Cracking the New York Times' Bill and Hillary code.

Media criticism.
May 23 2006 6:37 PM

The Bill and Hillary Code

What's the New York Times trying to tell us?

Bill and Hillary Clinton. Click image to expand.
Bill and Hillary Clinton

When the New York Times prints a news story in its own private code, as it did with today's (May 23) Page One article "Clintons Balance Married and Public Lives," veteran readers grope through it, sentence by sentence, in hopes of piecing together the article's true meaning.

Even the headline of reporter Patrick Healy's piece appears coded. It alleges a Bill and Hillary "balance," but, specifying no fulcrum upon which the relationship firmly rests, it invites the reader to conjure up a wobbling teeter-totter.

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The story states that the "state of their marriage" is "Topic A" for "many prominent Democrats" without ever saying how or why it ranks so high. And who are the many prominent Democrats? If they are many, why aren't they represented in the piece? Or do Healy and his editors count "one, two, three, many" when enumerating their subjects?

Healy could directly ask, "Is Bill cheating?" Instead, he writes a donut around the subject. As the piece spirals out to 2,000 words, the donut grows into a 20-inch Michelin radial, and the radial becomes a NASCAR oval. The experienced reader finds himself searching the infield of this great expanse for what appear to be clues.

Healy writes, "Nights out find [Bill] zipping around Los Angeles with his bachelor buddy, Ronald W. Burkle, or hitting parties and fund-raisers in Manhattan." Given the context, what literate person won't make a connection between "zipping" and "zipless," especially when the person with whom Clinton is zipping is a billionaire bachelor buddy? I doubt if Burkle spends his time with Clinton driving down the Harbor Freeway to see the Watts Towers.

Noting that Bill Clinton's past sexual indiscretions have made him a "magnet" for "tabloid gossip," the piece does little to explain whether any of his behaviors justify the stickiness of the chatter. For all the words Healy spends on Bill's fidelity, neither his on–the-record sources nor his anonymous ones venture to testify to the man's faithfulness. It's both the subject of Healy's piece and the non-subject.

Take, for example, the newspaper's time-motion study of the Clintons' overlapping schedules. The paragraph reads:

Since the start of 2005, the Clintons have been together about 14 days a month on average, according to aides who reviewed the couple's schedules. Sometimes it is a full day of relaxing at home in Chappaqua; sometimes it is meeting up late at night. At their busiest, they saw each other on a single day, Valentine's Day, in February 2005—a month when each was traveling a great deal. Last August, they saw each other at some point on 24 out of 31 days. Out of the last 73 weekends, they spent 51 together. The aides declined to provide the Clintons' private schedule.

What's this supposed to mean? Assuming these numbers are right, the Clintons spend more time together—almost half of each month—than most political couples who keep homes in Washington and their districts. But rather than make that obvious point, the article goes on to cite anonymous Clinton friends—"eager to smooth any rough edges on the relationship"—who want the Times to know about the dinners, the board games, and the gardening duties the Clintons share. The journalistic effect is spotting smoke—alerting readers to the fact that something's slightly amiss with the Clintons—but then not looking for fire. Or, does Healy want his readers to know that he—and the Clinton's "friends"—are protesting too much?

Intrigue feeds on intrigue when the article highlights Bill's relative absence from events that showcase Hillary and asserts that she wants to position herself as her "own person," owing to her presidential ambitions. But why make any fuss about Bill not being at Hillary's side? Few members of Congress appear in public with their spouses, except during campaigns, and even then many campaign alone. Unless, of course, the Times intends a secret message with this piece: They spend lots of time together, he keeps a tactful distance from her career by mutual agreement, and he cheats.

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