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.