Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Monday, October 24, 2016

Upon first venturing to write about politics 20 years ago, I held naïve views about political journalism. Specifically, I imagined that factual accuracy mattered as it did in the kinds of books and magazine pieces I’d written on non-political topics: opinionated, yes, but grounded in careful reporting.

Otherwise, why bother?

After 10 years, I became persuaded that the honor system supposedly governing journalists had broken down. “Claiming the moral authority of a code of professional ethics it idealizes in the abstract but repudiates in practice,” I wrote in Harper’s magazine, “today’s Washington press corps has grown as decadent and self-protective as any politician or interest group whose behavior it purports to monitor.”

And that was before Fox News.

Driven partly by cable TV celebrity, personality-based narratives rule. Politicians are depicted as heroes or villains in group melodramas as simplistic as any TV soap opera. Facts are fitted to the storyline. Cheap psychodrama thrives. The whole world’s a Maureen Dowd column.

Which brings us back to Harper’s and author Doug Henwood.  Because he finds her too close to Wall Street and too hawkish on foreign policy, Henwood evidently feels it his moral duty to blacken Hillary Clinton’s character. It’s not enough to say she voted for the Iraq War and favored bombing Syria. Henwood had to dig up “Whitewater” to prove her a liar and a cheat.

Then after I wrote a column pointing out that almost everything he’d written about that phony scandal was nonsense, Henwood began calling me bad names on social media. “Clinton towel boy,” was one.

So I posted the following on his Facebook page:

“I find it interesting that when confronted with several quite basic factual errors in his description of the great Whitewater scandal of legend and song, Doug Henwood’s response is name calling. That tells me pretty much all I need to know about him.

“However, it’s false to say that the late Jim McDougal’s savings and loan financed the Clintons’ Whitewater investment. He didn’t buy it until five years later. Another bank made the loan, for which both Clintons were jointly and severally responsible–meaning they’d have to pay it off regardless of what happened to McDougal or his other investments. Which they did. Whitewater cost the S&L nothing.

“It’s doubly false that ‘the Clintons, of course, were also investors in McDougal’s schemes.’ They had no other financial relationship whatsoever. That was the whole point of quoting the prosecutor’s closing argument in McDougal’s bank fraud trial: Convicting him depended upon convincing the jury that [he’d]…misled the Clintons about their investment and resorted to desperate measures to try to keep the bank afloat. In a word, they got conned.

“Regardless of one’s opinion about Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy ideas, those are the facts, available for about 18 years now. Henwood simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

Now if somebody took something of mine apart like that, I’d do my best to make them regret it. But Henwood can’t, because he was blowing smoke to begin with.

“What I don’t get,” he answered, “is why you’re so invested in doing PR for these [bleeps].”

Sorry, dude… not playing. Facts are facts.

Everybody makes mistakes. Professionals own them.

That wouldn’t be our Mr. Henwood. So let me add that almost everything he wrote about the Clintons in Arkansas reflects sheer incomprehension. Mostly, it’s what Joe Conason and I call “naïve cynicism,” in which a reporter innocent of basic political realities presumes corruption.

For example, he accuses Bill Clinton of a cynical ploy “aimed at distancing himself from traditional liberal politics” by not calling for a repeal of Arkansas’s right-to-work law. Shockingly, Clinton also failed to call for abolishing Razorback football and duck-hunting season.

Would it help to know that no Arkansas gubernatorial candidate has ever campaigned for union shops?

Henwood alleges that Clinton “went light on environmental enforcement,” covering the state in “chicken feces.” (Never mind that properly applied chicken litter is the best organic fertilizer on Earth, as my happy cows will attest.) Would it help to know that until Clinton wrestled the timber industry and Farm Bureau to the ground in 1985, Arkansas environmental agencies had virtually no enforcement powers?

Elsewhere, Henwood alleges that the Clintons schemed to earn the enmity of teacher unions. In vain, alas. But he left out town hall meetings Hillary held with educators and parents in all 75 Arkansas counties back in 1983 in support of her husband’s educational reforms.

No matter. Her efforts were pointless anyway, Henwood thinks, because real advances “would require a wholesale overhaul of the political economy…and the Clintons weren’t about to take that on.”

