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How media myths are created:
The continuing saga of the Wesley Clark phone call narrative

By Brendan Nyhan
October 15, 2003

The recall campaign may be over in California, but entertainment values are increasingly defining political coverage nationwide. With reporting emphasizing personality over substance, pundits and partisans are now working harder than ever to manufacture negative media narratives about candidates. Following the dramatic success of such a campaign against Vice President Al Gore in 2000, the latest target is Democratic presidential contender General Wesley Clark, who is being tagged as an inveterate liar based on statements that were at worst simply unclear.

The distortions began even before he entered the race. In June, Clark alleged that there was "a concerted effort during the fall of 2001 starting immediately after 9/11 to pin 9/11 and the terrorism problem on Saddam Hussein." When asked who participated in the effort, he said, "Well, it came from the White House, it came from people around the White House. It came from all over." Clark then discussed a call he said he received on Sept. 11, 2001 from someone who pressured him to link the attacks with Saddam. In context, as we have pointed out, Clark was not alleging that the call itself came from the White House, though his statement was somewhat ambiguous.

In late June, when Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Gene Lyons claimed Clark had said the call came from a Bush administration official, Clark quickly called him to correct the record. On the Fox News Channel's "Hannity & Colmes" on July 1, he stated, "I personally got a call from a fellow in Canada who is part of a Middle Eastern think tank who gets inside intelligence information. He called me on 9/11." Later in July, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman misconstrued Clark's statement, and Clark again clarified his comments in a letter to the Times dated three days after Krugman's column (although it did not run in the Times for several weeks). Finally, in late August, Clark again referred to the Canadian think tank official on MSNBC's "Buchanan & Press". Although he did not name the official, the Toronto Star identified the man in question as Thomas Hecht, the founder of a think tank based in Israel that has an office in Montreal.

Though Clark has consistently clarified his story and corrected the record, the ambiguity of the original statement and repeated misinterpretations by sympathetic liberals (the latest to do so is Michael Moore in his new book Dude, Where's My Country?) has provided an opportunity for his political opponents.

By late August, with Clark looming as a possible presidential contender, conservative pundits raced to accuse him of changing his story about the famous phone call. The Weekly Standard, the Wall Street Journal editorial page (subscription required), radio host Rush Limbaugh and columnists George Will, William Safire, Robert Novak and Ann Coulter all accused Clark of inconsistency and dissembling based on out of context and misleading evidence. Will went so far as to alter the order of Clark's original quotes, while Coulter misrepresented the question to which Clark responded with his "all over" statement. The Weekly Standard also claimed that no such Canadian think tank existed, which was later proven to be incorrect.

Most recently, the charge was repeated by Newhouse News columnist David Reinhard, who distorted Clark's statement in similar fashion, claiming "Clark said that, on 9/11, 'people from the White House . . . from people around the White House' told him to tie Saddam Hussein to the attacks."

The supposed White House call was the first sign of a trend, as other Clark statements are now being distorted. Colorado Governor Bill Owens and Denver University President Marc Holtzman told Newsweek that Clark said to them, "I would have been a Republican if [White House political advisor] Karl Rove had returned my phone calls." Clark claims the statement, which was made last January, was a joke. And though Newsweek's reporting suggested that any calls were made by associates rather than Clark himself, the Weekly Standard reported that Rove said he had never talked to Clark and that his phone logs showed no calls from Clark - all of which became evidence to suggest that Clark was again lying. (Syndicated columnist Jonah Goldberg even falsely claimed that Clark made the statement in mid-September - the same week he declared his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination.) And blogger Josh Marshall has shown how a statement Clark made about Iraq policy under President Clinton was recently distorted almost beyond recognition in a New York Sun story quoting several conservative pundits and think tank experts.

The attacks on Clark echo the successful effort to brand former Vice President Al Gore a liar during the 2000 campaign, which was largely driven by the Republican National Committee and conservative pundits. In most cases, the RNC or the media took semi-ambiguous verbal statements from Gore out of context and misconstrued them to trash him as a liar. Once established, the "Gore as liar" narrative dominated reporters' perceptions of the Vice President and produced some of the most misleading and dishonest reporting and commentary seen in the post-Watergate era, including false allegations that Gore said he invented the Internet, that he lied about being the inspiration for "Love Story" and that he claimed to have discovered the Love Canal toxic waste scandal. (The less dominant but still powerful "Bush is dumb" narrative produced similar results, including the famous "Bushisms" series from the online magazine Slate, which frequently misconstrues statements from the president or takes them out of context.)

The goal of these attacks is clear: to establish Clark as the latest in a long line of Democratic liars, manufacturing a narrative of dishonesty and branding his every statement as suspect in the eyes of the media. Or, as the Standard put it, "He's a slippery character whose public statements remind you of a fellow Rhodes scholar from Arkansas."

Even if the allegations are disputed, the controversy is itself a victory, for it suggests to voters that there may be some merit to the charges. Inevitably, like every politician, Clark will make self-aggrandizing, misleading and ambiguous statements during the campaign (as with his contradictory statements about whether he would have supported the resolution authorizing military action in Iraq, which he recently claimed did not represent any change in his position). The media has a responsibility to scrutinize each of these cases fairly rather than simply adopting the "Clark is a liar" narrative they are being fed by the partisan press.

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Related links:
-Pundits keep spinning Clark phone call (Bryan Keefer, 9/25/03)
-Pundits won't stop spinning Clark's phone call (Ben Fritz, 9/3/03)

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