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22 February 1999

Our current howler: What really didn't happen

Synopsis: Christopher Hitchens “told all” about Sid--and The Nation spilled over with howlers.

What Really Happened
Christopher Hitchens, The Nation, 3/1/99

Chris Hitchens decided to tell all about Sid. So he set about gathering materials:

HITCHENS: In the course of getting hold of the transcripts and so forth, I had a number of conversations with staffers at various House committees. One of them evidently called the House Judiciary Committee, which contacted me on Friday, February 5...

Which led to his famous affadavit. Meanwhile, we’re not quite sure what transcripts Hitch gathered, because he surely didn’t bother to read them. Purporting to tell us “what really happened” in the mighty wake of the “stalker” lunch, Hitchens produced a narration that was groaningly, egregiously false.

Here’s the way the brawling Brit kicks off his howling report:

HITCHENS: On February 26 last, my old friend Sidney Blumenthal emerged from the grand jury and made a bravura appearance on the courthouse steps in Washington, D.C. He denounced the inquisitorial tactics of Judge Starr...and proclaimed: “Today I was forced to answer questions about my conversations, as part of my job, with, and I wrote them down, the New York Times, CNN, CBS, Time magazine [and various other news organizations]. Ken Starr’s prosecutors demanded to know what I had told reporters and what reporters had told me about Ken Starr’s prosecutors.”

Hitch said Sid had scored some points in the White House war on Starr. But he himself wasn’t buying:

HITCHENS: The grand jury transcript might never have been made public. I suppose Sidney assumed it wouldn’t be. He wasn’t asked any of those questions, let alone “forced to answer” them...The forewoman of the grand jury admonished him in the strongest terms at the end of his subsequent appearance, expressing the anger of her fellows at the misrepresentations he had offered to the cameras as soon as he emerged.

Hitchens’ statement makes a familiar case, one we’ve reviewed before (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/5/99). This same set of claims was put forward on February 3 by at least three conservative news entities. The Wall Street Journal, in an editorial, offered the very same narration--a story echoed later that day by Laura Ingraham on Watch It! (MSNBC) and on the Brit Hume Special Report (Fox News Channel).

The only problem is, as we pointed out at the time, these claims are abjectly false. On February 26, Blumenthal was repeatedly asked about his contacts and conversations with news orgs, as anyone who read the transcript would see. (We gave a sampling of the repetitive questions in our 2/5 report.) And since Blumenthal’s statement had been perfectly accurate, it would be odd to think he’d be scolded for it. And sure enough, in his next appearance (June 4), no one said a word about it. Not a word was said--nothing at all--about his remarks of February 26. (For the record, THE DAILY HOWLER takes no position on whether the questions asked Blumenthal were proper.)

So we’re not quite sure why Hitch gets transcripts, since he clearly doesn’t bother to read them. Neither, apparently, do his editors at The Nation; clearly, they didn’t fact-check the transcripts, either. In fact, we’ve really been thinking of calling the Congress, and telling them to stop keeping track of remarks. It’s become all too clear that this celebrity press corps is too incompetent and lazy to read them.

So The Nation becomes at least the fourth major player to print this absurdly false story. And, in printing this egregious account--an account that is factually false and profoundly defamatory--The Nation acts out a few of our favorite themes, themes we’ll review in our next two editions. Hitchens’ article shows how incredibly easy it is to sell spin--to get major press entities to type up false stories. And it shows again what we’ve told you again and again--how little the press corps checks out facts. Anyone who spent even a few minutes reading Blumenthal’s grand jury transcripts would have seen that this story is false. But then, we’ve said it again and again: this press corps just doesn’t do transcripts.

Meanwhile, we take a minute to let you enjoy Hitchens’ silliest moment. The irrepressible import announced how he came to pen his grand exposé:

HITCHENS: When I found this out [that Blumenthal had supposedly lied, and had been scolded by the forewoman], I was depressed. It’s one thing to exaggerate in your own defense, but another to falsify your own rather cowardly testimony...At the beginning of February, therefore, I decided that I would have to write a column showing how easily the White House had fooled the press. [Our emphasis]

Isn’t it wonderful? Showing how easily the White House fooled the press? In fact, it’s quite clear that someone else had fooled our man Hitch. Get the feeling that it’s not all that hard?

What’s the hitch? Again, the simplest review of the OIC transcripts would have shown Blumenthal being asked, again and again, about his contacts with news organizations. The organizations were not named in the questions; that was information that the IC was attempting to elicit. As we pointed out in our 2/5 report, this fact was stated in the New York Times in a full article on 2/3.

A mild scolding by the foreperson did occur on June 25, at the conclusion of Blumenthal’s third appearance. She referred to “an inaccurate representation” that had been made “on the steps of the courthouse” “during your last visit.” That would have been Blumenthal’s June 4 visit, not the earlier visit of February 26.

But on June 4, Blumenthal made no statement after his grand jury appearance. As was reported the next day in the New York Times, the statement in question was made by his lawyer, William McDaniel. In his statement, McDaniel said that Blumenthal would have no public statements until the grand jury process was over.

But isn’t that just like this celebrity press corps? Even when you take a vow of silence, they’ll still just report that you lied!

Next: In its new edition, The Nation’s Alexander Cockburn reports the facts about Hitch-on-Sid.