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14 January 1999

A Daily Howler journalist profile: We call it a Woody

Synopsis: Woody West of the Washington Times wins the grand prize for sleazy “reporting.”

Clinton not boy’s father, DNA shows
Woody West, The Washington Times, 1/12/99

Media abuzz with rumors that Clinton fathered boy
Woody West, The Washington Times, 1/6/99

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

No, there wasn’t a whole lot of outrage, from CNN’s panel, about the ridiculous “love child” debacle--no real concern that a shameful slander had been spread about President Clinton. There was big concern that the panelists themselves were somehow “losing control of the agenda.” But no special pique at the way ugly lies had been told, and had spread all through the media. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/13/99, for our review of the CNN panel.)

But since the pundits weren’t willing to name any names--wouldn’t criticize those who had spread the slander--we thought we’d give you a closer look at the mess they chose not to discuss. Woody West had penned the Washington Times story that put the rumor on the front page (on 1/6). We thought you might be amused by the way the scribe finally explained that the rumor was baseless.

Writing on January 12, West did begin with a direct, simple statement that the “love child” tale had been false:

WEST [paragraph one]: The DNA tests arranged by the Star supermarket tabloid are completed, and President Clinton was cleared of accusations that he fathered a child by a Little Rock prostitute when he was the governor of Arkansas.

Next, West provided some context:

WEST [paragraph two]: The findings, confirmed by sources at the Star, had stoked feverish speculation in Washington and broke into the reluctant mainstream press over the weekend.

We’re not sure what “mainstream press” West had in mind, but his report was still basically on track.

But by paragraph three, West was feeling real pain about conducting such straight-ahead journalism. And from that point on, West turned his “retraction” piece on its ear. In fact, he repeated every rumor about Target Clinton he could find a way to fit into his article.

In paragraph three, West kicked things off by suggesting Clinton may have had sex with that woman:

WEST: Joe Lockhart, the president’s press spokesman, took considerable pains to denounce the story while not categorically denying that Mr. Clinton could have been the father of a boy, now 13, who was born to Bobbi Ann Williams of Little Rock.

For the record, a careful rereading of West’s January 6 story--which details lengthy press exchanges with Lockhart--does not seem to us to support West’s wonderfully insinuative description.

But at any rate, Woody now was off to the races, recycling old gossip and rumor. First, West straight-facedly quoted the Star’s Phil Bunton, as Bunton pretended the Star was just seeking the truth in conducting the DNA testing. It didn’t occur to West to ask if Bunton had leaked news of the tests to Matt Drudge.

Then West gave this lip-smacking account of where the whole story had come from:

WEST [paragraph seven]: The findings finally spiked a story that had been buzzing about Mr. Clinton for years, dating to his first term as governor. The story was given credence by many people in Little Rock because of a remarkable physical resemblance between Mr. Clinton and the boy...

And indeed, we now know the “resemblance” is truly remarkable, because we know Clinton isn’t the father! Indeed, that knowledge would make a reasonable person wonder if there ever had been such resemblance at all. Has West ever seen the boy in question, so that he can vouch for this “resemblance” (which he asserts in his own voice)? Tragicomically, West is still spreading silly rumors around--rumors we now know can’t be fact.

But once the lip-smacking gets under way, people like West never stop. He finishes off this laughable paragraph with an assertion that is irrelevant and false:

WEST [paragraph seven, cont’d]: ...The story was given credence by many people in Little Rock because of a remarkable physical resemblance between Mr. Clinton and the boy. At the time the story first came to light Mr. Clinton was denying, falsely as his subsequent admissions showed, that he had ever had an affair with Gennifer Flowers, a nightclub singer.

In fact, Clinton has never retracted his repeated description of Flowers as “a woman I didn’t sleep with” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/13/99). But the tangential relevance of Flowers to this matter makes one comic fact about the Woodman quite clear--West is using his retraction as a chance to recycle as many sex tales about Clinton as he can.

Indeed, just enjoy yourself as the thigh-rubbing scribe excites readers with his very next paragraph:

WEST [paragraph eight]: Mr. Clinton’s siring of a black child was implied in the novel “Primary Colors” in which a fictional candidate for president, Jack Stanton, supplies false DNA samples to prove that he is not the father of an unborn child conceived by a black teen-age girl.

In other words, Joe Klein wrote a novel, about Bill Clinton, in which he implied the rumored “love child” event had occurred. In the course of reporting that the rumor was false, West now repeats the way Klein told the story!

It’s what the Times calls “getting a Woody.” Have fun now with paragraph nine:

WEST [paragraphs nine and ten]: Bobbi Ann Williams told the Globe supermarket tabloid in 1993 that she and Mr. Clinton first met as he jogged along a quiet residential street at the governor’s mansion near downtown Little Rock, and he paid her...

And so on and so on, for two lengthy paragraphs. Understand this: West now knows that Bobbi Ann Williams was lying about President Clinton. His reaction? He repeats, at great length, other tales she has told (never thinking to mention to readers, of course, how much Williams was paid by the Globe).

It is this kind of maggot-infested reporting that lay at the heart of the “love child” debacle. It is this kind of work our CNN panelists couldn’t quite bring themselves to condemn. They worried about losing control of the news, and refused to speak frankly about writers like West. Here at THE HOWLER, do you know what we think? We’d be more concerned by their “loss of control” if they did more with the control that they have.

Just sez no: In fairness, Frank Sesno did say this, on Inside Politics, about West’s original article:

SESNO: It was on the front page of the Washington Times, an extraordinary article, where they said, “You know, we’re not even reporting it but we’ve got to tell you about this rumor that’s out there.” You know when I worked for the AP, we didn’t report rumors.

We have no complaint with what Sesno says; but, incredibly, this is the strongest condemnation the panelists voiced in a lengthy discussion of the whole “love child” story! No one said Williams’ story was paid for. No one said that, because the story was paid for, there was never any reason to believe it true, absent proof. No one asked how news of the testing made its way from the Star to Matt Drudge. Indeed, the Star, which was right at the heart of the slander, ended up being praised by one panelist! And no one noted the most significant fact--that President Clinton had been lied about, and that various editors had placed the slander on the very first page of their papers.

Today, in West’s ridiculous piece, we see the kind of journalist the panelists were tolerating.

Sadly, many people who read West’s 1/12 piece now think they know things about President Clinton that almost surely aren’t true. Rumors are repeated by people like West to spread images and ugly impressions. That is the reason for West’s second article; that was the reason for his first piece too. The panelists didn’t seem to know this. And they clearly weren’t troubled about it.

Tomorrow: Wes Pruden’s feisty “love child” column helps us recall where these silly tales come from.