Et tu, Ryan?

Ryan Lizza's dubious Bill Clinton quote

Ryan Lizza is one of the most perceptive political journalists going. His reporting on Barack Obama’s White House thinking, earlier this year, was one of the handful of indispensable profiles of a president whom many journalists find elusive. Moreover, his profile of Paul Ryan in the August 6 New Yorker is the most revealing of the campaign, using biographical detail to make an important point about Ryan’s ideology. Lizza has a keen eye for nuance and an allergy to overkill.

Which makes it especially surprising that Lizza is responsible for one of the more misleading frissons of this year in campaign reporting. In the September 10 New Yorker, his piece on the tangled relations between President Obama and Bill Clinton nicely anticipates what by many accounts was the former president’s knock-down oratorical achievement in Charlotte. But it contains a lazy paragraph that features an especially peculiar sentence that succeeded, for some time last week, in becoming tidbit-of-the-day for a ravenous press corps.

The paragraph concerns attacks on Obama during the 2008 primary season. According to Lizza, the Obama campaign in South Carolina heard racial innuendos in criticisms by both Bill Clinton and the Hillary Clinton campaign. No doubt it may have suited their campaign purposes to do so in a state with a heavily African American Democratic constituency. In any event, as Lizza goes on to say, Clinton remarked then that Obama’s victory in South Carolina should be discounted because Jesse Jackson had won there in ’84 and ’88. Lizza is not the only reporter to have decrypted Clinton’s remarks using a race code.

But Lizza’s next sentence is the highly dubious one. It reads: “Tim Russert told me that, according to his sources, Bill Clinton, in an effort to secure an endorsement for Hillary from Ted Kennedy, said to Kennedy, ‘A few years ago, this guy would have been carrying our bags.’”

Here Lizza rests a large claim on (a) anonymous sources (presumably because Russert didn’t name them) whose words were (b) attested to only by a dead man, and (c) even if spoken were more likely to mean something other than what the paragraph implies, since it begs incredulity to think that Clinton would have resorted to a racial slight to win over Ted Kennedy (who on racial matters was not exactly Strom Thurmond). “Carrying our bags,” if Clinton did say use those words, seems more likely have been a comment about Obama’s inexperience than about his skin color.

Most of the echo chamber that picked up the “carrying our bags” remark did not note its attribution to anonymous sources that obviously could not be questioned. And so a big nothing became the pseudo-gotcha of the day.

Lizza doesn’t need to reach so hard. And the rest of the press corps is not to be excused, either, for magnifying such questionable evidence into a “story.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Todd Gitlin , who teaches journalism at Columbia, is the author of a new book, Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street. Tags: , , ,