Vanity Fair piece about Bill Clinton sparks controversy

An article about the former president, which features some harsh criticism about him and suggestions of possibly indiscreet behavior by him, inspired a negative reaction and discussion about journalistic ethics.

Published June 3, 2008 10:57PM (EDT)

Vanity Fair editor Todd Purdum became the news yesterday when former President Bill Clinton unleashed a barrage of epithets to describe the reporter: Clinton called Purdum "slimy," "sleazy," "dishonest," and a "scumbag." (Clinton later apologized for the tone of the remarks).

The tirade came in response to Purdum's sprawling 9,700-word opus in this month's Vanity Fair, which paints a less than flattering portrait of the ex-President's post-White House years. Purdum writes that Clinton's close friends and former aides are concerned that the company Clinton is keeping is less than appropriate for a former President. Purdum calls the worries "persistent, papable, and pained" and says that no ex-President has ever "traveled with such a fast crowd."

The crowd includes investor Jeffrey Epstein, who was indicted in 2006 on charges of soliciting prositution. Federal officials also investigated Epstein after allegations surfaced that he hired under-age girls for massages and other activities. In 2002, Clinton flew to Africa on Epstein's private jet for an anti-AIDS and economic development mission. Clinton also collected $3 million in consulting fees from InfoUSA, a data mining company that has allegedly sold senior’s consumer data to predatory telemarketers.

Although Purdum found no hard evidence of new Clinton dalliances, he reports one former Clinton advisor grew so concerned that Clinton was "apparently seeing a lot of women on the road" that he attempted to confront the former President, but was rebuffed.

"There is reason to believe that Clinton, who never made more than $35,000 a year as governor of Arkansas and left the White House about $12 million in debt, has had his head turned by his ability to enjoy his post-presidential status," Purdum writes, "that the world of rich friends, adoring fans, and borrowed jets in which he travels has skewed his judgment or, at a minimum, created uncomfortable appearances of impropriety."

Purdum also accuses Clinton of "unapologetic stonewalling" that has obfuscated the former President's business dealings, most of the investors in his presidential library, and even the role Clinton has played in his wife's campaign for the presidency.

In response to Purdum's tome, Clinton aide Jay Carson dashed off a more than 2,700 word memo. Carson calls the article a "tawdry, anonymous quote-filled attack piece."

"Most revealing is one simple fact: President Clinton has helped save the lives of 1,300,000 people in his post-presidency, and Vanity Fair couldn't find time to talk to even one of them for comment," Carson complained.

There's also some question about the reporting that led to the disclosure of Clinton's attack against Purdum. Mayhill Fowler, who writes for the Huffington Post's Off the Bus project, got the quotes from Clinton after she told him she thought it was a "hatchet job," and never identified herself as a reporter. Most journalists wouldn't consider that sort of thing ethically pure, and it's not the first time Fowler has gotten a good story in a similar fashion -- it was Fowler's who reported Obama's now infamous "bitter" comments after a fundraiser she attended in San Francisco. Responding to questions about Fowler's tactics, OffTheBus co-publisher and co-founder Jay Rosen, a professor at NYU, told Politico's Michael Calderone:

This wasn't an interview where the former president sat for questions with Mayhill Fowler. It was a shouted question at a rope line with lots of people trying to get his attention, one that Clinton answered... and answered. I'm sure most professional reporters have thrown out a question in a "scrum" situation without first identifying themselves and their employer. This was akin to that, although not exactly the same...

Would it have been better if she said, "Mr. President, I'm Mayhill Fowler, a blogger for OffTheBus and I write about the campaign. What did you think of that Vanity Fair article...?" In the interest of full disclosure, I guess it would be. But in the press of the moment I can understand why she didn't.

I (and this is Alex speaking now, and my opinions here do not necessarily reflect Justin's) like Rosen, he and I recently appeared together on a panel about ethics in new media and I came away impressed, but I'm not sure I buy his explanation here.

Obviously, Clinton was steamed about the story, but he's still a very savvy politician, and I just can't see him saying what he did if he thought he was on the record with a reporter -- indeed, he didn't say it to any other reporter. You can argue that in the age of the Internet, the ability of so-called "citizen journalists" to report these kinds of guarded moments is a good thing, and that's an argument I tend to sympathize with, but the lines become really murky when that "citizen journalist" is someone like Fowler, working with an organization like the Huffington Post.

In this case, I think Fowler probably crossed those lines. That's especially true because of the way Fowler prefaced her question, which made her sound like a supporter, not a reporter. I agree with Calderone, who wrote, "I do find it disingenuous of Fowler to knock down another reporter's work as a 'hatchet job,' while at the same time not informing a story subject that she's a reporter working on her own story (while taping that subject). Was the 'hatchet job' comment what she really felt about Purdum's work or an attempt to get in Clinton's good graces?"

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Alex Koppelman

By Justin Jouvenal

Justin Jouvenal is an editorial fellow at Salon and a graduate student in journalism at New York University.

MORE FROM Justin Jouvenal

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