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Clinton Speaks, Pundits Spin: The Washington Times and the Spread of a Media Myth

by Bryan Keefer (bryan@spinsanity.org)
November 19, 2001

On November 7, former President Bill Clinton gave a speech at Georgetown University on foreign policy and globalization in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11. Within 24 hours, Clinton's words had been twisted into the nonsensical allegation that the former president had blamed slavery and America's treatment of Native Americans for the attacks. Even though this myth has been repeatedly debunked by Bob Somerby's Daily Howler, among others, it continues to surface on television, radio and op-ed pages. The history of how this deception spread shows how newspaper editors and pundits can manufacture lasting stories about political opponents from nothing more than a few strokes of the pen.

Origins: The Washington Times creates the spin

The day after Clinton's speech, the Washington Times ran an deceptive front-page story by Joseph Curl entitled "Clinton calls terror a U.S. debt to past" with this opening paragraph:

Bill Clinton, the former president, said yesterday that terror has existed in America for hundreds of years and the nation is "paying a price today" for its past of slavery and for looking "the other way when a significant number of native Americans were dispossessed and killed."

Curl's article continues with several quotes from Clinton's speech, nearly all taken out of context to imply that Clinton blamed various events in the history of the United States for the terrorist attacks. Yet taken in context, it is clear that Clinton was not blaming slavery or America's treatment of Native Americans for September 11, only illuminating the history of attacks against noncombatants. Curl's piece takes a few shreds of the speech out of context to make this insinuation, which was elevated to the level of "fact" by the Times's headline writer. As Bob Somerby showed, the Associated Press account of the speech does not even mention the passage in question because, in context, Clinton's comments about slavery and Native Americans are unremarkable. Even conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan called Curl's story "appallingly slanted."

The next step: Pundits connect the dots

A number of conservative pundits immediately took the bait, spreading the Times story widely. Matt Drudge linked to the Washington Times story on his web site, the Drudge Report, a key political site. At the National Review Online, Kevin M. Cherry bought the Times spin in an article posted at 11:30 AM on November 8: "In a speech at Georgetown University, President Bill Clinton blamed, in part, the United States for the terrorist attacks of September 11... [T]he former president said that our nation is 'paying a price' for slavery and for its treatment of the 'significant number of native Americans' who 'were dispossessed and killed.'"

That same day, Instapundit's Glenn Reynolds claimed in a 1:37 PM post linking to the Washington Times story that Clinton's speech "sound[s] exactly like what we hear from the 'America had it coming' folks." Likewise, Andrew Sullivan posted the spin on his site at 3:52 PM: "So it seems that the sins of the United States' past make it impossible to judge the massacre of September 11, according to our 42d president." To his credit, Sullivan retracted the comment in a post at 1:38 AM the morning of the 9th- once he finally read the transcript (which this thread on FreeRepublic.com indicates was available by the evening of the 8th). Yet the damage was already done. The spin even found its way into insider political journal The Hotline, which ran a story quoting Curl on the morning of the 8th.

From print and Internet sources, the spin moved on to talk radio and television. Conservative talk radio hosts Rush Limbaugh and G. Gordon Liddy also highlighted the story during the day on the 8th and it was later repeated on two Fox News Channel shows that night (Bob Somerby has dissected those shows in depth). By the end of the day, the story had trickled down to the grassroots at conservative chat sites Lucianne.com and Freerepublic.com.

The myth becomes conventional wisdom

From print to Internet to talk radio and finally the Fox News Channel, the myth that Clinton had blamed slavery for the recent terrorist attacks had spread around the country. By late in the evening of the 8th, Georgetown University had made the transcript of Clinton's remarks available on its web site, and Andrew Sullivan had linked to it in his retraction. But few commentators - least of all the Washington Times - were dissuaded from repeating the story after the transcript became available.

In fact, the Washington Times has been recycling its own spin almost daily. On the 9th, it printed two pieces dealing with Clinton's speech. A story by Jennifer Harper titled "Clinton comments sound sour note with commentators" reported that "many interpreted [Clinton's remarks] to mean that Mr. Clinton was blaming America for the September 11 terrorist attacks" - not only propagating the paper's own spin, but shifting responsibility for that spin onto the pundits who repeated it.

That same day, editor Wes Pruden hopped on his own bandwagon with a column paraphrasing Clinton's speech as "[W]ell, America had it coming." In a fit of irony, Pruden even suggested that "[Clinton] was merely adjusting the facts again to make a point."

On the 9th, the Washington Times also ran the first of a series of letters to the editor from readers who had actually attended Clinton's speech or read the transcript. A Georgetown student who claimed he had attended the speech wrote that the Times's story was "inaccurate and misrepresentative of the speech Mr. Clinton gave". On the 13th, the Times printed a letter from the Chairman and a Vice Chairman of the Georgetown University Lecture Fund, which sponsored Clinton's speech, echoing those points. Yet even the evidence that it was spinning the speech - printed in its own pages - failed to stop the spread of the myth. As Somerby notes, on the 11th, the Times even printed an excerpt from Sullivan's first post on the speech even though Sullivan had retracted those comments days before.

On the 12th, the Times printed a syndicated column by Mona Charen claiming Clinton "impli[ed] that our current woes are some sort of cosmic payback for the crimes of slavery and dispossessing the Indians." The charge was echoed in columns by Georgie Ann Geyer on the 13th and Washington Times editor Jeffery T. Khuner on the 14th.

Taking it to another level

Other syndicated columnists, including Larry Elder and Ann Coulter, have repeated the same charge. But two pundits have elevated the spin to accusations that Clinton is betraying America - and both were printed in the Washington Times. On the 13th, Balint Vazsonyi wrote that "[t]he former president's every word misrepresented history in order to imply, infer, insinuate that America deserved what it got on September 11. To do so is a service to an enemy sworn to do maximum harm to this nation and its people."

In a similar vein, Thomas Sowell called Clinton's speech "anti-American" in a syndicated column printed in the Times on the 17th, claiming that "Bill Clinton's anti-American speech at Georgetown University" claimed that "America is 'paying a price today' for slavery in the past and for that fact that 'native Americans were dispossessed and killed.'"

With Sowell and Vazsonyi's pieces, the Washington Times has moved from spinning Clinton's speech to printing columns that use its own spin as evidence that Clinton is "anti-American" and a traitor to the United States.

No time for the truth

The propagation of the Washington Times's distorted version of Clinton's speech reveals how pundits, desperate for controversy, can create a "fact" simply by repeating it often enough to make it conventional wisdom. Disreputable reporting that appeals to existing perceptions of political figures is often picked up and repeated by pundits who don't bother to check their facts. When the truth finally comes out, it's too late: the rumor has become established through repetition, and the truth receives little coverage because it is less newsworthy and less politically useful. Pundits who propagate these myths not only abdicate their responsibility to their readers but ultimately reveal themselves as little more than partisan spinners.

Update 11/19 11:30 AM EST: An earlier version of this column mistakenly claimed that the Washington Times had run a UPI story by Peter Roff debunking its spin. This column actually appeared on the Washington Times website as part of its UPI wire service feed. In fact, however, the Washington Times did print a series of letters to the editor saying much the same thing as Roff's analysis (see above). We regret the error.

Update II 11/25 11:19 PM EST: Don't miss my new post following up on this column and the continuing propagation of the Times spin - Washington Times keeps the Clinton spin rolling.

Related links:
-The Taliban aid trope re-emerges (Brendan Nyhan 9/15)
-The evolving jargon of "Clintonization" (Brendan Nyhan, 9/4)
-Pruden takes his dissembling straight up (Brendan Nyhan, 8/15)

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