OK. Now I'm completely confused. The Washington Post reports — if reporting can be used to describe a story that LEAVES ALL THE BIG QUESTIONS UNASKED much less answered — Boy Yawns, CNN Bumbles, Letterman Yelps:
Did the White House find weapons of mass destruction at the Ed Sullivan Theatre, or did CNN mess up its report on a “Late Show With David Letterman” segment poking fun at President Bush?
Monday night Letterman debuted a new bit on his show, called “George W. Bush Invigorates America's Youth.” What followed was a series of very brief clips from a recent speech in Florida in which the president said things like “it will not happen on my watch” and “we stand for the fair treatment of faith-based groups who will receive federal support for their work” to a Norman Rockwellian group of average citizens. Among them was one apple-cheeked boy of about 12 in a red baseball cap, rugby shirt and chino shorts, who is caught on camera yawning uncontrollably, twisting his head from side to side, checking his watch and otherwise looking pretty thoroughly bored, while the other people serving as background ignored him.
The folks at CNN got a kick out of it and the next morning, during “CNN Live Today,” ran the clip, crediting Letterman. CNN host Daryn Kagan quipped, “What is funnier, the kid or that everybody around him — not a single person even reacts to those high jinks?”
Then CNN cut to commercial break. Right after the break, Kagan told viewers: “All right — had a good giggle before the break, that video was from David Letterman. We're being told by the White House that the kid, as funny as he was, was edited into that video, which would explain why the people around him weren't really reacting. So, that from the White House.”
That night, Letterman struck back. He showed Kagan telling viewers that the White House said the footage had been doctored.
“Now that, ladies and gentlemen, as sure as I'm sitting here, is an out-and-out, 100 percent absolute lie. The kid absolutely was there and he absolutely was doing everything we pictured via the videotape.”
Two comedy bits later, Letterman read one of his trademark cards that he's always fiddling with, and started to laugh: “God almighty, my life just gets more and more complicated. You know, just a minute ago … I was ranting and raving about the White House. According to this, CNN has just phoned and, according to this information, the anchorwoman misspoke, they never got a comment from the White House. It was a CNN mistake.
“What good does that do me? … I've already now called them liars. I think from now on we're going to have to start looking into things,” Letterman said.
“Why start now?” his bandleader Paul Shaffer said.
“Because everything was fine, except now I've called the White House liars, and you know what that means — they're going to start looking into my taxes!”
A CNN spokeswoman told The TV Column yesterday that the network notified Letterman's show at 5 p.m. that CNN had been incorrect in attributing the suggestion of video-doctoring to the White House. Letterman's show is taped at 5:30 p.m.
“It was their choice to continue to air it,” the spokeswoman said, adding that the problem had arisen due to “a misunderstanding among staff,” but would not elaborate.
Rob Burnett, president and CEO of Letterman's Worldwide Pants production company, told The TV Column that he first received word of CNN's call during the show.
“We did not doctor the footage in any way,” Burnett said. “We don't need [special effects] to make our politicians look silly.” He also noted that CNN did not contact Worldwide Pants on Tuesday to ask whether the footage had been digitally altered.
“We're not a news show, and if we had doctored the footage for comedic effect, we would say so,” Burnett said.
Last night on his show, Letterman recapped the story and joked that he's hearing that maybe the White House did speak to CNN about “George W. Bush Invigorates America's Youth.”
OK. Deep breath. There are three families of possibilities here:
- Letterman made it all up. Deeply unlikely.
- CNN made it up. In which case, the Post should be asking how this happened. Putting out a libel on the air with no evidence is pretty serious. (And accusing Letterman of doctoring the tape is surely libel. Doing it with no evidence is 'reckless disregard for the truth.) Not to mention what it would prove about the ideological constraints on CNN. Calling this a staff mixup just won't do.
- CNN did not make it up — the White House did call CNN, and now for some reason they are in Denial Mode (but why would CNN go along).
A real reporter would have called Daryn Kagan, the CNN anchor who originally repeated the film-doctoring story, and asked who on the staff wrote it. Then called that person, etc. The truth is out there — and surely it's worth someone's time to pursue? Who exactly at CNN had what sort of a “misunderstanding”? And how much will they pay Letterman in libel damages?