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19 March 1999

Our current howler (part III): Defining knowledge down

Synopsis: Bill Kristol’s wishful thinking about Mrs. Broaddrick helps define journalism down.

Juanita Broaddrick and Us William Kristol, The Weekly Standard, 3/15/99


We might as well say that we think William Kristol is one of the brightest people in Washington journalism--able to articulate original views (unheard of!), with a fine sense of humor to boot. And we could also say that we think the Standard is the most interesting of all the weeklies. In fact, we could pander like this all day long--if we didn’t have a DAILY HOWLER to put out.

But it’s precisely because Kristol is so bright and so deft that we were especially struck by his March 15 piece, in which he defined the tone that the Standard has brought to its Broaddrick coverage. In his effort to credit any and all “evidence” suggesting that Clinton is guilty as charged, Kristol’s piece defines the sad state of Washington prosecutorial journalism. The piece defines journalism down.

Remember Fred Barnes’ surprising claim, in the 3/8 Standard, that anyone-but-Clinton would have to respond to such charges? (See yesterday’s DAILY HOWLER, 3/18/99.) We pointed out that Barnes, in his rush to convict, had wished away statutes of limitations. Barnes showed how Standard writers have ignored common sense in promoting their case and affirming their cause. One week later, Kristol picked up Barnes’ point, and took it one step further:

KRISTOL: If a charge of sexual assault were made against someone else, accompanied by this degree of corroborating evidence, there would at least be some effort by relevant authorities to investigate--to question witnesses, to secure evidence, and the like.

To which the obvious answer is: No, there wouldn’t be any such effort! There would be no such effort at all! Indeed, it isn’t as if Kristol doesn’t know this fact; here is his very next sentence:

KRISTOL: One might respond that the statute of limitations has run on this incident...

One “might” so respond? Of course one would--because there would not be “an attempt to investigate,” as Kristol of course surely knows. But Kristol, like Barnes, gripped by wishful thinking, prefers to pretend that anyone else would be charged. It’s a part of the wholly fantastical air that suffuses the Standard’s coverage.

Before we continue, we might as well say that we respect Kristol’s outrage at Mrs. Broaddrick’s allegation. We assume it is that sense of horror that has driven his coverage of this matter. But rules of evidences and rules of thought exist to keep our emotions in check. When a journalist’s feelings let him make claims that are plainly false, that journalist’s feelings are out of control. His feelings have overtaken his journalism.

And indeed, all throughout the Standard’s coverage, the writers’ revulsion with All Things Clinton have led to profoundly unbalanced writing, in which the writers simply refuse to consider the possibility that Mrs. Broaddrick’s account may not be accurate. Kristol’s insistence that her story must be true leads to writing that is mere wishful thinking. The fact that she’s credible means that her story is true; the fact that she isn’t selling a book means there could be no false motive; the fact that she declined to give her account under oath could only have innocent meaning. Here at THE HOWLER, we do not know what may have occurred between Clinton and Broaddrick. But we know that it’s possible her account is not accurate; the Standard rejects the very notion.

Indeed, the very concept of knowledge and proof melts away in the wishful thinking. Here is Kristol claiming knowledge--knowledge he plainly doesn’t have:

KRISTOL: We know that Mrs. Broadrick has been honest throughout with reporters, volunteering evidence not particularly flattering to her (for example, that she was having an affair with David Broaddrick, now her husband, at the time of the incident).

But of course, if Kristol knew that Mrs. Broaddrick had been honest throughout, we wouldn’t be debating the story. He could simply demonstrate how he knew--he could simply demonstrate the truth of her account. In fact, Kristol believes Mrs. Broaddrick has been honest, and we have repeatedly said it: he may well be right. But he claims to know what he does not know. It is the heart of the Standard’s self-spinning.

We have pointed out a previous case where scribes rushed to credit an accuser. Last March, Kathleen Willey appeared on Sixty Minutes, and pundits raced, in the days that followed, to swear they believed every word she had said (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/2/98). They did this at a time when they couldn’t have known if what she was saying was true or false; but then, as now, they rushed to say just how “credible” the accuser had seemed.

But on October 2, Kenneth Starr released grand jury transcripts in his “document dump,” and it turned out that Linda Tripp, Willey’s former co-worker and friend, had completely contradicted her account (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/8/99, with links to previous reporting). And what was most instructive about Tripp’s account? It had never occurred to the credulous pundits who had sworn they believed what Willey said. Is Tripp’s account true? We can’t tell you, even now--and neither can those credulous writers. But Tripp’s account made one thing perfectly clear--sometimes, “credible” people may have reasons to fib that aren’t sitting there right on the surface.

No one wants to be the one to suggest Mrs. Broaddrick’s account could be inaccurate. Indeed, in our next posting, we will examine the remarkable tone the latest Standard takes toward the mere suggestion that her story could be false. But journalists aren’t there to perform wishful thinking--and journalists must know when claims haven’t been proven. Kristol hopes that these charges are true. He has convinced himself--falsely--that he knows it.

Next: When folks mention obvious possibilities that the Standard doesn’t like, the Standard knows how to react.