THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Lucinda Franks
Title: “There Seems To Be No End To The Way The Press Misinterprets, Manipulates And Quotes Out of Context In Order To Create A Story”
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And about my guest today, well, I guess I’ll always think of her mostly as that very, very young reporter at The New York Times who in 1971 won a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. But who two decades later joined me here to discuss her wonderfully readable, gently and warmly evocative new romantic novel, Wild Apples.
For the moment, of course, now Lucinda Franks may be just a tad better identified in the public mind with the incredibly unfair coverage, to my way of thinking, her former media colleagues gave to the quite compelling summer 1999 interview that she did with First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton for the premiere issue of Tina Brown’s “Talk” magazine.
Now when she was first here on The Open Mind and we spoke of her transition from reporter to novelist, or as I titled our program “From Fact to Fiction”, adding a querulous question mark, Lucinda Franks took real exception to my negative comments about contemporary journalism, praising the press instead for its later Vietnam coverage and certainly for what it told us about Watergate.
At the same time, however, she did add these prescient words, “But I think the other side of the coin is the sensationalism and the glomming onto a negative force and a negative incident and building it up until it becomes a self-perpetuating phenomenon.
Now she says about the media’s mis-reading of her own reporting of Mrs. Clinton’s comments to her, “There seems to be no end to the way the press misinterprets, manipulates and quotes out of context in order to create a story”. And she adds: “The newspapers seem to be making their own narrative, taking bits and pieces of an article in order to make their own narrative. And so I want to ask my guest whether this later observation doesn’t come quite a bit closer to harsh reality when one evaluates today’s American press. Both print and electronic. Fair question?
FRANKS: [Laughter] Well, a very complicated question. And, Dick, let me address first of all that I think this quote that you read about the press taking little bits and pieces of an article and making a narrative, I think this is … was very specific to my story about the Clintons and, indeed, to a lot of what the Clintons have done. And I can’t quite explain it, but it seems to me that whoever, whether it’s Republicans, whether it’s disappointed Liberals, people are … the press is very angry at the Clintons. So I think there is something that propels them into these excesses. Let me say that I believe, and I am a member of the press, I am not any purer than anybody else. I have certainly committed as, you know, as many sins as anybody else I am quite sure. Because as journalists we move like fish in the sea, and I think we have moved over the last decade when I told you rather prescient things … in my case anyway … we have moved into an area where we have exposed our secrets. And we have not only exposed our secrets which include the use of pocket quotes, of sources that don’t exist. We’ve not only done that, we have moved into infotainment in the newspapers and some of the reputable newspapers, not just the tabloids. We are all committing excesses … using off the record quotes, I’m not saying I use off the record quotes … because I actually don’t, I feel that that maybe is the one thing that I think that every good journalist has to abide by or they’ll never get another story. So I think it’s a very complicated double sided thing. And the press has done some phenomenally wonderful in-depth things that were never possible before Watergate. So I see a kind of a yin and yang here.
HEFFNER: Do you give up one for the other?
FRANKS: Ahh, that’s …
HEFFNER: Well, let me ask you … would you give up one for the other?
FRANKS: Well, I think we’re over a little bit to the yang side … particularly over Monica.
HEFFNER: That the good or the bad?
FRANKS: Well, I’m saying yin … I think yin is the female side and yang is kind of the just go right in there and, linearly, you know … go for a goal. And I think there was a goal in, in the Clinton coverage from the very beginning. I … it was with great relish and great over-dramatization that the television press certainly glommed on to the Paula Jones case and then on to … well, you know, on and on … to every little thing that Monica said, every little thing that Monica’s friends and her cousins and friends of friend’s husbands said. And indeed Ken Starr subpoenaed all of these … thereby giving it a legitimacy. So it was a kind of a self perpetuating stream of, of … it was a soap opera, really. And sometimes she didn’t know whether the soap opera was soap opera or a Truman show, you know, because you got, you know, early reports taken from the National Enquirer and lifted into reputable newspapers, completely unsourced, second-hand. You got a kind of a vengeful feeling from the press which was complicated by a vengeful feeling about, you know, from Kenneth Starr. So I think all of that has combined, but I think the other side of this, you know, has nothing actually to do with the Clintons. And that is, I think, a growing … you know, as has been said, politics of personal destruction. And the insistence on “you aren’t doing …”; the insistence by editors that you have to do a story from a distant negative lens in order to be objective, that that is objective.
