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8 January 1999

Our current howler: Memory fails to serve

Synopsis: Chris Matthews sharply “corrected” a guest when she reported what Tripp said on Willey.

Commentary by Chris Matthews, Elizabeth Holtzman, Bill Sammon
Hardball, CNBC, 1/7/99

At THE HOWLER, we knew the day of reckoning was near when Ken Starr indicted Julie Hiatt Steele, the former friend of Kathleen Willey who’s been charged with obstruction and perjury. We suspected the matter would force the corps to speak in more detail about Willey’s claims; and we guessed it would just be a matter of time until someone said something like this:

HOLTZMAN: Let me just make a point to you. Remember--Linda Tripp also contradicts Kathleen Willey.

Yep. There was Holtzman on Hardball last night, finally voicing the dirty little secret, the one we’ve reported, again and again, since Ken Starr’s October 2 “document dump.”

Included in the material released that day was Linda Tripp’s complete grand jury testimony, in which Tripp contradicted Willey’s claim of an assault by President Clinton. As the transcripts revealed, Linda Tripp, under oath, in great detail, had told a remarkable story. She testified that Willey had pursued a romantic flirtation with Clinton since the day that Willey arrived at the White House. She said that Willey had arranged the Oval Office meeting with Clinton to see if the flirtation could advance. She said that Willey had come to Tripp’s office right after the meeting and told Tripp about the (consensual) encounter. And she said that Willey “smiled from ear to ear the entire time” in describing her encounter with Clinton.

In short, Tripp’s detailed, sworn account almost wholly contradicted the much-publicized story Willey told back in March. And you’d think Tripp’s account would have been major news, when it was finally made public in October. If Linda Tripp was telling the truth, then Kathleen Willey had been less than candid, on Sixty Minutes, when she accused the president of an unwanted assault. And given the massive coverage given to Willey’s charges--and the fawning reaction by celebrity pundits--you’d think that the press would have felt obliged to report the startling things that Tripp said.

But this celebrity press corps, in love with accusers, has persistently ignored Linda Tripp’s striking testimony--has persistently failed to tell its readers of the startling things Linda Tripp said. The Washington Post reported Tripp’s testimony in its October 3 reporting on the “document dump,” correctly seeing that Tripp’s account was in fact a major news story. But no other paper on which we report saw fit to tell readers about Tripp’s account. No other paper has ever let readers know that Willey has been contradicted.

USA Today? Not a word. The New York Times? Its readers still wait. The Washington Times? Don’t even ask. The Wall Street Journal? No mention yet. Readers of these major papers have never been told about Tripp’s account--cannot evaluate Willey’s charges in the light of what Linda Tripp said.

And last night, on Hardball, we saw what happens when a press corps writes only the stories it likes--when a press corps falls in love with accusers, and suppresses evidence that contradicts them. Because, when Holtzman miraculously appeared on the show and actually mentioned what Tripp had said, host Chris Matthews--and the Washington Times’ Bill Sammon--both falsely attacked her account.

Matthews was the first to speak, deriding Holtzman’s statement. What Holtzman had said was perfectly accurate. Here was Matthews’ response:

MATTHEWS: Linda Tripp by the way, before it sinks in any deeper with the viewing audience, Linda Tripp did not contradict the testimony of Kathleen Willey. She said she came from the president with her shirt half off--

HOLTZMAN: She sure did. She sure did. She said if you remember the conversation with Monica Lewinsky, she said Kathleen Willey was lying. So she did.

Holtzman was referring to the telephone tapes, not to Tripp’s grand jury testimony. Matthews again contradicted:

MATTHEWS: Is that right? I don’t think so at all. Not at all. We’ll check that later.

A year of service to favorite accusers was blowing up in the fevered host’s face. Bill Sammon of the Times offered succor:

SAMMON: There was a contradiction, but it was more of a, what kind of an attitude did Kathleen Willey have when she came out of the office--

False. All false. A hundred times false--but the standard tale of the scandal-fed press corps. And Matthews spoke again, to buttress Sammon. Two pundits, each completely wrong, now actively misinforming the public:

MATTHEWS: It was a subjective assessment of what Kathleen Willey’s subjective reaction was to the president’s, whatever he did to her that left her shirt half off...

Which is not at all what Tripp told the grand jury--not at all what Tripp has said. And when Holtzman suggested that Chris might be wrong--that to “the best of [her] memory,” he was in error--Matthews, totally, howlingly wrong, asserted superior recall:

MATTHEWS: [That’s] not good memory. That’s not good enough memory. Because I remember it clearly.

HOLTZMAN: Well, your memory isn’t necessarily better that anyone else’s, is it?

MATTHEWS: Well, in this case, I’m an expert.

It was the fruit of a year of bluster and spin. Matthews, devoted to treasured accusers, completely misstated the facts.

Here at THE HOWLER, we’ve reported this story since the document dump of October 2, repeatedly asking why this celebrity press corps won’t report the things Linda Tripp said (see listings below). But tonight, as Steele faced prison time, the gang at Hardball took the next step. It stopped ignoring Tripp’s account--a practice that has been a press corps disgrace--and instead began to misinform folks about the startling things Linda Tripp said.

Visit our incomparable archives: We have reported, again and again, the press corps’ refusal to report Tripp-on-Willey. Visit our incomparable archives to review this sad chapter in recent press history, as a celebrity press corps refuses to report that an accuser stands severely contradicted:

  1. THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/5/98: The Washington Post reports Tripp’s account--and William Safire falsely asserts that nothing in the document dump involves Kathleen Willey.

  2. THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/26/98: : A review of press (non)-coverage to date of what Tripp said about Willey.

  3. THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/2/98: In March, major pundits had rushed to judgment, swearing they believed every word Willey said.

  4. THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/9/98: The New York Times hasn’t published a word about Linda Tripp’s sworn account.

  5. THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/16/98: Tripp’s account has now disappeared from Washington Post reporting.

  6. THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/30/98: In March, Spin Cycle reported a consensual encounter between Clinton and Willey. The press didn’t notice or care.
Read on: We report later today about this morning’s coverage of the Julie Hiatt Steele indictment.

See for yourself: Tripp’s initial testimony can be found in the Starr Report’s “Supplemental Materials,” Part 3, pages 4039-4052 (Tripp’s 6/30/98 appearance). She also discusses the matter in detail in her 7/14 and 7/16 appearances.

Coming: We report our extensive, fruitless efforts to get major media to report what Tripp said. And yes, dear friends. You know it’s true. THE DAILY HOWLER names names--always has!