacon Journal, in the eighteenth of twenty-six paragraphs:

At least one Obama supporter was on hand, and he made himself known early and often. A middle-aged African-American standing near the rear of the gym, he periodically yelled out ”Obama” throughout the long wait and several times during Clinton’s speech. Most of the crowd ignored him, and he was not confronted, but Clinton seemed annoyed.

In a post titled “Bill Spars with Obama Supporter,” MSNBC’s “First Read” led with the heckler (“Robert Holeman came to Timken High School here today with a message to deliver to Bill Clinton. He did—and he said the former president wasn’t happy about it.”) and earned itself a Drudge link (“Bill Clinton Lashes Out at Obama Supporter”—paired with Drudge’s other “Bill lashes out” headline.)

More from “First Read:

Throughout the event, as Clinton made his case for his wife, Holeman’s dissenting voice could be heard. At times he simply shouted Obama’s name… As soon as Clinton finished speaking, the Canton native made a beeline to the ropeline to give Clinton a piece of his mind.

This MSNBC scribe even interviewed the heckler on the spot (it took Fox News until last night to nail down an interview with the guy; Fox generally played catch-up to MSNBC on HecklerGate all day yesterday, ramping up its coverage—Brit Hume: “Bill Clinton gets red in the face again…”; John Gibson: “Clinton has been given to wagging his finger a lot lately. Is he going ‘round the bend?”—only yesterday afternoon.). “First Read” reported that “Holeman said he thought Clinton was ‘gasping for air,’” and that:

Holeman also described Clinton’s reaction to him as “irate.”… “I think [Clinton] even hit me in the face with his hand,” he said. “He did give me a little pop. It was okay, because I understand his tenacity for his wife.” Clinton did engage Holeman for a few minutes, at times pointing directly at him. It was unclear whether he did make physical contact, however.

Wow! A heckler “thinks” Bill Clinton “hit” him and the reporter witnessed Clinton “pointing directly at” the heckler, although it was “unclear whether [Clinton] did make physical contact.” Holy Conflict!

Cut to MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough yesterday morning, pushing both the Conflict and the Conventional Wisdom:

Last night I got an e-mail from one of the embeds saying Bill Clinton wagged his finger, poked his finger, and actually hit a guy. Then we got an e-mail an hour or two later saying [Bill] was shouting at a pro-life demonstrator…As far as whether or not [Clinton] made physical contact, it doesn’t appear there’s a whole lot of evidence that happened…Let’s listen to the man’s account of his confrontation with Clinton…. [Roll embed’s footage of man saying “I think he even hit me”]… There is something going on with Bill Clinton right now, and we have been talking about it really off-the-air more than on-the-air… Let’s take people behind the scenes because for two months now you’ve had some of the top political reporters in America whispering, “What’s wrong with Bill Clinton?” There’s something going on there. Why is he so out of control?

(CNN’s Jeanne Moos had an answer for Scarborough later in the day, CNN having decided to treat HecklerGate a tad more lightly than MSNBC: ” ‘Why is he so out of control?’ Probably because he keeps hearing stuff like that from the media. We’re far more annoying than hecklers…”)

And so on MSNBC on Monday, Sunday’s Two Heckles became One Big Story of One Angry Bill, complete with white-spotlighted footage of the former president wagging his finger at one heckler. Drama! Or, as MSNBC’s Contessa Breweer confessed yesterday as she took her turn flogging HecklerGate: “But, wow! It gives us something to talk about, something exciting in the middle of a campaign rally!”

Later yesterday morning, MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski quizzed NBC’s Andrea Mitchell about whether any of this was “helping Hillary Clinton.”

MITCHELL: …I think you can argue in Ohio and some of these other states, Bill Clinton is a big asset. And stirring up a crowd like this, turning the crowd against a protester, an anti-abortion protester at a very liberal Ohio crowd, you could argue that that might be helpful. Again, these clips when they’re played over and over again, that does not help the campaign.

BRZEZINSKI: I know, but you wonder—you bring up a point of how popular he is. He draws a huge crowd. Could it be the few in the media are picking this apart, but in general, he draws a crowd and basically helps her?

MITCHELL:… I think that could be a very good argument….

“Picking this apart” further, Brzezinski later asked MSNBC’s Pat Buchanan and Rachel Sklar of The Huffington Post to chew it all over some more.

BUCHANAN: [Bill Clinton is] distracting from the battle between Hillary and Obama…The focus is on how Bill Clinton is handling hecklers and I’m not sure…

BRZEZINSKI: I know! Look at us! (Laughing). Really, let’s…

BUCHANAN: You’re eating up the last twenty-four hours before the Wisconsin primary talking about [Bill Clinton].

BRZEZINSKI: Rachel, let me ask you this, the impact on Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The fact that right now we’re analyzing video of Bill waggling his finger at a heckler’s face and discussing whether or not it actually touched his face…

RACHEL SKLAR: I think you’re answering your own question. It’s clearly not good for Hillary when the discussion is…

BRZEZINSKI: I mean, is this our fault or is Bill Clinton putting himself out there in a way that we cannot ignore?

SKLAR: It’s unfortunate for the Clinton campaign and for Bill Clinton that this happened on a slow news day… I think anytime that Bill Clinton does wag his finger, people get very excited. That wagging of Bill Clinton’s finger is something they want to impute to him, even if he doesn’t do it. So Bill Clinton losing his cool has been a theme in this campaign, whether or not he actually does. I think in certain respects, he’s had every right to be annoyed or exasperated or frustrated. I think it’s very rude for an Obama supporter to yell, “Obama, Obama!” and disrupt his speech.

BRZEZINSKI: That is rude. And why not speak out and speak back? Although annoyed, exasperated, and frustrated could be the way the Clinton campaign, Pat, feels about the Obama campaign…

BUCHANAN … What they’re reflecting is the frustration, the anger, and the exasperation of being hassled when he’s fighting to try to get back on the campaign trail…At the same time, Mika, let me say, when candidates, for example, some of them get a reputation for making gaffes…so they keep the camera on them, every single move he makes. One slip, here we go again. And they use these things to reinforce it. And that’s what we’ve got with Clinton putting the finger in the guy’s face…

See the pundit explaining the ways of his reporting peers! There was Pat Buchanan—in his way—getting at the Conflict/Conventional Wisdom dynamic in the press that ensures Big Perpetual Play for stories like Angry Bill Clinton. In a segment devoted to discussion of Angry Bill Clinton. Of course.

Finally, what would MSNBC’s triumphant wall-to-wall coverage of HecklerGate be without Chris Matthews’ take on it all? Matthews devoted a good portion of Hardball yesterday afternoon—under the chyron, “Bill Clinton’s Anger Management”—to the Two Heckles and whether they help or hurt Hillary Clinton’s campaign. (Note: Matthews was clearly impressed by his network’s technical wizardry as he rolled the unavoidable Heckle footage: “We caught [Bill] in that little silhouette there… It’s almost like a crime scene the way they show these things now.”) At one point Matthews compared Bill Clinton to a giant balloon (“He’s a big Thanksgiving float and all [Hillary] can do is hold onto the ropes!”). At another point, Matthews saw Old Blue Eyes in Bill (“I keep thinking of Frank Sinatra because he was the guy no matter how big he was if somebody wanted to poke fun or cause trouble for him, he was ready for him… If you want to come after me, I’ll come after you.”)

It’s a Thanksgiving float! It’s Frank Sinatra! It’s… it’s… Angry Bill Clinton!

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.