How Did the Media Handle Clinton's RFK Remark?

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Sen. Hillary Clinton received plenty of media attention this week after she pointed to the 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy as a justification for her continued pursuit of the Democratic presidential nomination. Guests and callers weigh in on whether the media handled the story responsibly.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

And today, we launch a new segment on Talk of the Nation. We call it A Question of Ethics. From time to time, we'll take an issue from the week's news and ask you to tell us what you would do if you were the reporter or the editor on that story. We'll talk about how the news media did cover the story, and we'll bring on an ethicist to discuss the choices and the issues.

This week, our question of ethics involves coverage of Senator Hillary Clinton's comment last week, when she brought up the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. You've probably heard it by now, or heard about it. Senator Clinton was speaking to the editorial board of the Sioux Falls Argus-Leader in South Dakota. And while defending her decision to stay in the race, she said...

(Soundbite of interview)

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California.

CONAN: Did the news media handle that story responsibly? If you were in the editor's chair, would you have put her comments on the front page? Let us know why, or why not. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org, and we'll also talk with members of the studio audience here at the Newseum. And you can join the conversation anytime on our blog. That's at npr.org/blogofthenation. Joining us today is Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, with us here at the Knight Studio in the Newseum. Tom, nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. TOM ROSENSTIEL (Director, Project for Excellence in Journalism): Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: And what exactly happened here? Put her comments into context for us.

Mr. ROSENSTIEL: Well, this was the first of three events that Mrs. Clinton was doing on Friday, and it was a meeting with the editorial board of this newspaper. And as several newspapers are now doing, they live-streamed this. They were videotaping it, and they live-streamed it over the Internet to any journalist who wanted to see it. And the press corps who travels with Mrs. Clinton were not there.

They were actually traveling on a bus from the airport to Brandon, a few miles away, to set up her second event, which was at a supermarket. And they didn't see this. They really couldn't get a good feed. But the New York Post did an item on it online, which the Drudge Report then linked to. And their editors, back at their various headquarters, when they got to the supermarket, were saying, what about these comments? What about these comments?

CONAN: And so therefore, then the story really took off. And it was a story, I guess, on its own for a couple of news cycles, first the story itself and then Senator Clinton's clarification of what she actually meant with these remarks. But it has been all over the blogs and the op-ed pages and the letters to the editor in the newspapers.

Mr. ROSENSTIEL: Yes. Now, before we say what happened, do we want to go and ask people what they would do? Or if you want to sort of tell the end of the story at the beginning?

CONAN: Well, let's see what callers and members of the studio audience here at the Newseum would have done if they'd been presented with this story. And we have a caller on the line. This is Erin, Erin's with us from Cleveland, Ohio.

ERIN (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi there.

ERIN: I'm glad to get through, because this one got to me. I - for some reason, my husband and I are not Hillary supporters by any stretch of the imagination, but I just thought that it was so irresponsible, that it was so taken out of context and not at all what she meant.

CONAN: Not at all that she meant that she was staying in the race in hopes, as...

ERIN: In hopes, right, in hopes that Obama would be, you know, assassinated. It was just so outlandish to me, and something I never would have thought of if I had just heard her say it. So, it was real frustrating to me.

CONAN: Tom Rosenstiel?

Mr. ROSENSTIEL: Well, I guess the question is, would you put it in your story as a big deal? And where would you play that story?

ERIN: I never would have even put it in the story, I don't think.

CONAN: And would you have sent - or do you think your editor might be upset if it was in everybody else's story?

ERIN: I would hope not, and if he were - if he or she were, I would find a new editor. I think the kind of editor I want to be...

CONAN: Doesn't tend to work that way, I'm afraid.

ERIN: Writing for. So, that's just my opinion, but that one got to me, just frustrating.

CONAN: Erin, thanks very much.

ERIN: Thank you.

CONAN: So long. Let's see if we can try - this is Frank. Frank is on the line with us from Tallahassee in Florida.

FRANK (Caller): Hey.

CONAN: Hi there.

FRANK: Hi. Yeah, I just think that a lot of the papers these days, the publications just do little things like that to sell magazines or sell newspapers and they don't tell the whole story, and I think it's a disservice to the American public. And that's why I think so many people listen to the NPR, because they tend to tell as much of the whole story as they can.

CONAN: Thank you for the kind words, but in this context, what do you think the whole story was?