HEFFNER: Wait a minute, wait a minute, repeat that. Editors …
FRANKS: Editors …
HEFFNER: … you have to do a story …
FRANKS: I think that many editors are suspicious of a story that does not look ironically, skeptically, even contemptuously at a subject. That does not allow a subject to speak for his or herself. We … you know, with some caveats … you know, of, of when you let somebody speak for themselves you have to say if you know something not to be true. But I think there is a skeptical air in the newsrooms. And I think … you know, it traces back to Watergate. Watergate was the hey-day of the press and I think since then young people have, as they have grown up … as well, as older people if they’ve grown up, have not abided by the strictures … for example, when I was under the tutelage of Abe Rosenthal and Arthur Gelb, I mean there were two sources that you had to have. You had to back up everything. You … everything was looked at by a Committee of editors, there were none of these kinds of excesses when Abe Rosenthal and Arthur Gelb were running The New York Times. I’m not saying that there are that kind of excesses now. Because Joe Lillyveld (sp) was a … Abe and Arthur were mentors of Joe and he runs an extremely fine paper. But I’m, you know, in some of the other papers you, there’s just absolutely no standards of …
HEFFNER: Now, let’s go to the question again of “why”. You say it was more than the Clintons. You make the point that the attack on the Clintons, from the very beginning was very personal. And I was going to ask you whether if it had been George and Barbara Bush …
HEFFNER: … would there have been the same kind of …
FRANKS: That’s an excellent question. I really don’t think so. I think that … I think … remember when Nixon was elected and everybody was shocked and they explained it because by the little phrase, “the man met the moment”. [Laughter]
FRANKS: Well, I think the Clintons met the moment, met the moment in history when the press had not had a good scandal, had had Reagan and Bush, you know, who projected so much integrity, that if, if there was any lack of integrity, it would have been so deeply hidden that the press could never begin to unravel it. Kind of like the BCCI scandal. Again, I’m not saying that there was, I think Reagan, in particular, was a … and Nancy Reagan were, were two of the most honorable … and people that had the most integrity of any of our Presidents and First Ladies. But the very appearance of Clinton from the beginning … with bimbo eruptions and the Gennifer Flowers, it put them, you know, right on the edge. They had a story, they had a scandal in the making and I think subliminally they knew … what we know now from Mrs. Clinton’s statements, you know, an addict can’t stop, you now, their addictive behavior. And subliminally I think some of the press knew this and were ready to pounce.
HEFFNER: Well, let me ask you that’s so “iffy” that it may not make all that much sense, but it does to me. And that is whether this wasn’t bound to happen to any new President, First Lady who came onto the scene as late as they did, who were born into the Sixties …
HEFFNER: … who were part …
HEFFNER: … of that change that you chronicled …
HEFFNER: … as a journalist.
FRANKS: Definitely. There is … but what is so puzzling to me, Dick, and I’d like to ask you this question … some of the … of the harbingers of the Sixties Revolution like Mary McGrory, who wrote a scathing, scathing column about my article … never mentioning me, I think because we were sort of old comrades back in the Sixties and the revolution, but certainly was just excoriating …
HEFFNER: I read it.
FRANKS: … to the Clintons. Well, it was, I tell you … people like, people like her, who I guess … I, I don’t know, what’s up with them. I don’t know whether … I think the Clintons have disappointed both the Liberals and, you know, gotten the ire of the Republicans. So that they get it from both sides. But I think it’s … you definitely right … we, we’ve always had Walter Cronkites … even Richard Nixon was kind of a negative image of Walter Cronkite, but he was a Walter Cronkite, paternal, Presidential figure. Bill Clinton is not. Bill Clinton is a draft-evader, you know, the way many of us, if we were men, evaded the draft. You know, most of my friends evaded the draft in some way or other. Through connections, the upper middle class did this. And he was one of us. But maybe we didn’t like what we saw.
HEFFNER: Well, I was just going to ask you … maybe we didn’t like ourselves is the … or we wanted to repudiate … they wanted to repudiate that part of their lives. But the change has come about …
HEFFNER: … the Sixties … the Clintons represent the Sixties and we haven’t moved back.
HEFFNER: And the attitudes that they reflect now …
HEFFNER: … are those attitudes. But let, let me move from that back to why the journalists …
HEFFNER: … changed.
HEFFNER: And how they changed. And Steve Brill sat at this table an hour ago…
HEFFNER: … taping a program that may be seen before this one or may be seen afterwards. He certainly seems to think that journalism has changed.
