By: Tony Case
Women style writers and columnists
rap Times reporter over publication of
the first lady’s ‘off-the-record’ comments sp.
THE CONTROVERSY surrounding Newt Gingrich’s mom and the “B” word had barely died down last week when media critics, journalism ethicists and gossip columnists reaped another windfall.
The New York Times was widely pilloried for publishing what some say were private comments made by Hillary Rodham Clinton at a luncheon with a dozen women style reporters and columnists at the White House.
This, just days after Connie Chung was raked over the coals for coaxing Kathleen Gingrich to say the new House speaker had called the first lady a “bitch” ? after a wink and a promise by the veteran TV newswoman that the remark would remain “just between us.”
Journalists from other news organizations who went to the Jan. 9 luncheon were surprised at the Times’ treatment of the function, as Clinton’s people had made it clear it was to be purely social and off the record.
The paper reported that the policy-molding presidential spouse took much of the blame at the gathering for not getting her health-care reform plan passed in Congress last year. Reporter Marian Burros quoted Clinton as saying she had been “naive and dumb” about national politics.
Even though the ground rules were spelled out beforehand, Clinton and her press secretary, Lisa Caputo, gave permission after the fact for some quotes to be used.
Most of the other newspaperwomen present concur the “naive and dumb” quote was off the record, however. In fact, none of them repeated it in their accounts.
But the Times put it in the lead paragraph of a front-page story that ran just beneath the paper’s flag.
Clinton was said to be furious her remarks were publicized. Caputo refused to comment when contacted, calling the flap “old news.”
The Times piece also maintained Clinton asked her guests how she could boost her public profile, playing up this angle with the headline, “Hillary Clinton Asks Help in Finding a Softer Image.”
Burros offered no quote to support the claim Clinton had sought such advice. She wrote only that the first lady was perplexed by the unflattering portrait that is regularly painted of her in the press and that she “seemed bent on finding a way to counter her harsh run of publicity.”
USA Today columnist Jeannie Williams said, as she understood it, the conversation about image was off the record. Others who were present, including Lois Romano of the Washington Post and Michael Sneed with the Chicago Sun-Times, say Clinton did not broach the topic.
Most critical of the Times’ reportage was legendary New York Post columnist Cindy Adams, who devoted an entire column to her paper’s “mean, lousy and lowdown” cross-town competitor ? or the New York Slime, as she called it.
That piece provoked a war of words between Adams and Times Co. chairman Arthur Ochs Sulzberger at Manhattan’s tony Le Cirque restaurant, Adams reported in another column.
Adams told E&P she and the others who lunched with Clinton had “hoped to get a shard of something on the record, but we went in with an understanding.” She said they all would have liked to have come away with something for page one.
The columnist was appalled Burros violated Clinton’s confidence.
“Forget that she screwed all of us, her sisters, professionally,” Adams said. “She did it to the first lady. You don’t do that. Who would ever trust us again?”
This was the second time Clinton dined with women feature writers at the White House ? and Adams feared that because of the brouhaha, it might be the last.
In her New York Daily News column, Linda Stasi pontificated about journalistic ethics and blasted Burros and Chung for their alleged indiscretions.
“Two breaches of this kind in two weeks is disastrous ? for women journalists in particular and journalism in general,” she wrote.
“We lose the trust of people who can provide us with rich, off-the-record background information. And we really lose because any breach furthers the public perception that the media can’t be trusted,” Stasi stated.
Times spokeswoman Nancy Nielsen maintains, amid all this condemnation, that the Gray Lady did nothing untoward.
“Marian kept very careful account of what was on the record and off the record,” she said. “The quotes used in the New York Times were definitely on the record.”
Noting that feature writer Burros had been associated with the paper for 11 years, Nielsen added, “She’s written many Washington stories and is a top-notch reporter.”
Times managing editor Joseph Lelyveld wrote a memo to the staff, supporting Burros and denying the paper was at fault.
“Our reporter, who openly taped the discussion, behaved appropriately and professionally. She did not join in when the gossip columnists swapped political views with the first lady and offered political advice. What she did was keep track of the shifting ground rules,” he wrote.
“I know it’s amusing for others when journalists start squawking and showing how thin-skinned they can be. But it matters to us that our readers and staff understand that we are not becoming casual about our commitments.”
Lelyveld said the paper would try to avoid participating in off-the-record lunches in the future.
Everette E. Dennis, executive director of the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center at Columbia University, puts much of the responsibility for the Times mess on Clinton’s handlers.
“I think you can’t have a situation where the first lady has such a meeting off the record,” he said. “I think that’s an impossibility.”
This controversy, he observed, reflects the amateurism of the White House press operation throughout the Clinton administration.
“They don’t seem to understand the protocol, the rules about the press,” Dennis said. “I think the only way to be off the record these days is in a one-on-one.”
Dennis was amazed Clinton hosted an all-female luncheon ? “It’s one thing for Eleanor Roosevelt to do it,” he said ? and wondered what sort of scandal would have erupted had she invited only newspapermen.
One man who was once asked to the White House for a t?te-?-t?te with Clinton is wisecracking columnist Dave Barry of the Miami Herald, who declined the invitation after he was told it would be off the record.
“I am a professional journalist,” he wrote in a column about the incident, “and if I’m going to have luncheon with one of this nation’s most powerful political figures, then I feel a deep moral obligation to provide you, my readers, with an irresponsible and highly distorted account of it.”
?( Hillary Rodham Clinton) [Photo]