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13 January 1999

Life in this celebrity press corps: Accepting the lies that blind

Synopsis: The press corps is pretty much OK with lies--as long as they’re told by accusers.

Commentary by Judy Woodruff, Frank Sesno, Howard Kurtz, Ann McDaniel
Inside Politics, CNN, 1/11/99

Frank Sesno was asked, by Judy Woodruff, if the press should now “clarify” the truth about the “love child” story:

SESNO: I think so. I think we have to say, and we can say it right here, right now, that there were these DNA tests, there was this rumor out there, and they do not connect Bill Clinton to this kid.

They do not “connect” Clinton to this kid? Was that the best that Sesno could do? Wierdly, Sesno was tracking Woodruff’s own language earlier in the ten-minute segment:

WOODRUFF: You had this Matt Drudge report, recall, about this woman who alleged that Bill Clinton had fathered her son. Well, now there’s been a DNA test--no connection.

To be fair, it’s not that no one ever flat-out said that the “love child” story was simply false. Here’s Woodruff’s full question to Sesno:

WOODRUFF: Does anybody have an obligation, Frank, to clarify now that it’s been proven that it’s not true?

And Howard Kurtz did say, at one point in the scrum, that “we now know it is utterly bogus.”

But we were struck throughout by the tepid way the group critiqued what had happened. Here’s a list of things no one ever said in the course of the lengthy discussion:

  1. No one ever said what is now plainly true: the accuser had lied to the public.
  2. No one ever said, or lamented the fact, that Bill Clinton had been lied about.
  3. No one criticized Matt Drudge by name for pushing his latest imbecile story.
  4. No one asked how news of the DNA testing got from the Star to Drudge. No one wondered if Star editor Phil Bunton had been guilty of spreading the slander. (In fact, the Star was complimented. See below.)
  5. No one mentioned the New York Post, or criticized it for putting this “story” on page one (January 3).
  6. The Washington Times was barely mentioned, and never directly condemned, for doing its own page one story.
  7. No one mentioned that Woodruff’s “woman” was actually a prostitute, Bobbi Ann Williams, reportedly paid “in the low six figures” by the Star (Washington Times). This might have helped viewers see how absurd it was that any paper had reported her charges.
  8. No one named the individual journalists who had pimped this disgraceful slander. For example, no one mentioned the shameful work of Woody West of the Washington Times. (See tomorrow’s DAILY HOWLER.)
All in all, we thought it remarkable--the lack of outrage about this event. But then, we’ve seen it before, again and again, the phenomenon acted out in this confab. We’ve seen how the press corps doesn’t seem to be troubled by lies--as long as they’re told by accusers.

Indeed, how else to explain the lack of concern about Kathleen Willey’s story? On October 2, the press corps learned that Linda Tripp had contradicted every word Kathleen Willey had said (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/8-12). Tripp told the grand jury that Willey actively sought the romantic attention she got from Bill Clinton. If Tripp’s detailed, sworn testimony was basically true, Willey also had lied to the press corps. If what Tripp said was basically true, Willey also had lied about Clinton--had stated a shameful slander.

But rather than put that information in print--rather than alert the public to this possibility--the press threw the news down the memory hole, never to be heard from again. Week after week became month after month, and the public never heard Tripp’s assertions. When Julie Steele was indicted for challenging Willey, no one said Tripp had contradicted Willey too. Last Thursday night, Chris Matthews insisted Tripp had done no such thing. Only the Hotline corrected the groaner.

But then, the corps’ sorry conduct continues a pattern we’ve long reported here at THE HOWLER--a pattern in which the corps looks away from apparent dissembling, when it’s done by a few treasured friends:

Gennifer Flowers: When Flowers published her original Star article, Jonathan Alter detailed groaning problems with Flowers’ story (see Newsweek, 2/3/92). To our knowledge, none of these problems has ever been cleared up. But the press corps delights in repeating the claim that “we now know Flowers was telling the truth.” This assertion is utterly false. (See “Seeing the glass,” below.)