FRANK: That - I don't know. To be honest, I don't know. It sounded like it was more confusion on her part or maybe the wrong words on her part.

CONAN: In a 15-second Soundbite, and that's what everybody really did hear, with that conversation Tom Rosenstiel, you don't get a lot of context.

Mr. ROSENSTIEL: No, and I think the fact that the reporters themselves who have traveled with Hillary Clinton weren't there as the first recipients of this, that they were actually reacting to their editors' reaction is a factor in how this played out, because their editors may have been unaware of the fact that she'd made references like this previously and it hit their radar differently.

CONAN: So in other words, the reporters who were on the bus, as we were talking about earlier, they knew that Hillary Clinton had made references to the late decisions in 1968 and in 1992, maybe not using the word assassination, but this was not the first time she'd said that.

Mr. ROSENSTIEL: And although she has made these references before, this was actually not the first time that she'd used the word assassination, although it came out a little differently this time.

CONAN: Thanks so much for the call, Frank.

FRANK: Sure. Have a good day.

CONAN: And let's see if we can another opinion. This is Joe, Joe is with us from Cincinnati, Ohio. Joe, you're the reporter, you've seen this story as you've watched the streaming from the editorial board meeting, and what do you do with that story?

JOE: I think it's absolutely a front-page story. It's not about whether she hoped he would get assassinated. It's the mere fact that she decided that one of her rationales for staying in the race is that tragedy might befall her opponent, and she essentially evoked these very tragic memories as a justification for her to stay in the race.

CONAN: And so you would put her on the front page? You would have led the story with it?

JOE: Definitely it was front-page news, there is no doubt about it.

CONAN: Tom?

Mr. ROSENSTIEL: Can I ask, Joe, a question? Does it make any difference if she didn't mean it that way? Does her intention make a difference? Or can it be construed the way that a lot of people construed it? Is that enough to make it a big story?

JOE: I guess you're asking me to try to guess what her intention is. My guess is that her intention was that. She is looking for every justification for her to stay in this race, and one of those justifications was, well, somebody might get assassinated or something bad might happen to them, but that's a good reason to stay in the race. And the way that these political campaigns are run, I find it difficult, and if you listen to her, she pauses right before she says it, it's almost as if she's thinking, should I really say this?

CONAN: And if she has said, you know, my rival might be overtaken by scandal, how would that have figured into your thinking, Joe?

JOE: I don't know if that would be as strong of a front-page story, because scandal and assassination are two different things. I will leave it at that.

CONAN: OK, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it. Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Ian, Ian with us from Mililani - is that right?

IAN (Caller): Mililani, yes, that's right.

CONAN: In Hawaii, go ahead, please.

IAN: Yeah, actually, I mean, I think that this - while I understand being streamed live it makes it sort of a temporary issue, the story really is just candidate sticks foot in mouth again, or candidate does something that looks inappropriate again. It's the way the press covers it after the fact, insinuating that, oh, what did she mean? That is a little disingenuous. It is the same thing that happened to Obama with the flag pin. It's like, oh, what does it mean that he wasn't wearing a flag pin or putting his hand over his heart?

It's not that she - I mean, nobody seriously thinks that she - actually, I disagree with the last caller who said they are justifying her staying in the race by invoking this idea that he might be assassinated, that she's explaining that things happen and there's every reason to stay in the race. She used a bad example. That she's insinuating something more sinister, I think that's baloney, same thing with the Obama and pin thing. It's just the way the media construes it after the fact. Thanks.

CONAN: OK, Thanks very much for the call, Ian. Here's an email we have from Emily. I certainly would have put Hillary Clinton's comments on the front page if I were an editor of a major publication. She was speaking in front of cameras, knew that she was being recorded. If editors felt it appropriate to publish Obama's bitter comments, made in semi private, then I certainly feel that her comments were fair game. And again, she's referring to comments that Senator Obama made at a private fundraiser in San Francisco that were recorded by somebody in the room and then put out. This is where he said some small-town voters - I think he was talking about Pennsylvania - cling to guns and religion.

Mr. ROSENSTIEL: Yeah, and I think one of the things, one argument you can make is that, if you are going to be the leader of the United States, you need to speak with a kind of discipline where things cannot be taken out of context, where your meaning is clear, and if you invite through inference terrifying or awful implications or impression from what you're saying, you know, that's not a good thing for the leader of the free world to be doing.

