Hillary Clinton, 60 Minutes, and the Muslim question

››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

Less than one second. That's how long it took Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to answer, "Of course not," to Steve Kroft's question on 60 Minutes about whether she thought Sen. Barack Obama was a Muslim. You can time it yourself by watching the clip at YouTube.

Less than one second. That's how long it took Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to answer, "Of course not," to Steve Kroft's question on 60 Minutes about whether she thought Sen. Barack Obama was a Muslim. You can time it yourself by watching the clip at YouTube.

Still, that didn't stop MSNBC's Chris Matthews from complaining on-air last week that it took Clinton "the longest time" to answer Kroft's question.

Lots of eager, tsk-tsking pundits and reporters agreed. They said Clinton was guilty of "hemming and hawing" in response to Kroft's peculiar, repeated insistence that she make some sort of declarative statement about her opponents religious beliefs. And then when she did, Kroft asked that she do it again. That's when Clinton, looking befuddled by the multiple requests, added some qualifiers to her response, including "as far as I know." What stood out in the exchange was not Clinton's responses, but Kroft's weird persistence in asking a question that Clinton addressed unequivocally the first time, as though he was trying to draw out something she was not saying. Even more peculiar was Kroft's obsession with the Muslim question amid a 60 Minutes report that was about Ohio's shrinking working class and what Clinton and Obama were going to do to try stop of the overseas flow of U.S. manufacturing jobs. (Note to Kroft and the rest of the media: Obama is not a Muslim; Clinton knows Obama is not a Muslim; Clinton does not believe Obama is a Muslim. Clinton made this very clear.)

After parsing Clinton's answer and then conveniently setting aside key sections of it, journalists at NBC, MSNBC, The New York Times, Chicago Sun-Times, Time, The New Yorker, and The Washington Post, among others, declared her response had been wholly deficient. Worse, Clinton's answer simply confirmed that she was running a "slimy," "nasty" contest. It was a "galling" comment; "the sleaziest moment of the campaign."

The only thing sleazy about the episode was the type of journalism being used to concoct a Clinton slur.

When people suggest that the press employs a separate standard for covering Clinton, this is the kind of episode they're talking about. There simply is no other candidate, from either party, who has had their comments, their fragments, dissected so dishonestly the way Clinton's have been.

The fact is, if you look at Clinton's exchange with Kroft in its entirety, which lasted less than one minute, I count eight separate times in which she either plainly denied the false claim that Obama was Muslim, labeled that suggestion to be a smear, or expressed sympathy for Obama having to deal with the Muslim innuendo. Eight times:

CLINTON: Of course not. I mean, that's--you know, there is not basis for that. You know, I take him on the basis of what he says. And, you know, there isn't any reason to doubt that.

KROFT: And you said you'd take Senator Obama at his word that he's not a Muslim.

CLINTON: Right. Right.

KROFT: You don't believe that he's a Muslim or implying? Right.

CLINTON: No. No. Why would I? No, there is nothing to base that on, as far as I know.

KROFT: It's just scurrilous --

CLINTON: Look, I have been the target of so many ridiculous rumors. I have a great deal of sympathy for anybody who gets, you know, smeared with the kind of rumors that go on all the time. [Emphasis added]

Want to complain that Clinton's answers contained too many qualifiers, while at the same time acknowledging her initial response? That's fair game. And that's what New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof did on March 9, when he noted, "When Mrs. Clinton was asked in a television interview a week ago whether Mr. Obama is a Muslim, she denied it firmly -- but then added, most unfortunately, 'as far as I know.' "

But to set aside Clinton's denials and suggest that "as far as I know" captured her entire response is patently dishonest. Yet that's exactly when many media players did.

The 60 Minutes controversy -- specifically the intense media spin it sparked -- highlights a disturbing rise in a new form of campaign journalism, which might be best described as post-parsing.

Here's how it works: A candidate (almost always Hillary Clinton) makes a statement, any statement out of the thousands made on the campaign trail each week, and that statement is seized upon by the chattering class and then dissected in order to determine what the real intention was. Experts pore over the text and announce what the candidate should have said during an impromptu exchange with the media. It's not that the statement in question is wrong, or blatantly malicious, it's that the statement wasn't quite right. It should have been a little bit more this or a little more that. Plus, based upon the pundits' expert training and analytical skills, they're able to spot a deeply disturbing, unspoken meaning right below the surface. Alarmed, they then rush to alert voters.

