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28 January 1999

The Daily Howler open forum: Desperately seeking suasion

Synopsis: An open letter to Hardball’s Chris Matthews. We ask Chris to correct his howling misstatements about Linda Tripp’s grand jury testimony.

We’ve sent the letter that follows to Hardball’s Chris Matthews, asking him to correct misstatements from January 7 about Linda Tripp’s grand jury testimony.

As you know, we think the press corps’ treatment of Tripp’s grand jury testimony has been a major disgrace. In March, CelebCorps gave major coverage to Kathleen Willey’s serious charges against President Clinton. And in the aftermath of her Sixty Minutes appearance, a phalanx of pundits raced forward to swear they believed every word she had said.

But in detailed, sworn testimony, released in October, Tripp contradicted every word Willey said, raising obvious doubts as to whether Willey had been candid in her Sixty Minutes appearance. But, except for the Post, no major paper has reported Tripp’s sworn contradiction of Willey. Tripp’s account disappeared down that memory hole, the one we write about so often--the memory hole that the press corps maintains for evidence casting doubt on accusers.

But on January 7, Matthews didn’t ignore what Linda Tripp said; he egregiously, plainly misstated it. When Elizabeth Holtzman pointed out that Tripp had contradicted Willey, he and Bill Sammon disputed her, falsely. They were wrong in every word that they said.

Though Matthews has continued to discuss Willey topics, he has yet to tell viewers that they were misinformed. We think the public interest would be served if Matthews would correct his egregious misstatements.

Our question: Is there any standard of truth to which the press corps is held? Matthews has badly misstated a major story. Is a search for truth under way in the press? Or does the press corps tell stories it likes?

For our account of the 1/7 Hardball show: See THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/8/99. In that edition, we give you links to past DAILY HOWLERS concerning Tripp-on-Willey.

Here’s our letter. It’s OK. You can read it:

The Daily Howler
January 28, 1999

Chris Matthews

Dear Chris:

I’m writing to ask that you correct certain statements you made on the January 7 Hardball.

On that program, Elizabeth Holtzman made the following statement, referring to Julie Hiatt Steele’s ongoing conflict with Kathleen Willey:

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

Holtzman went on to address another point. But you broke in, saying this about her comment on Tripp:

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.

You and Bill Sammon went on to challenge what Holtzman had said about Tripp:

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--

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. And you know that, that was the distinction. She was not impeaching her testimony. She was saying she may not have been as angry about it as she seemed to be later.

In closing the segment, you and Holtzman skirmished further about her statement on Tripp:

HOLTZMAN: ...I’m paraphrasing, but in essence [Tripp] said that if Kathleen Willey is saying this wasn’t voluntary, she wasn’t telling the truth. That’s the best of my memory about it.

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 than anyone else’s, is it?

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

But the truth is, Elizabeth Holtzman was absolutely correct in what she said about Tripp. Holtzman referred to one of the taped telephone calls between Lewinsky and Tripp. But before the Starr grand jury, in detailed, sworn testimony, Tripp severely contradicted Kathleen Willey’s account of her Oval Office encounter with President Clinton. Tripp testified that Willey had pursued a flirtation with Clinton since the time she arrived at the White House. Tripp said that Willey had speculated about a house where she and Clinton could be alone without Secret Service interference. She said that Willey deliberately attended events where she would encounter Clinton, dressing in an appealing manner; she said that Willey had set up the Oval Office meeting in large part to see if her flirtation with Clinton could advance. And she told the grand jury that, by pre-arrangement, Willey came to Tripp’s office directly after the encounter, to tell Tripp what had occurred, and she said that Willey “smiled from ear to ear the entire time” in describing Clinton’s advances.

In short, Tripp’s detailed, sworn testimony severely contradicted Kathleen Willey’s Sixty Minutes presentation. If Linda Tripp’s account is accurate, then Willey almost surely was not being candid in her televised statements last March.

Tripp’s grand jury testimony was released to the public in Ken Starr’s “document dump” on October 2, and Tripp’s striking account of Willey’s conduct was reported in the Washington Post the next day. But the Post was alone, among major papers, in calling attention to Tripp’s account, and over the course of the past four months, Tripp’s testimony has been largely ignored by the mainstream press.

The press corps’ decision to ignore Tripp’s account is extremely difficult to justify. After all, Willey’s original charges against President Clinton received massive news coverage in March. And, in the weeks following her Sixty Minutes appearance, a phalanx of pundits rushed into print, saying they believed every word Willey said.

But when Tripp’s detailed testimony contradicted Willey’s charges, the press corps, almost uniformly, chose not to report it. In my view, this is merely the latest reflection of a troubling press culture, in which serious charges get widely reported, and contradictions of same get suppressed.

But on January 7, you didn’t just refuse to report the Tripp account; you actively misreported what Tripp had said. You and Sammon gave viewers an account that is plainly, demonstrably false. It seems to me that Hardball viewers have a right to be told when such errors have occurred. This is especially true in the Willey matter, since several issues concerning Willey linger on in the public debate. You yourself have continued to discuss Willey in recent programs, as is completely appropriate.

With that in mind, I’m writing to suggest that you correct the record on some upcoming program. Hardball viewers have been flatly misinformed about a matter of substantial importance. I’m hoping you’ll set the record straight for Hardball’s regular audience.

I’m enclosing a copy of the 1/8 DAILY HOWLER, which described the incident on the 1/7 Hardball, and which refers you to our past reporting on the Tripp-Willey matter. Tripp’s original testimony before the grand jury is available, of course, in part 3 of the supplemental materials to the Starr Report. Pages 4039-4051 concern Willey’s alleged flirtation with Clinton.

Because THE DAILY HOWLER has dealt with this topic repeatedly since October 5, I am posting this letter on THE HOWLER, dated January 28.

Yours truly,

Bob Somerby