CONAN: An argument could be made, she's on the campaign trail. She's exhausted. Of course you're going to make mistakes. I think the job of president is also pretty exhausting and you could be pretty tired a lot of the time there, too.

Mr. ROSENSTIEL: Right, and there are a lot of people there who like to take things in a - put things in a context that's useful to them, in whatever you say.

CONAN: We're talking with Tom Rosenstiel in A Question of Ethics. If you were an editor or a reporter on the story, when Hillary Clinton made those remarks in Sioux City, what would you do with them? Would you put them on the front page? Would you lead the story with them? You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR news. And Tom, let's talk for a minute about what the media actually did do with this story, and it was a pretty big deal.

Mr. ROSENSTIEL: Yeah, it became big instantly. That night, all three evening newscasts carried a story on it. It was the lead story on one of them and a second story on others. The main cable shows led with it in general. "Hardball" did its first three segments on it. Olbermann did four segments on it, including a commentary that was particularly caustic at the end of his show.

CONAN: It's Keith Olbermann.

Mr. ROSENSTIEL: Keith Olbermann. Anderson Cooper did his first two segments on it. It was basically the lead story. Shepard Smith on Fox did his first two segments on it. But overall, in the amount of cable that we study each day, it made up 36 percent of the airtime on cable that night.

CONAN: "We" is the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Mr. ROSENSTIEL: Yes, and 12 percent of the nightly newscasts that evening. It was a front-page story in the New York Times, below the fold, below the midpoint of the newspaper. It was the lead story in the Washington Post the next day. And I think that context is everything. I think in politics, if you say something in February when you're potentially ahead, or it's a neck-and-neck race, it has one meaning.

If you're at a point where many analysts believe you cannot win and the race is effectively over and you make the same remark as a justification for staying in the race, it can have a different meaning. I think it's quite possible that, had the reporters heard this first, this would not have been as big a story. But by the time reporters, the traveling reporters, become aware of it, the story had already taken on a life of its own through the Internet. It was in the blogosphere. People were commenting on it.

There were actually comments and debates from readers of the New York Times on the New York Times website before the New York Times had posted a story about this event. And that's, as the Times reporter wrote the next day, it's a commentary, in a sense, on the media culture we have. The press, in some ways, was a reactor and not a gatekeeper to that story. And the people who wanted to seize on it seized on it before the reporters themselves who were traveling with her did.

CONAN: In terms of news, it's a two-cycle story. The candidate makes the remark. The candidate clarifies the remark or retracts the remark, depending on what she has to call it. But it's been alive on the editorial pages, on the op-ed pages, and as you mentioned, on the blogosphere ever since.

Mr. ROSENSTIEL: And she - interestingly, she had not spoke to her traveling press corps directly in a week, which is a commentary on the kind of atmosphere that was on that bus. She felt compelled, later that day, to address them, and she made a statement, did not take questions, in which she apologized for the remark. And that decision by her campaign that this thing had become a - had snowballed by midday, made it, in turn, a bigger story as you've said. The fact that she felt she'd made a mistake and apologized for it propelled the story onto page one and into the lead of the newscasts.

CONAN: And what ethical issues do you see here for journalists?

Mr. ROSENSTIEL: Well, there's the question, first of all, of is it a story? There's the question of, what was her intention? And then there's the question of context. Ethically, you have to decide how big a story is something, how big a deal do I want to make of it? I'm not making the news, but I am making a judgment about how significant that news is. And the papers were saying, in a sense, regardless of what our reporters might have initially thought, or how they reacted to the same remarks two months earlier, this is now a big story, and it's a big story in part because of the anger in the Obama camp and the sense of tactical miscalculation in the Clinton camp.

That gave the press, in a sense, a feeling that it was a bigger story. I think that the fact is that context matters, and had - these remarks do have a different connotation at a point in the race when she is perceived as not able to win. There's an old saying in politics that if you're ahead in the race and your campaign plane gets a flight tire on the runway, it's not a story.

But in the TV era, that flat tire and that picture of your plane stuck on the tarmac is going to be the lead visual for the fact that you're the candidate behind in the race. And that's just sort of the reality of the way the media work now. I think the story was, in the end, overplayed. But I also think that it was, indeed, news in a way that it wasn't when the same remark was made two months ago.

CONAN: Tom Rosenstiel, thanks very much for being with us. Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, vice chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists and he joined us here in the Knight Studio at the Newseum. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in the Knight studio at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

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