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Daily Howler: How should the press have dealt with O'Neill? Let's revisit their darling, Kathleen Willey
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SMEAR BOAT VETERANS (PART 3)! How should the press have dealt with O’Neill? Let’s revisit their darling, Kathleen Willey: // link // print //

HARD ON KNOX: Yes, we also loved Marian Knox, the feisty former National Guard secretary who appeared last night on 60 Minutes. And man alive, did the mystery deepen! Howard Kurtz describes Knox’s claims in this morning’s Washington Post:
KURTZ (9/16/04): In her interview with Rather yesterday, Knox repeated her contention that the documents used by "60 Minutes" were bogus. Knox, 86, worked for Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian while he supervised Bush's unit in the early 1970s.

"I know that I didn't type them," Knox said of the Killian memos. "However, the information in there is correct," she said, adding that Killian and the other officers would "snicker about what [Bush] was getting away with.”

For the record, Knox is 86, but she did seem quite cogent. Her assessment? The memos are fake, but the info is accurate! The mystery got deeper—and more entertaining. This storm will be here for a while.

Yes, if we were movie producers, we’d cast the fascinating, feisty Knox in our next feature film. But might we add a word of caution? Many Reps will pimp Knox’s claim that she didn’t type these ballyhooed docs. And many Dems will herald the claim that this is what Killian really thought. But is there really any reason to believe Knox’s claims on either score? Is there any reason to think that her twin claims are actually accurate?

Before last night, no one had ever set eyes on Knox. No one knows if she is reliable. No one knows if she is cogent; no one knows if she is a kook. She seemed to be cogent, but is she really? In point of fact, there’s no way to tell. Is she right when she says she didn’t type these docs? If we decide to credit this claim, we’re deciding to trust the uncorroborated judgment and memory of a 86-year-old woman. More specifically, we’re trusting the judgment and memory of an 86-year-old woman about fairly trivial matters that occurred 32 years ago!

Are Knox’s claims accurate? We don’t have a clue. By any normal human standard, 32-year-old memories should be highly suspect, especially when they come from people who have no public track record. But increasingly, we live in a fictional world, where news orgs hand us fictional fare. Last night, via Knox, the mystery deepened. Few people are going to note that her statements lack verification.

How should we react when strangers make striking claims—striking claims which haven’t been proven? Wiser people will withhold their judgment. But that isn’t how today’s press corps does business. Indeed, in the summer of 2004, a group of men with no track record showed up in public and began trashing John Kerry, making claims about ancient events which were, by their nature, quite hard to confirm. The press corps should have challenged them hard, trying to get at their credibility. And guess what? Had the corps done that, we would have learned that these rough, scary, untested men were telling a load of strange tales.

What should the Washington press corps have done when the Swift Boat Vets began dropping bombs? They should have pressed these men very hard. When unknown people make serious claims, a serious press corps will challenge them hard. And when unknown men pen a best-selling book, a serious press corps will read it.

And guess what? If the press corps read Unfit for Command, it would have found a fairly kooky book. It would have found kooky claims about Kerry and the Commies. It would have found kooky claims about Kerry’s Vietnam journal. It would have found Kerry called a “baby-killer,” a man who “treated the South Vietnamese in an almost criminal manner”—and it would have found no earthly sign that anyone said such things in real time. It would have found that some of the claims in the book were patently, laughably bogus.

But you know the ways of that Washington “press corps!” To this day, very few news orgs have dared to review the kooky book by O’Neill and Corsi. (Readers! Where is the fearless Kakutani, who savaged Kitty Kelley this week?) As we know by now, co-author Jerome Corsi is a consummate crackpot; co-author O’Neill has little track record. But your cowardly press corps hid beneath desks when these men produced their book. They decided not to say that the pair had written a weird, kooky text. They decided to let all that go. They decided to fawn to accusers.