HEFFNER: Do you?
FRANKS: Oh, definitely. I mean its, its been changing for, you know, many years …
HEFFNER: And the relationship of that change to the marketplace?
FRANKS: Oh, is, is … that’s … all you have to do is to look at the facts and figures of what the networks have gone through, and losing money to the cable channels, and struggling … I think that, that news became, you know, a way to revive the networks and to present entertainment. So the economics of this, and even with the papers … you know to sell papers instead of having people get their news off the Internet or the televisions, the papers had to come up with something. So I think it has a large commercial thrust. I mean there are many factors that have gone into the abuses of the press, but the economic is very strong.
HEFFNER: And the future?
FRANKS: You know, I … I think that history, hopefully in the not too distant future will show … will chasten the press. I think Frank Rich, for instance, and he’s perhaps the only one in The New York Times has been on to this for a long time, on the excesses of the press and of Starr. And he … there are others who have been on to this. I think that if we had driven Clinton out of office, the press really would have been chastened. But I think things go in waves. And, you know, there’s … I don’t think anybody that doubts or that would disagree that the press was irresponsible and excessive at least in some of the coverage of the Monica and the Ken Starr story. So, after a wave like that, you always have a wave of responsibility.
HEFFNER: Wait a minute, wait a minute, Lucinda. You mean to say that if today there were not Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, but X and Y …
HEFFNER: … that you wouldn’t find the same thing happening, given the same …
FRANKS: Well, I’m not sure how long this wave is going to last. Some waves are tidal waves [laughter] and this could last for a long time. I mean, you know, I think that Westbrook Pegler and Drew Pearson would be guffawing in their graves right now because we’ve come as close, I think to, yellow journalism as I’ve … I can remember in my lifetime. And, you know, that took, you know, yellow journalism lasted for a long time before standards come. I don’t, you know, there seems to be no consensus, you know, for having the kind of standards that we had twenty years ago when a network, for instance would not publish the name of a … or a newspaper would not publish the name of a rape victim. That they would get together and, you know, try to protect sometimes, you know, national security, when it was really national security and not publish a story. Of course, that comes very close, and did come close to censorship. So that could be another reason, you know, that there have been too many, you know, Reagans, George Bushes, Republicans who have called for national security. Even Democrats … Carter who have called something a national security issue and it’s really been a personal embarrassment issue. So that’s a, that’s another strain that I think the press is rebelling against.
HEFFNER: I can’t help but ask the question of you as a journalist … whether you would approve of reviving what the National News Council once did before it was essentially killed …
HEFFNER: … by The New York Times and a couple of other major corporations that wouldn’t participate. Do you think we need to have and should have, could have … would you as a journalist endorse …
HEFFNER: … an outside group?
HEFFNER: Not a censorious group…
HEFFNER: … but one to which complaints were made about unfairness.
FRANKS: Absolutely. Some things that had teeth and could embarrass … you know, could not shut up, but could embarrass. In a sense we have this, you know, with, with The Boston Globe reporter who was dismissed because, you know, he had found to print things that were not sourced and were made up. There was another case in Chicago. So this is being done. I mean there’s lots of things happening. And I would certainly think if we could have a national council, or even a, you know, given sections of the country in which a reporter could be censured … which would only mean that their name …
FRANKS: Censured, yes. Not censored, censured ..
HEFFNER: Got you.
FRANKS: … publicly for, you know, an investigation done about their reporting. Of course, this is very hard to do, you know. I mean, if, if the most powerful people on that Council are, you know, of one powerful paper, you know, it’s going to be hard to, you know, to find balance or find a way to do this.
HEFFNER: Would you do if you had the chance to make a choice of doing it … would you re-do what you did in terms of taking on this story on Hillary Clinton?
FRANKS: Oh, on Hillary … oh, absolutely not. I mean … in, in … I actually … believe it or not I enjoyed the press coverage of it because it was so … it was so silly, you know, in the sense of … well, first of all I enjoyed doing the story. It was very difficult to get through the White House, you know, Praetorian guard and get to Hillary. It was very, very difficult. I feel that I did, you know, really good work in convincing her to say the things that needed to be said, that hadn’t been said, she was the only silent one in this, you know, troika of Monica, Bill and, and she didn’t like being the silent victim, and she was going to run for Senate and she had to be real. I mean, New Yorkers like real people. I’m very proud of my work in that her, her polls went up afterwards. So, if the press were mad at her, the people certainly weren’t. They were very appreciate of understanding why she stayed with Bill. You know that she didn’t forgive his behavior, that she didn’t excuse his behavior, that he was going to have to do some hard work and he was going to have to do it alone, she was going off to, you know, she was going to stick by him, but she was going to have her own life and not be his bad cop.
