‘Clinton’: ‘Liberal’ PBS hatchet-job

February 14, 2012

Everything that is currently wrong with politics – but, in particular, the way the media allows itself to be handmaiden to and enabler of the polarizers who have learned how to manipulate it with lies and half-truths – can be seen in the “American Experience” two-part documentary, “Clinton,” which airs on PBS next week (Feb. 20 and 21).

And that includes “Clinton” itself.

Put it this way: If St. Reagan were receiving a similarly critical treatment on the same network, we already would be hearing the cries to keep it off the air, as well as demands to cut off funding for public broadcasting – or, to be more accurate, louder cries to do so.

This nearly four-hour documentary by Barak Goodman, a long-time “American Experience” producer and director, is a smear job, though more the death-by-a-thousand-cuts approach than a straight-ahead takedown. It’s guilty in miniature of all the same flaws that major media coverage has fallen prey to since the rise of both the 24-hour news cycle and the Internet. Interestingly, the origins of both can be traced to the presidential era of Bill Clinton.

“Clinton” devotes its first two hours to Clinton’s rise to the White House (through his years as governor of Arkansas), ending with the rise of Newt Gingrich as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Republican landslide of 1994. The second half is devoted to the final six years of the Clinton presidency – but a solid hour of that is devoted, naturally, to the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Indeed, the first part begins with Clinton’s apology about that scandal and frames the entire documentary as the story of a guy whose self-destructive streak tainted and overshadowed everything he did.

OK, that’s one way of looking at it.

The nature of media – and the nature of documentaries, for that matter – is to telescope any story into bite-sized chunks. The pieces the media focus on are the ones that enter public awareness; control that message (as the Republicans so masterfully do) and you sway the public.

And that begins, of course, with who you use to tell your story. Tellingly, while there are former Clintonites in the mix (press secretary Dee Dee Myers, deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes, Secretary of Labor Robert Reich), much of the talking is done by journalists, whose authority is essentially based on second-hand information. More to the point, writers like Joe Klein and Gail Sheehy have their own axes to grind in terms of their viewpoints about who Bill and Hillary Clinton were during these years. They aren’t unbiased witnesses of history; both were writing things then (and now) that were attempts to sway the way that history is viewed.

There’s also the question of context. At various points in the first part, before they’ve actually been revealed as serious players in the story, witnesses such as Dick Morris, a former Clinton political consultant, and Lucianne Goldberg, identified only as a “literary agent,” are allowed to comment without ever being identified as the rabid anti-Clinton partisans they were and still are. Even when they enter the story itself (Goldberg as the right-wing puppet-master behind Linda Tripp; Morris as an increasingly right-wing consultant with sexual peccadilloes of his own that are never mentioned), they are never identified as having strong interests that shape the stories they tell.

Similarly, former special prosecutor Kenneth Starr – who wasted $40 million looking for the Whitewater scandal that wasn’t and only turned up evidence of sexual indiscretion – is presented as a credible, unbiased witness. In the end, Goodman glosses over the fact that no evidence of Clinton wrongdoing in the actual Whitewater case (which, by the most tenuous of threads, led Starr to Monica Lewinsky) was ever charged or proved by Starr’s office.

Even the first half of the documentary suffers from the necessary telescoping of time. By the end of the first half, if you don’t remember the actual events or are too young to have experienced them, you’ll be convinced that there was nothing else on the mind of America during the 1992 presidential primary campaign than the seemingly daily revelations about Clinton’s alleged infidelities.

Clinton was, in fact, the first president to suffer the media coverage of the competitive 24-hour news cycle, thanks to the launch of Fox News Channel in late 1996, which put CNN’s feet to the fire. He was also the first president to be covered by the Internet – and one of the first victims of the innuendo and gossip that pass for reporting on The Drudge Report and other right-wing sites.

That kind of focus – that constant need to fill airtime, no matter how inane the story, or accumulate page-views, no matter how tenuous the ties to reality – now dominates all political coverage. The field of Republican presidential candidates spend their time on the campaign trail attacking the imaginary and fictional sins of President Barack Obama – and the media simply reports what they say, without bothering to point out the falsehoods in their statements.

In that respect, most of the so-called liberal media has abdicated any sense of responsibility to helping people understand what’s going on. They’re stenographers, at best, and ratings-chasing whores at worst, which is more often the case.

“Clinton” will, no doubt, strike most Republicans as going too easy on him. In fact, it strikes me as an effort by PBS to avoid Republican recrimination by spending four hours focusing on the political problems and personal disasters of the Clinton administration.

Because, of course, Republicans control the message. And the message is that the media in general – and PBS in particular – skews liberal at all times. Even when it’s doing what amounts to a four-hour hatchet-job on Bill Clinton.

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