Howard Fineman, mind reader

On MSNBC, the Newsweek columnist said nothing Hillary Clinton does is accidental. Really? Nothing?

Published March 5, 2008 11:25PM (EST)

As we said earlier, we spent Tuesday night watching MSNBC, waiting to spot the newest examples of its anchors, reporters and hosts going off the deep end when discussing Hillary Clinton. Chris Matthews wasn't the only one to come through exactly as expected -- Newsweek's Howard Fineman had a shameful moment of his own.

Fineman was asked by Matthews to opine on what Clinton meant when she was asked in a recent interview with CBS about Barack Obama's religious faith. (Video of the discussion between Matthews and Fineman is below.)

Here's the full exchange between Clinton and interviewer Steve Kroft:

"You don't believe that Senator Obama's a Muslim?" Kroft asked Sen. Clinton.

"Of course not. I mean that, you know, there is no basis for that. I take him on the basis of what he says. And, you know, there isn't any reason to doubt that," she replied.

"You said you'd take Senator Obama at his word that he's not ... a Muslim. You don't believe that he's ...," Kroft said.

"No. No, there is nothing to base that on. As far as I know," she said.

"It's just scurrilous ...?" Kroft inquired.

"Look, I have been the target of so many ridiculous rumors that 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," Clinton said.

There's been a fair amount of parsing of exactly what Clinton meant, and questions about whether her statements were strong enough or whether she meant to subtly imply that in fact she does believe Obama is a Muslim. Fineman didn't hesitate to jump on that bandwagon, saying he understood exactly what Clinton was thinking during the interview. "Hillary Clinton doesn't do anything by accident," Fineman said. "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."

That was, we thought, rather a remarkable statement. First, the other thing Fineman isn't, besides an editorial writer, is a psychic who can read Clinton's thoughts (at least, not to our knowledge). Second, how is it possible to believe that Clinton doesn't do anything by accident? Literally every single thing she does and says, every word, is planned? That just doesn't make any sense -- indeed, it seems physically impossible.

Forget for a moment the question of whether Hillary Clinton really is as manipulative and calculating as a lot of people believe she is. Maybe she is, but that's not relevant here. This is a question of basic journalism.

Fineman went on national television and gave an analysis of Clinton's private thoughts based on the pauses in her speech. There is simply no possibility that Fineman can accurately intuit anything that way on a consistent basis, or that any human being could. As Margaret Talbot reported in the New Yorker last year, "Human beings are terrible lie detectors. In academic studies, subjects asked to distinguish truth from lies answer correctly, on average, fifty-four per cent of the time. They are better at guessing when they are being told the truth than when they are being lied to, accurately classifying only forty-seven per cent of lies."

I'm pretty sure Fineman isn't a recent visitor from Krypton, so I doubt he has superhuman abilities in this area. And pretending he does -- and that his mind reading should be the basis for the spreading of a very, very serious allegation about Clinton to hundreds of thousands of people -- is nothing less than a gross disservice to MSNBC's viewers.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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