Ah, yes. Wholesale overhaul. If only Hillary had been willing to wave her magic wand, wiping away 200 years of history, abolishing the legislature and converting Arkansas into Connecticut.

But, you know, the witch is too selfish for that.

Photo: Hillary Clinton stumps for U.S. Sen. Al Franken and Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton at the Leonard Center Field House at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., on Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014. (Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT)

Want more political news and analysis? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!

Click here for reuse options!
Copyright 2014 The National Memo
  • Dominick Vila

    Reliance on sensationalism to exist, the need to gain market share, the suspected preferences of their audience, and the fact that our media is owned by Right and Left wing moguls, have changed American journalism into an extension of our two major political parties. For all intents and purposes, our media is an extension of our political parties, and the interests they support. If anyone wants to get a more unbiased perspective of what is happening in the world and, to a lesser extent, what is happening in the USA, watch or read foreign media.

    • 788eddie

      Excellent post, Dominick. And, in this case, instead of supporting and defending democracy, we’re threatened by partisan press.

      Why can’t we push for a law that states simply that any news program may not broadcast false or misleading news. The Canada Broadcasting Act helps to insure Canadians of a fair and impartial news media (it is also the reason that Fox News is not broadcast in Canada).

      • Dominick Vila

        That is also the reason Rupert Murdoch got in trouble in the UK. Most countries, including our closest allies, are more determined to preserve their freedom and democracy than we are.
        Between the influence of money in our political process, and a complicit media more interested in advancing the interests of their owners and donors, than unbiased journalism and providing the American people with objective information, the only thing we get from our media is what supporters of both sides of our political spectrum want to hear.
        The solution may be public funding, with the main candidates running for office get equal amounts of money, closer monitoring of political spending and who is doing it, and limiting the length of our political campaigns. Unfortunately, that is not going to happen any time soon.

        • midway54

          Nor will Medicare/Medicaid for all happen any time soon. Our Gilded Age II Plutocracy, its leaders, its robber barons, and its scoundrel servants will remain indifferent to the immutable fact that a decent and most enjoyable life cannot be led by citizens who are unhealthy and who obviously must simply endure their existence for want of the resources to remedy their physical disabilities. As long as the quest for profit dominates health care it will remain the status quo

      • Independent1

        You may be interested in an excerpt from an artticle published by which documents a court ruling which allows Fox News to intentionally misinform the public. It’s clear that sometimes the supposed freedoms that are built into America’s Constitution actually accomplish the reverse of what our forefathers intended.

        See this excerpt from the philly2philly article:

        Here’s the rundown: On August 18, 2000, journalist Jane Akre won $425,000 in a court ruling where she charged she was pressured by Fox News management and lawyers to air what she knew and documented to be false information.

        The real information: she found out cows in Florida were being injected with RBGH, a drug designed to make cows produce milk – and, according to FDA-redacted studies, unintentionally designed to make human beings produce cancer.

        Fox lawyers, under pressure by the Monsanto Corporation (who produced RBGH), rewrote her report over 80 times to make it compatible with the company’s requests. She and her husband, journalist Steve Wilson, refused to air the edited segment.

        In February 2003, Fox appealed the decision and an appellate court and had it overturned. Fox lawyers argued it was their first amendment right to report false information. In a six-page written decision, the Court of Appeals decided the FCC’s position against news distortion is only a “policy,” not a “law, rule, or regulation.”

        So, Fox and the other gladiatorical cable news channels were given the okay to legally lie right around the time of the Iraq War’s birth – when media lies coincidentally hit a peak in both frequency and severity.

        The philly2philly reporting of this court case points out that web searches bring up virtually no other articles documenting this ruling but it’s interesting to me that for the past 10 plus years Faux News has continued to not only clearly broadcast lies and distortions of the truth, but to actually censor the news it broadcasts (broadcasting very little if any news about events that take place which may put Barack Obama in a positive light).

        Faux News clearly seems to not worry a bit that they may be sued for libel at any moment because of the outright lies they publish, so although there are few articles documenting the court of appeals ruling recorded by the philly2philly article, it would seem that Faux News must have been issued such a ruling.