HEFFNER: How in the world did this matter of explaining become a matter of excusing? How did people mis-read that?
FRANKS: You know what, it’s the same way that they … is what happened with early Monica coverage in the, you know, actually there did happen to be a stain on the dress, but early on I think there was a … some penile reference that turned out to be wrong and later was different in that it was a completely unsourced thing taken from a tabloid. What happened is that a tabloid newspaper owner, a very powerful tabloid newspaper owner reporter in Los Angeles got a … through bribes of whatever … got an embargoed copy, a locked up copy of Talk magazine, because they wanted to keep this exclusive very quiet and … until they could, you know, display it in its entirety and not have it distorted or, you know, stolen or whatever. And this tabloid person corresponded to the Sunday Times of London, that was the correspondent that got the story, and did only this five paragraphs of sex, without the, you know, that she didn’t excuse his behavior. It was then picked up by New York and the New York papers, and you know what happens … it becomes … you know, it becomes in the culture. It becomes … I couldn’t have gone on any show and the more I said, “please put up a quote that says that she doesn’t excuse his behavior. Please believe me when I say what I read here that isn’t what happened.” They didn’t want to accept that and I kept being asked over and over and over again by extremely distinguished commentators: “So what is this abuse excuse?” You know, it just isn’t … it wasn’t in the story and nobody seemed to either read the story or want to believe the story.
HEFFNER: But that’s the frightening part because the reality has nothing to do, or very little to do …
FRANKS: Yeah, right.
HEFFNER: … to what is then projected on the …
HEFFNER: … air or in the print.
FRANKS: Right. And it wasn’t personally distressing to me because it was so funny. I mean, you know …
HEFFNER: Oh, come on.
HEFFNER: You weren’t just laughing.
FRANKS: Well, I kind of was because, you know, you go up against Bob Novak who I have the greatest respect for and, you know, Tim Russert, and they ask the same questions. They put … they put clips of me all through the week on different shows saying … just saying “she explained his behavior by saying that he had the childhood abuse”, but then not putting the other side. And then I would say the other side, and because they wouldn’t put the quote up and then they’d ask the question all over again. It became comical really.
HEFFNER: Well, unfortunately, it’s a lot more serious than that because it reflects an attitude of the press …
HEFFNER: … once the feeding frenzy begins …
FRANKS: It could have been more serious . I mean this was, this was a woman who was talking about her personal life which should not have been headlines anyway, although in the context of Monica, of course it was headlines. But I mean in the whole scheme of things, you know, when we have so much to think about in this country that this occupies, you know, so much attention, was…was…was really rather dazzling, I thought.
HEFFNER: You think we needed the Clintons in this country to bridge a gap, take us from the past to the present?
FRANKS: Well, it hasn’t been a very glorious journey. It has distinguished no one, least of all the Clintons. So I don’t know what’s on the other side of that bridge. Do you?
HEFFNER: Well, it does seem to me that there would be a possibility that having used them to walk all over them …
HEFFNER: … to get from the one side to the other …
FRANKS: How interesting.
HEFFNER: … that maybe we will be a little more civilized.
FRANKS: How interesting.
HEFFNER: I don’t have much hope about that.
FRANKS: Civilized and retaining some of the Sixties vision that, that Clinton … I mean even George W is, you know, spouting some, you know, liberal thoughts.
HEFFNER: Now we have one minute left. Just conjecture on your part. Do you think the Clintons were better off for this story? On any level?
FRANKS: Oh, definitely. You mean the Clintons personally?
FRANKS: Definitely. Because she really hadn’t forgiven him totally, until she talked to me. I think that for him it was probably rejuvenating. It was a public commitment to each other, at least for the time being. It had, people understood her where they hadn’t understood her … at least the American people, if not the press.
HEFFNER: You mean it’s going to go from Lucinda Franks, reporter, novelist to therapist?
FRANKS: [Laughter] Well, you asked me the questions, “was it good for them” …
HEFFNER: I understand.
FRANKS: You know I’m just jumping in their minds. I don’t know, you’re going to have to ask them that question.
HEFFNER: Lucinda Franks, thanks so much for joining me today.
FRANKS: Thank you, Dick.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150
Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.