Following the lead of NY Times and Broder, Russert discussed Clintons' marriage with Chris Matthews

››› ››› JEREMY SCHULMAN

On MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, Tim Russert predicted that if Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) runs for president, the state of her marriage to former President Bill Clinton "will become part of the coverage of her campaign." Russert was responding to a question from Chris Matthews about whether newspapers such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal will "commit resources to this story now that it's popped here."

On the May 25 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, NBC Washington bureau chief and Meet the Press host Tim Russert predicted that if Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) runs for president, the state of her marriage to former President Bill Clinton "will become part of the coverage of her campaign." Russert was responding to a question from host Chris Matthews about whether newspapers such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal will "commit resources to this story now that it's popped here." In response to a question about what he thought of the New York Times' news judgment in putting a story on the Clintons' marriage "at the top of the fold" on Page One, Russert told Matthews that "I do think that the role of Bill Clinton in a Hillary Clinton administration or presidency is a very serious story," adding that "people also would say, 'If he has a lot of free time on his hands in the White House, is that become an issue?' "

Russert and Matthews were discussing a May 23 New York Times article by Patrick Healy that cited interviews with "some 50 people" about the state of the Clintons' marriage and its purported political ramifications. As Media Matters for America has noted, Healy documented the number of days the Clintons spend together each month and revived a baseless tabloid rumor that the former president has or had a relationship with Canadian politician Belinda Stronach.

Commenting on Healy's story, Russert told Matthews that "this was a very important judgment by the Times that this is a legitimate story." Russert also agreed with Matthews that in his position at NBC News, Russert must make similar news judgments "all the time." But in covering the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal in the 1990s, Russert's judgments were flawed. He filed a story on former President Clinton despite acknowledging that it might not be supported by "a germ of evidence"; he misquoted and mischaracterized Clinton's deposition in the Paula Jones case; and, infamously, he hosted discredited Internet gossip Matt Drudge at a Meet the Press journalists' roundtable.

From the May 25 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about the big new story coming out of The New York Times -- ticklish and, therefore, I'd like to start with that one. Bill and Hillary Clinton, probably the greatest soap opera in the history of America since Martha and George Washington. The New York Times, when they make a judgment to put something right at the top of the fold, right at the banner, about the marriage of the Clintons. What do you make of that judgment? News judgment. You make judgments like this.

RUSSERT: All the time. But this was a very important judgment by the Times that this is a legitimate story. I do think that the role of Bill Clinton in a Hillary Clinton administration or presidency is a very serious story.

Remember when Governor Clinton was first running, he would say, "You buy one and get two. Two for the price of one"? And I think a lot of people are going to be asking, "Exactly what is Bill Clinton's role in a campaign and in a presidency?" And people also would say, "If he has a lot of free time on his hands in the White House, is that become an issue?"

[...]

MATTHEWS: David Broder, he's on your program a lot: "[T]he very fact that the Times, The New York Times has sent a reporter out to interview 50 people about the state of the Clintons' marriage and placed the story on the top of Page One was a clear signal -- if that was needed -- that the drama of the Clintons' personal life would be a hot topic if she runs for president."

Do you have a sense that the big news organizations, the big print organizations -- the Times, the Post, the L.A. Times, the Journal -- are going to commit resources to this story now that it's popped here? Pure journalistic estimate.

RUSSERT: If, in fact, she runs for president, and I think she will, then everything will be, obviously, scrutinized. And this will become part of the coverage of her campaign.

MATTHEWS: Do you think they know that?

RUSSERT: The Clintons? Oh, sure.

MATTHEWS: They know it's coming? The scrutiny's coming?

RUSSERT: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Russert has a history of covering innuendo involving the Clintons and sex. In an appearance on the July 15, 1998, broadcast of NBC's Nightly News, Russert discussed independent counsel Kenneth Starr's efforts to subpoena Clinton's Secret Service agents. Russert told viewers that members of Congress were "coming to some conclusions that perhaps Secret Service agents may have been, quote, 'facilitating' " Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky. Russert then acknowledged, "We don't know whether that's Republican spin, partisan spin, ideological spin, or there's a germ of evidence":

RUSSERT: Members of Congress have been talking to investigators, people, lawyers associated with the grand jury, people who are free to talk, and they are coming to some conclusions that perhaps Secret Service agents may have been, quote, "facilitating." We don't know whether that's Republican spin, partisan spin, ideological spin, or there's a germ of evidence. Ken Starr is determined to find out, and it has caused deep concerns at the White House and within the Secret Service, men and women who put their lives on the line every day for the president.

Starr's report, released in September 1998, said that Clinton's secretary, Betty Currie, "sometimes tried to persuade them [Secret Service agents] to admit Ms. Lewinsky to the White House compound without making a record of it." The report added, "None of the Uniformed Division officers interviewed by the OIC acknowledged having permitted Ms. Lewinsky to enter the White House without proper clearance. However, as noted elsewhere, there is clear evidence that Ms. Lewinsky was in the White House on days for which no records show her entry or exit."

Russert also distorted Clinton's deposition in the Paula Jones civil lawsuit. On the April 11, 1998, edition of CNBC's Tim Russert show, Russert asked: "And how do they [White House aides] explain Gennifer Flowers, where the president looked the country in the eye in 1992 and said, 'Her story's untrue,' and then under oath said, 'Yes, I had sex'?"

But as the website Daily Howler noted at the time, Clinton did not say in his deposition, "Yes, I had sex" with Flowers; nor did his actual testimony contradict his previous denial. On the February 12, 1992, broadcast of ABC's Nightline, Clinton said -- referring to questions about his relationship with Flowers -- "All I've been asked about by the press are a woman I didn't sleep with and a draft I didn't dodge."

In his January 17, 1998, deposition, Clinton was asked: "Did you ever have sexual relations with Gennifer Flowers?" Clinton responded: "The answer to your question, if the definition is section one there in the first piece of evidence you gave me, is yes." Clinton said that he and Flowers had had "sexual relations" "once" in 1977.

The "definition" that Clinton was referring to was submitted by Jones's attorneys and was approved by Judge Susan Webber Wright. It read:

For the purposes of this deposition, a person engages in "sexual relations" when the person knowingly engages in or causes . . . contact with the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks of any person with an intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person . . . . "Contact" means intentional touching, either directly or through clothing.

As The Daily Howler pointed out, this definition covers any number of possible activities that would not contradict Clinton's statement that he "didn't sleep with" Flowers.

Further, Russert used his "news judgment" to include Internet gossip Matt Drudge as one of the reporters in his Meet The Press journalists' roundtable on January 25, 1998, shortly after Drudge had posted the first news about Monica Lewinsky on his website, The Drudge Report. Drudge has a long history of posting rumors on his site that were later debunked, most recently on May 21, when, as Media Matters noted, Drudge claimed that Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean secretly aided Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu in his attempt to unseat incumbent New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, who won re-election on May 20.

Network/Outlet
MSNBC
Person
Tim Russert
Show/Publication
Hardball
Stories/Interests
Attacks on Bill Clinton, Propaganda/Noise Machine, Hillary Clinton
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