Paula Jones: Reciting a long-standing Arkansas rumor, Jones stated there was a “distinguishing characteristic” in Clinton’s genital area (and would he please give her a big bag of money). Clinton finally did what most folks thought he would not do--he allowed a doctor to examine his genitas, and let his lawyer announce there was no such characteristic. But have you ever seen the celebrity press corps ask Jones to explain her false account? Have you ever seen anyone suggest in print that Jones may be a liar?

Jones also stated, in her deposition, that she had not checked to see if she had been denied appropriate raises. Four years into a world-famous trial, she hadn’t checked to see if she had a cause of action? Does anyone on earth believe that’s true? Have you seen anyone in the press corps discuss it?

And now we get to Kathleen Willey, contradicted up and down by Linda Tripp. And the public is simply not told about this, because it isn’t the story the press corps likes telling.

The “love child” story was a journalistic disgrace, in which various players passed on a vile slander. The accuser lied; the tabloid leaked; Matt Drudge went on line; the Times went Postal. But the pundits we saw on CNN this week just couldn’t rouse themselves to anger. Reason? The press corps has never much cared about lies--as long as they’re told by accusers.

No “connection:” The tepid denials of Sesno and Woodruff don’t begin to suffice in this matter. People who cared about the public discourse would make a point to tell viewers what’s true. Clinton was lied about by an accuser this week; the public was lied to all week long. And a number of players--Bunton, Drudge, the Post, the Times--agreed to pass on the lying story, a story they had no reason to credit at any point in the process.

The pundits’ refusal to name any names speaks volumes about their lack of concern.

The problem with tepid denials: We appeared on a radio show last night ourselves. A caller said he wasn’t concerned with whether Clinton had fathered a child (that was coincidence); he was concerned with what Clinton had actually done “in the incident.” Tepid denials don’t help people like this understand there is no reason to believe there ever was any incident. When newspapers pass on transparent lies, journalists need to stand up and say it. They need to tell viewers they’ve been the victims of lies. They need to show some moral courage, and name the names of the folks who misled.

Ever vigilant: Newsweek’s grinning Ann McDaniel took the prize for Panglossian thinking:

MCDANIEL: This story, the story of the illegitimate kid, I guess did in the end have the right outcome. People heard about it and then they heard the results of the test.

Amazing. Some of them heard the results of the test. And some who did then called up stations wanting to know what Clinton had actually done. It’s remarkable to see that McDaniel doesn’t know that the genie never gets back in the bottle. Perhaps if she was more aware of the harm lying does, she’d be more concerned when she sees lying happen.

More than we needed to know dept.: Here’s what McDaniel said about how the public should respond to these stories:

MCDANIEL: We all like to gather all the gossip and know all the rumors. At the same time, I think they have to decide over time which media they should trust.

“We all like to gather all the gossip and know all the rumors?” Really! At THE HOWLER, we hadn’t quite known.

Seeing the glass 1% full: At THE HOWLER, we’re fans of Howard Kurtz. We think he does tons of good reporting. But even Kurtz bowed to moral languor in his remarks on the role of the Star:

KURTZ: If there were a clear bright line our jobs would be a lot easier. In fact, the Star, a supermarket tabloid, pays information, they’re the ones who broke the Gennifer Flowers story, which I was very critical of seven years ago, but which turned out in part to be true. [Our emphasis]

Remarkable. Flowers claimed a twelve-year affair; Clinton has testified to one “sexual encounter” (not intercourse), which he later described as a grope-and-grab session at a Little Rock nightclub. It is that admission--and nothing else--to which Kurtz here refers.

Amazing, isn’t it? Flowers invades a presidential campaign with an elaborate, undocumented story. Factual howlers are noticed immediately. But because Clinton agrees he squeezed her butt in a bar, Kurtz tells us her story “turned out in part to be true.”


Kurtz’ statement shows the amazing low standard now required for the press to affirm an accuser. If a tabloid’s story is 1% right, that’s good enough by the standard Kurtz cites. The Star seems to have misbehaved badly in this event. It ends up being praised by Kurtz.

By the way, Flowers wrote a lengthy book about her twelve-year “affair” without naming a single date when she and Clinton were alone. Is there anyone on earth who doesn’t know why someone writes a memoir like that?