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Susan Older

Susan Older

Posted: September 30, 2009 01:01 PM

That's Not the News: Clinton's "Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy"

What's Your Reaction?

I've been putting off starting my Real World Media blog, but I came across a news peg that left me anything but speechless.

I watched Meet the Press recently, as I do every Sunday. David Gregory led with a terrific segment from an interview he conducted Friday with former President Bill Clinton. The piece covered a broad range of topics, and Clinton was, as usual, on point. He answered Gregory's thought-provoking questions with characteristic eloquence, commenting on the war in Afghanistan, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Iran's nuclear plant outing, Obama's performance in his nine-month "honeymoon" period, health care, the economy, the Clinton Global Initiative and even a one-liner on whether he still has political ambitions.

Now, I've been a journalist for 35 years. I'm old school in the sense that I have ink flowing through my veins, Watergate and Vietnam still in mind, and Hunter Thompson in my heart. My grandfather's uncle, Fremont Older, was a San Francisco institution as editor of the city newspaper that rivaled William Randolph Hearst's Examiner. I've been a founding editor of USA Today, managing editor of the Gannett New Media Group, founding editor of Inter@ctive Week (the tech magazine that's now called eWeek), editor-in-chief of United Press International, and chief content editor for quite a few online news operations.

I love the Internet. I love to read my news online. I don't think online journalism is inherently bad. And I believe there are still some great journalists out there. NBC's Richard Engel, for example. I feel proud every time I watch him and listen to him, and I worry about his safety as he jumps from war zone to war zone to keep us informed. They don't get any better.

So when I hit on CNN that afternoon and saw the lead story: "Bill Clinton: 'Vast right-wing conspiracy' as 'virulent' as ever," I thought to myself: OMG. I mean, really? If you haven't seen the interview, go to MSNBC's site and watch it for yourself.

Choosing that minute and relatively insignificant question and answer as the lead story is shoddy, lazy, and dirty journalism at best. And it was CNN. It wasn't even Fox News.

(Wait, hold that thought while I check out the Fox news site.)

Okay, I'm back, and, yes, Fox has it, too. At first I didn't see it. What I noticed first was a rather repulsive and large ad -- in the right-hand column in the "above-the-fold" position -- for a tooth-bleaching product. How could you not notice giant yellow teeth with braces on them in a place you used to read your news? I finally spotted it, though, below and to the left of the yellow teeth. The headline: "Bill Clinton: Obama Focus of Right-Wing Conspiracy." Now NPR is running it on its site, having picked up an AP story titled, "Bill Clinton Speaks of Vast, Right-Wing Conspiracy."

This makes my blood boil. That interview was full of fascinating quotes from a highly respected former president. And although I did find it interesting to hear Clinton's take on whether Obama has been the object of a right-wing conspiracy, I can tell you one thing: That most certainly was not the news story in the interview. In fact, I'll bet the editors who edited those stories and wrote those headlines are too young to know the origin of the phrase "vast right-wing conspiracy." I seriously doubt they could discuss "Whitewater" or the death of Vince Foster off the top of their heads.

This isn't the kind of "news" I signed up to report, write and edit in the 1970s. And I know there are plenty of good journalists -- either still working or laid-off -- who feel the same way. Journalism isn't in trouble because we're reading it online instead of on paper. It's in trouble because of poor judgment on the part of sloppy, clueless, and often angry people who handle carelessly the precious gem we used to call the "news."

There's still reason for hope, though. Look at how NBC played the story on the network's MSNBC website: "Clinton talks poverty, climate on Meet the Press." David Gregory didn't even mention the "conspiracy" comments in his breakout box of highlights from today's show.

That's how the late Tim Russert, veteran moderator of Meet the Press, would have played it, too.

Susan Older is an independent journalist based in Washington, D.C. She writes about global media, culture, health and technology and has served as a founding editor of USA Today, managing editor of the Gannett New Media Group, founding editor of Inter@ctive Week (now eWeek), and editor-in-chief of United Press International.