When people show up without a track record, sensible people will check what they say. The press should have challenged O’Neill/Corsi hard—and should have screamed, long and hard, about their fake, oddball statements. But the Washington “press” is too timid for that; the Washington “press” tends to love those accusers. As long as they accuse Democrats, of course. As long as they behave like Kathleen Willey.

Tomorrow, we’ll start to describe what they press would have found had it read the O’Neill/Corsi book. But for an ugly example of recent press conduct, let’s review its treatment of its darling, Kathleen Willey. Like O’Neill and Corsi, Willey had no public record when she came forward accusing Bill Clinton. The press had no way to assess her credibility. They couldn’t know if her charges were true. But were they skeptics? Not this crew! Let’s recall some HOWLER HISTORY! For all their vaunted liberal bias, let’s remember the way your press corps reacts when strangers lodge attacks against Democrats.

Our current series—Smear boat veterans (part 3)!

IT’S THE SMEAR BOAT: Enjoy each part of our endless report:

SMEAR BOAT VETERANS (PART 1): Roy Hoffmann has total recall. Any chance he’s reciting a script? See THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/14/04.

SMEAR BOAT VETERANS (PART 2): John O’Neill likes to tell nasty tales—even when his own vets say they’re bogus. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/15/04.

HOWLER HISTORY—IN LOVE WITH SLICK WILLEY: No one had ever set eyes on Kathleen Willey. But omigod! She had a pleasing story to tell, and soon became the queen of the world. Omigod! Bill Clinton had groped her in the Oval, Willey said! Clinton had trespassed on Faire Willey’s honor! No, no one had the slightest idea whether Willey was a credible person. But they rushed her onto 60 Minutes on March 15, 1998. And after she told her thrilling tale, your pundit corps swore it was accurate.

None of them had the slightest idea if Willey was a credible person. And all of them were part of a guild in which they’re allegedly trained to be skeptics. But the pundit corps loved Willey’s tale, and they raced to see who could affirm it most stupidly. They’d never set eyes on the lady before. But all of them knew she was honest.

On March 17, George Will kicked things off. “What kind of person can continue the intellectual contortions necessary to sustain doubt about who is lying?” he wondered. Will had never set eyes on the lady. But he could see to her soul:

WILL (3/17/98): Willey’s painful—for her, and for her civilized viewers—appearance drew dignity from her patent reluctance, and her grown-up’s incredulity about Clinton’s crudity at the time and his continued mendacity.
Poor Willey! It was painful for her—and Clinton was lying. But then, Every Good Scribe knew he had to pimp Willey. “Here was no slick Willey,” William Safire wrote, describing the new star’s “gripping interview.” And Maureen Dowd was a mind-reader too. Why had Willey stayed friendly with Clinton despite his repulsive depredations? “Anita Hill and Kathleen Willey were prepared to extract the good from the bad, and make their bosses’ libidos work for them,” she said. Of course, we always turned to the late Michael Kelly for the dumbest reaction to any event, and he didn’t disappoint with an angry rant in which he affirmed every word Willey said. Indeed, even Walter Shapiro slammed the White House for “smears” when they challenged Willey’s claims, although he himself was only “95 percent convinced Willey’s charges are true.”

Trust us—at 95 percent, Shapiro was the village skeptic. Every pundit had to swear that Faire Willey had spoken true. How foolish did the corps’ clowning get? Chuck Lane pledged his troth in the New Republic. At the time, he was TNR kingpin, getting eaten for lunch by Stephen Glass:

LANE (4/6/98): Kathleen Willey is pretty clearly telling the truth about what happened between her and Bill Clinton on November 29, 1993. And the episode is pretty clearly a far more offensive matter than Clinton’s alleged dalliance with Monica Lewinsky. With Monica, it was consensual. The president’s advance toward Willey even included a modest measure of physical force...So the president is a groper and a liar. He must be held accountable. The question is: How?
“The president is a groper and a liar.” Lane had never set eyes on Willey. But he knew she was telling it true.