We saw the press manufacture a similar Clinton controversy earlier this year over the candidate's comment about Martin Luther King's role in the Civil Rights movement. The Columbia Journalism Review did a good job detailing the media malpractice regarding that story.

The Kroft interview story was launched within hours of the 60 Minutes' 7 p.m. telecast on March 2, when a Clinton critic quickly posted a truncated video of the interview on YouTube under the loaded headline "Hillary Clinton Stokes False Rumors about Obama's Faith." (Truncated, because the video chopped off the part where Clinton expressed her sympathy for Obama for having to put up with Muslim innuendos.) The video was then pushed out to the press. At 9:18 p.m. anti-Clinton blogger Andrew Sullivan linked to the YouTube clip. Just minutes earlier, Ben Smith at the Politico had linked to the video, along with his comments, in which he echoed the sentiment of the YouTube headline; that Clinton had come dangerously close to spreading a smear. Smith stressed that Clinton's answer was "weird" and "less than ironclad," that Clinton was in a "danger zone" for even "hinting" that Obama was Muslim, and that she was "leaving [herself] open to uncharitable interpretations."

Uncharitable interpretation by whom? By people like Smith.

The story then picked up steam, and the journalism it produced was depressing, albeit not that surprising. For instance, what explained Joe Klein's flip-flop on the topic? On March 3, the Time columnist appeared on MSNBC, where NBC anchor Brian Williams mentioned that the Clinton Q&A had made news "because she gave, I guess, a less than absolute answer that she believes, 'No -- there's no way that Barack Obama could be a Muslim.' " (Williams pounded his fist into his hand several times to emphasize just how resolute Clinton should have been when describing her opponent's faith.)

Klein's response? "What happened with the 60 Minutes interview was exhaustion. I don't see [Clinton] as someone who would consciously leave doubts about whether or not Barack Obama is a Muslim. The appropriate answer was, 'He is what he says he is.' "

Klein didn't think there was anything wrong with Clinton's answer. Until, that is, Klein decided there was something very wrong with Clinton's answer. Three days after appearing on MSNBC, Klein wrote in Time magazine that "Hillary Clinton disgraced herself by playing into these innuendos by telling 60 Minutes that Obama isn't Islamic 'as far as I know.' "

So on Monday there was nothing wrong with Clinton's answer, according to Klein. But by Thursday, Clinton's answer had "disgraced" the candidate.

Lots of the journalism surrounding the story was simply unfair. Meaning, the only way journalists could make the Clinton response to the Muslim question newsworthy was to pretend that when Kroft pressed her, she essentially refused to answer the question and then when she finally did, qualified it with "as far as I know." Journalists had to hide the most pertinent parts of the answer -- the context -- in order to make the exchange newsworthy. And lots of reporters and pundits did just that.

  • In The New York Times, columnist Bob Herbert wrote that Clinton's "as far as I know" response represented "one of the sleaziest moments of the campaign to date." For some reason Herbert never informed readers that when first asked if she thought Obama was a Muslim, Clinton immediately answered, "Of course not."
  • In The Washington Post, columnist Harold Meyerson suggested Democratic Party leaders, such as former Vice President Al Gore, "condemn" the type of "attacks and innuendos" Clinton used when she was "hemming and hawing on 60 Minutes over whether Obama really is Christian." Meyerson never informed readers that when first asked if she thought Obama was a Muslim, Clinton immediately answered, "Of course not."
  • In the Chicago Sun-Times, columnist Carol Marin claimed Clinton's "as far as I know" comment constituted "foul play." Marin never informed readers that when first asked if she thought Obama was a Muslim, Clinton immediately answered, "Of course not."
  • In The New Yorker, Ryan Lizza insisted Clinton's "disingenuous remark on '60 Minutes' that Obama was not a Muslim 'as far as I know' was especially galling." Lizza never informed readers that when first asked if she thought Obama was a Muslim, Clinton immediately answered, "Of course not."
  • In the New York Observer, Niall Stanage insisted Clinton's "as far as I know" response was part of her "nasty" campaign's "downward spiral" and represented "direct attacks and slimy insinuations." Strange never informed readers that when first asked if she thought Obama was a Muslim, Clinton immediately answered, "Of course not."
  • On NBC's Nightly News, Andrea Mitchell reported that Clinton's 60 Minutes answer "seemed to only keep the [Muslim] issue alive." Mitchell never informed viewers that when first asked if she thought Obama was a Muslim, Clinton immediately answered, "Of course not."
  • Appearing on MSNBC, Bloomberg News columnist Margaret Carlson complained that Clinton "doesn't have enough sympathy to say: Of course he's [Obama] not a Muslim." When in truth, that was almost exactly what Clinton said in response to the question of whether Obama is a Muslim: "Of course not."

