19 May 1999
Our current howler (part III): Saw no evil
Synopsis: Howard Kurtz saw nothing much wrong with the way Kathleen Willey was interviewed.
Kathleen Willey: Old News
Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post, 5/17/99
Commentary by Kathleen Willey, Larry King
Larry King Live, CNN, 5/12/99
Last weeks hour-long interviews with Kathleen Willey were journalism as bad as it gets (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/18/99). And they completed an astonishing, fourteen-month cycle in which the press went Soviet-style for Willey. The three interviewers (Chris Matthews, Larry King, John Hockenberry) never told viewers that serious witnesses had contradicted Willeys story in detailed, sworn testimony. The interviews continued a process in which the press simply novelized Willey--told the public the story it liked. (See postscript for links to our past reporting.)
Saddest of all, Howard Kurtz watched the interviews last week, and saw nothing much wrong with the process. As readers know, we regard Kurtz as one of Washingtons most valuable reporters. Kurtz is prolific and original, and--almost alone among Washington reporters--is willing to stand up and say it out loud when public officials make accusations without evidence (see tomorrows DAILY HOWLER).
But on Monday, Kurtz discussed the Willey interviews, and he betrayed no concern with the cleaned-up story Willeys interviewers put on the air. The theme of his article was the lack of journalistic interest that surrounded the three Willey sessions. Kurtz noted the fact that Willey charged the Clinton administration with trying to intimidate her. And he said that Willey expressed outrage at what she described as a White House effort to discredit her.
But Kurtz went on to discuss the lack of media interest in Willeys recent sessions. He compared fading interest in Willey to the reduced attention paid to Monica Lewinsky and Johnny Chung. He offered explanations for the drop in attention to Willey. Clearly, there are unresolved questions about the Willey episode, he said. But he never voiced concern about the numerous questions Kathleen Willey has never been asked.
In so doing, Kurtz gave tacit approval to a startling press episode in which the mainstream press corps stage-managed news for a favorite accuser, Kathleen Willey. From Willeys original appearance on Sixty Minutes, right on through her TV interviews last week, the mainstream press corps repeatedly buried evidence suggesting that Willey isnt telling the truth.
After Willey appeared on Sixty Minutes, a stream of pundits asserted faith in her story--when they couldnt possibly know if her story was true (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/2/98). When Linda Tripps striking testimony grossly contradicted Willeys story, the press corps just didnt report it (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/10/99).
How devoted is the press corps to vouching for Willey? Last week, in all three interviews, Willey made new charges against White House adviser Mickey Kantor, and against the producers of Sixty Minutes. The way the three interviewers dealt with these charges again showed the press corps devotion to Willey.
Three minutes into the May 12 Hardball, Willey began lodging her new set of charges. She said she appeared on Sixty Minutes in response to Kantors intimidation of her former friend, Julie Steele. Willey said the Sixty Minutes producers told her that Kantor had threatened Steele with loss of her adopted son. According to Willey, the producers had told her that news of Kantors conduct would be included in her interview segment. Willey claimed she had gone on Sixty Minutes out of anger at what Kantor had done.
Willey repeated the new set of charges on Larry King Live the next night:
WILLEY: [The producers] said that they had evidence--clear evidence--that Julie had been approached by Mickey Kantor of the White House about the circumstances of her adoption of her little boy.
But in the day since Willey had first made her charges, denials had begun rolling in. Directly apologizing to Willey for doing so, King read a denial by Kantor himself, then read a statement from Sixty Minutes:
KING: Sixty Minutes then said to us, Well not comment about our conversations with our sources. All that was newsworthy regarding Kathleen Willey was broadcast in Ed Bradleys piece of March 15 . They chose not to say anything with regard to that.
But had they in fact said nothing? An attempt by Kantor to intimidate Steele surely would have been newsworthy. It seemed to us that Sixty Minutes was denying what Willey had said. But King chose to treat the programs statement as a refusal to make any comment.
Mightnt John Hockenberry, by the next night, have attempted to clarify what Sixty Minutes had said? In the real world, youd think that would happen. But this, of course, is the Washington press corps, where Kathleen Willeys word is Mosaic law. On Hockenberry, Willey repeated her charges about Sixty Minutes, and said the producers had accused Mickey Kantor. But far from trying to clarify the situation, Hockenberry never reported Kantors denial, and never even mentioned what Sixty Minutes had said.
But fawning response to Kathleen Willey has been par for the course for the past fourteen months. In a long-running case of astounding misconduct, the press has refused to report information casting doubt on her serious charges. In last weeks interviews, compliant hosts refused to tell viewers that major witnesses have contradicted Willeys story. There are unresolved questions about Willey, Kurtz wrote. But he failed to point out why that is.
Tomorrow: Hardballs embarrassing gong show hit rock bottom when Chris Matthews accused Cody Shearer.
Visit our incomparable archives: Kurtz wrote about Willey in his best-seller, Spin Cycle. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/30/98.
See THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/8/99, for annotated links to past Willey reporting.