Yes, your pundits all ran to affirm Darling Willey, although unchallenged news reports had already cast doubt on the lady’s character (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/2/98). Readers, serious people are slow to accept unverified claims from unknown people. But you live at a time when your Washington pundits have simply stopped being serious people. Your pundits had never set eyes on Faire Willey. But they knew that Faire Willey spoke true.

Of course, some of you know how this story turns out, although the “press corps” worked to keep you clueless. In October 1998, Kenneth Starr staged his “document dump”—and detailed, sworn grand jury testimony cast major doubt on Willey’s story. But the press corps knew how to handle this matter; they simply disappeared the story, refusing to report the displeasing sworn statements (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/26/98). And then, even better! In March 2002, Robert Ray, Kenneth Starr’s successor, released the Independent Counsel’s final report on the endless Clinton probes. And omigod! His report included a special appendix about Faire Willey’s endless dissembling! According to the Ray report, Willey “had given substantially different accounts in two sworn statements and had lied to the FBI about her relationship with a former boyfriend,” Kenneth Fireman reported in Newsday. Indeed, Ray “concluded that it was impossible to convict based on Willey’s words [because] she’d lied so many times, including to the prosecutors,” Nina Totenberg reported for NPR. Yikes! Ray had even considered prosecuting the pundit corps’ favorite Clinton-accuser! (Ray report: “Following Willey’s acknowledgment of the lie, the Independent Counsel agreed not to prosecute her for false statements in this regard.”) Was Kathleen Willey a credible person? Please! Willey accused Clinton of sexual misconduct, and even the OIC gave her up! Let’s just say it, boys and girls: You can’t be less credible than that.

Wow! Surely, readers, the Washington press corps rushed to report Ray’s findings. After all, they had endlessly sworn that Willey was truthful, and now it turned out that she’d even lied to the Independent Counsel himself! But we think you know how your “press corps” reacts when faced with awkward moments like this. On March 6, Totenberg reported Ray’s judgment. The next day, Fireman’s brief report appeared, and USA Today’s Judy Keen penned this single paragraph:

KEEN (3/7/02): The [Ray] report reveals that Kathleen Willey, a former White House volunteer who said Clinton had groped her, “gave false information to the FBI” after being granted immunity. Willey had said she was pressured by Clinton allies to drop her accusations. But investigators lost confidence in her testimony.
But try to find this anywhere else! According to the Nexis archives, the New York Times never mentioned the matter. Neither did the Washington Post, the Washington Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe, the New York Post, the New York Daily News or the Miami Herald. Indeed, there is no record of any AP report, or of any report in any other newspaper! And that isn’t all; according to the Nexis record, Ray’s report about Willey’s lying was never mentioned in any American magazine. Nor was it mentioned on any TV show. Not Brokaw; not Rather; not Jennings; not Lehrer! Chris Matthews had aggressively pimped Darling Willey for years, but he forgot to tell Hardball viewers that his fairest had been trashed by Ray. And as usual, CNN’s “capital gang” made an utterly foolish misjudgment, comical even by modern press standards. To recall this pitiful episode—and a few others—see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/10/03.

Yes, this was a disgraceful episode, but let’s keep sight of the lesson involved. When Kathleen Willey turned up on the scene, the press had never set eyes on the lady. They had no way to judge her credibility. They had no way to judge her cogency. They didn’t know if her statements were accurate! And when she made her deeply serious charges, the press corps should have examined her hard. Instead, they threw her onto 60 Minutes and told the world that the lady spoke true. Four years later, Robert Ray called her a liar. And they knew they must never tell that.

Why do we offer this HOWLER HISTORY? John O’Neill also lacked a track record when he showed up with attacks on John Kerry. Co-author Corsi lacked a track record too. The Washington press should have challenged them hard—and should have examined the claims in their book. Indeed, had pundits dared to read their book, they would have found a quite-kooky text. Just how strange is John O’Neill’s book? Trembling pundits are too scared to say. We’ll tackle the topic tomorrow.