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21 May 1999

Minor mishaps: Stout offender

Synopsis: The New York Times didn’t seem too concerned when Cody Shearer was falsely accused.

Candidate’s Brother Accused in Attack On Kin of Official
David Stout, The New York Times, 5/20/99

Presumably, nothing much will turn on this story, in which David Stout describes the arrest of a man at Cody Shearer’s home, where he threatened two people with a gun. But we were surprised by Stout’s careless attitude toward the circumstance that produced this event.

On May 11, Hardball’s Chris Matthews falsely named Shearer as the man who allegedly accosted Kathleen Willey at her home. According to Matthews, Willey had identified Shearer from a picture she’d been shown by ABC’s Jackie Judd.

But this Monday, Matthews opened his inventive program with a formal apology to Shearer. Matthews said that Shearer--and Shearer’s lawyer--had convinced him that Shearer was nowhere near the alleged crime. In Salon, Joe Conason detailed evidence showing that Shearer was in San Francisco at the time of the alleged act (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/20/99).

One would think a journalist would be disturbed by the specter of such careless accusation. One would think such concern would only be heightened by the arrest that Stout was reporting. But this is how Stout described the aftermath of Matthews’ false accusation:

STOUT (paragraph 3): Mr. Shearer issued a statement today saying that he had received death threats after being identified last week on the cable television program “Hardball With Chris Matthews” as the man who tried to intimidate Kathleen E. Willey, a former White House volunteer who has accused President Clinton of making an unwanted sexual advance on her. Other media outlets repeated Mr. Matthews assertion, which Mr. Shearer has denied.

Stout’s carelessness is truly remarkable. He says that Shearer was “identified” as the attacker, although he was merely accused--and in fact accused falsely. Nowhere in his entire article does Stout get around to explaining that. He does tell readers, at the end of this paragraph, that Shearer has denied the charge. But Stout doesn’t say that the accusation has been renounced by the accuser himself, contrite Matthews.

Later, near the end of his eight-paragraph story, Stout mentions part of the truth:

STOUT (paragraph 7): Mr. Shearer says he “categorically denies” any intimidation of Ms. Willey, and Mr. Matthews apologized on Tuesday night for mentioning him.

But Stout never explains why Matthews apologized--never explains that Matthews now agrees that his careless charge isn’t true. And Stout nowhere tells readers that Shearer produced evidence, convincing Matthews that the charges were false. Stout never gives a hint to readers that the charges have been shown to be false.

We can’t claim to read the mind of a scribe who writes a story like this. Nor can we explain why a New York Times editor would put such a piece into print. But Times readers are told here, once again, that Shearer has been “identified” as the agent of a crime. Only if they read to the end do they get a part of the actual truth.

We know that the press corps just loves those accusers. And we know that scribes just love fellow scribes. We can’t help noting that the careless Matthews gets off unblemished in this whole sorry mess. And as for the victim of this incident, Cody Shearer? He’d better be careful to lock his garage doors. Careless readers of this surprising piece may still find weird thoughts in their heads.