        Scary isn’t it? That America’s news outlets can deliberately publish lies to misinform the public.

        Here’s a link to the entire article:

        I believe here’s where philly2philly got their information for their article:

  • Bill Thompson

    Today’s brand of journalism and the advance of cable news networks has made sensationalism a must. The 24 hour news cycle is only useful in a 911 event. Barring major catastrophes The networks are forced to fill the time with blabber. Due to the fact that the networks are beholden to their corporate sponsors. The high cost of investigative journalism and the decline in newspaper readership Investigative journalism has all but been eliminated. Aggressive and true journalism are the best defense against a political system run amuck and corporate takeover of our democracy. Today’s news resembles Opinion rather then fact. In my estimation this is exactly what has happened.

  • browninghipower

    Gene, you continue to be a treasure. I’m glad that you have this forum on National Memo. I’m only sorry that it’s so limited. Nonetheless, my friend, you keep the fire lit. I fondly remember the days you were a guest on my long-ago radio show in Phoenix before there were Liberals on the air. You were honest and courageous then as well. Hey…I’ve lived to see the Red Sox win 3 Series….I’m in your corner for the Cubs…

  • Kurt CPI

    Well, the article points out the sins of one reporter, but fails to make the point of the headline. Not that the headline is wrong – it’s spot on, actually. But offering only one anti-Clinton writer as evidence of conspiracy on the part of the media as a whole is the pot calling the kettle black. In recent years, weeks, even days, we clearly see that political “reporting” is partisan. Lyons asserts that it is conservatives that taint the truth (or at least strongly suggests it through his choice of examples). Conservative columnists can use examples to “prove” that it’s the other way around. This article itself, a self-fulfilling expose`, could be used by a conservative columnist to make the same point from the opposing viewpoint. Ridiculous, really!

    • browninghipower

      Prove it. Your post only splatters generalities. You ever read the Lyons/Conason book? Hmmm? Do so before you make more of a fool of yourself.

      • Kurt CPI

        Prove what? That the article, supposedly about the decline of political journalism, presents as evidence only rebuttals to articles by one other columnist? There’s simply no need to prove that, that’s exactly what’s in it. I wasn’t reviewing a book, I was commenting on this article, the book is irrelevant to the article. Foolishness is reading only what you choose to see. Point in fact, I began my post by agreeing with the premise of the article. I only stated that Lyons did an extremely poor job of making his point. In fact he didn’t make his point at all. If this had been turned in as a persuasive essay in a writing class, it would have earned a D.

        • browninghipower

          A fine example of gooper Twice Apple Two-Stepping…watch out for the dog droppings there, bub

          • Kurt CPI

            Never mind, you just don’t get it.

          • browninghipower

            I agree.

          • alansnipes

            No, you don’t get it. If you read Mr’ Lyons regularly, he has pointed out many articles and columns in the past.

          • Kurt CPI

            No, you don’t get it. You think (even though I’ve said repeatedly to the contrary) that I disagree with Lyon’s, therefore I’m a troll or at least a Republican (which I’m neither). In fact, for the third time, I don’t disagree with Lyons – I agree completely! What I said was that his title was not supported by the text of his article. If the title had been “Doug Henwood Uses Untruths in his Columns”, then indeed his examples would have been sufficient to satisfy his titular abstract. However, his title is an indictment of political reporting across the board, and a single-source as an example does not provide anything close to evidence toward his thesis. It would be like titling an article “Wild West Youths Were Cold Blooded Killers”, and then using only Billy the Kid’s record to prove it. In fact, most youths in west of the the mid-1800’s were farmers and laborers who never killed anyone. But even if it were true, using ONLY Billy the Kid would not provide anything close to sufficient evidence toward making the point.
            Also, what Mr. Lyons has written in other articles, books, etc. doesn’t make this effort any more valid. It, like any singular offering, must stand on it’s own. The article, on its own, is very unprofessional. You, as the reader, are entitled to make the assumption that the choir was present at all the previous sermons. The author should know better.

  • alansnipes

    Well said again, Gene. The article you offer is just the latest which you have documented. It is only one article because this was the one that was published. There have been many in the past and there will be more in the future which I am sure Mr. Lyons will call out when they are published.