What's disturbing is that either all these journalists failed to read the entire transcript or watch the relevant video from the 60 Minutes interview and therefore were not informed about Clinton's response. Or worse, they knew about her entire response and purposefully left out key phrases in order to portray the candidate in the worst possible light.

Then there was Newsweek's Howard Fineman, who poured over the 60 Minutes clip like Jim Garrison dissecting the Zapruder film:

Hillary Clinton doesn't do anything by accident. I watched that CBS tape of Steve Kroft's interview very, very carefully and Hillary was brilliantly Machiavellian in sounding indignant while at the same time raising doubts about Obama. She said, 'I have no reason to think that he's anything other than a Christian.' That was -- I mean, I'm a reporter and an analyst, not an editorial writer, but that was positively Nixonian in its pauses and innuendos. Look at it and look at it carefully, there was nothing accidental about it.

First, don't you love how Fineman announced he was just a reporter, not an editorial writer, so he was going to keep his personal opinion out of his completely objective analysis that Clinton was just like the conniving Richard Nixon?

Secondly, Fineman was simply reaffirming a cardinal rule that the press adheres to when parsing Clinton syntax: No phrase is uttered accidentally. Nothing -- nothing -- the candidate (or her husband) has said over the course of a 14 month campaign, including spontaneous exchanges with journalists, has been spoken by chance. Incredibly, it's all pre-planned.

As Alex Koppelman at Salon noted, following Fineman's claim, "Literally every single thing she does and says, every word, is planned? That just doesn't make any sense -- indeed, it seems physically impossible."

I mentioned that MSNBC's Chris Matthews was among the first to criticize Clinton's response to the 60 Minutes question. I should note that the following night on MSNBC Matthews said that after actually watching the video of Clinton, he considered her response to the Muslim question to be "unexceptional." My hunch is that what changed Matthews' mind was the fact that when Clinton uttered her infamous "as far as I know" phrase, she had a bewildered, what-the-hell-are-you-talking-about look on her face in response to Kroft's repeated inquiries about Obama's faith; a quizzical look that never showed up in the transcripts or in the news accounts.

Of course, this being Chris Matthews, the following night he flip-flopped his position again and suggested Clinton's 60 Minutes answer constituted an "attack," even though he had previously announced her answer had been "unexceptional."

Much more consistent on the whole matter was Matthews' MSNBC colleague Joe Scarborough, the former Republican congressman and foot solider in the 1990s Gingrich Revolution. Scarborough saw nothing unusual in Clinton's Muslim comments. And when MSNBC reporter David Shuster appeared on Scarborough's morning program on March 4, brought up the 60 Minutes comments, and quickly echoed the media's conventional wisdom that the comments reflected poorly on Clinton, Scarborough slyly turned the tables to illustrate the absurdity of demanding absolute answers when badgering an interview subject about somebody else's faith:

SCARBOROUGH: Let me ask you this question, David Shuster, do you think [co-host] Mika Brzezinski is a Christian? She says she is. Is she a Christian?

SHUSTER: Yeah, I believe she is. But here's the point --

SCARBOROUGH: Hold on a second. You say you believe she's a Christian. You 'believe.' What does that mean? Is she or isn't she? Is she a Christian or not?

SHUSTER: Well look, Mika and I have never actually had that conversation and I've never heard anybody have a conversation about her religion.

SCARBOROUGH: But Mika says she's a Christian. So you're saying you don't know if she's a Christian or not?

SHUSTER: That's fine! To me it doesn't matter.

SCARBOROUGH: Oh, it doesn't matter? So now you're saying it doesn't matter.

Scarborough perfectly proved the larger point: The Clinton-Muslim story was a soggy game of gotcha, and not much more.

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