Pundit Central

Press on Press

Press on Press

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The commentariat elects itself Issue 1 this Sunday, prompted to self-reflection by a Steven Brill article criticizing Kenneth Starr’s media dealings. The upcoming presidential trip to China is Issue 2. Political wrangling surrounding the tobacco bill–Dead? Not dead?–is Issue 3.

An admission: Pundit Central, like most viewers, hasn’t read Brill’s article. The fact that Pundit Central found himself without a clear sense of the article’s focus or length after sitting through eight hours of TV commentary is no compliment to the opinion mafia.

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Al Hunt (CNN’s Capital Gang and NBC’s Meet the Press) pronounces it a “brilliant” piece, which analyzes the media’s “rush to judgment” during the scandal’s first week. Bob Woodward (Meet the Press) criticizes its conclusions, but agrees that the 28-page article is a laudable effort to “put the press under a microscope.” On Fox News Sunday Tony Snow doesn’t want to talk about the press–he believes the “key allegation” is that Starr improperly leaked. Ruth Coniff reads the 54-page article as an argument that “Starr calls up his reporters,” and they do his bidding. Brit Hume assures her that the “20-something” page article makes no such claim.

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Pundit Central went to the Sunday edition of the Paper of Record, which tells him that: 1)Brill’s article addresses early press coverage of the scandal; 2)Brill interviewed Starr; 3)Starr admits to meeting with reporters; 4)Starr and Brill disagree over whether such meetings were illegal; and 5)Brill thinks Starr used overeager media to squeeze Lewinsky. Brill himself appeared on several of the shows to discuss Point 4. Clintonians, led by Rahm Emanuel (Meet the Press), made appearances to call for an investigation.

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Juan Williams (Fox News Sunday) speaks for many when he argues that the article is “one-sided … distorted,” because it ignores White House behavior. Williams suggests that Brill’s article, appearing in the inaugural edition of a magazine Brill publishes, is more publicity stunt than serious journalism. Wolf Blitzer asks CNN’s Late Edition pundits about Starr’s motives in granting Brill an interview. He’s somewhere between naive and idiotic, agree panelists. Several pundits also fret that talk about Starr and the media will obscure the big issue–the president’s behavior.

Margaret Carlson (Capital Gang) thinks Clinton is “being a little bit wussy,” on Issue 2, his agreement to visit Tiananmen Square. Other pundits will be satisfied if he uses the occasion to lecture the Chinese about the importance of human rights. Mark Shields (PBS’s NewsHour With Jim Lehrer) thinks our China policy is dictated by commercial, not strategic, interests. Shields and Kate O’Beirne (Capital Gang) would like to see America use its economic muscle to force human rights reforms. Paul Gigot (NewsHour) shares these goals, but thinks increased trade will prove a more effective strategy.

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Issue 3, the viability of the long-suffering tobacco bill, confounds everyone. Bill Kristol (ABC’s This Week) is amazed that the GOP is getting away with opposing a tobacco bill. Gwen Ifill (Washington Week in Review) reports that Republicans have been emboldened recently by a widely circulated poll about voter attitudes. George Stephanopoulos (This Week) quips that voters are “for [the tobacco bill], but don’t care about it.” Shields notes that the Democrats are in a win-win situation–if the bill dies, the Republicans can be attacked as pro-teen smoking; if it passes, the Democrats can claim credit. In the absence of legitimate campaign issues, he predicts, this could become a relative biggie.

Opinions you can carry in your pocket: Add “saves need to follow news” to the list of reasons why one should watch Meet the Press. Host Tim Russert to Woodward: “Where are we in this story [presidential scandal]? What should the public know or think about this story: Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky?” Woodward–understandably flustered by this unenviable task–takes 56 seconds to say, in effect, that l’affaire Lewinsky is but one episode in a larger scandal.

It’s Sunday, what channel is this? During a rare religious segment on This Week (Southern Baptist convention provides the news peg), Stephanopoulos mentions a biblical passage urging women to submit to their husbands, when George Will jumps in. Will happens to have the Bible with him at the ABC sound stage, and intends to read the scriptural passage in question! Cokie Roberts and Sam Donaldson also quote Scripture during the segment to buttress their arguments, apparently from memory.

Bruce Gottlieb

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