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27 August 1998

Smile-a-while: For a while, they even had usgoing!

Synopsis: We couldn’t help chuckling when a three-scribe panel made us marvel at Ken Starr’s “reams of evidence.”

COVER STORY: Starr report to contain reams of evidence Judy Keen, Kevin Johnson, and Tom Squitieri, USA Today, 8/26/98

For an hour or so, they really had us going, those enterprising scribes down at USA Today, with their breathless report about the “reams of evidence” Ken Starr would send along to the Congress. Though we knew that Starr’s report to the Congress would be, until proven, just an advocate’s untested charge; and though we have little real confidence in the Ken Crewe’s great judgment; the three scribes had us reeling over the sheer mass of “evidence” Conscientious Ken would be sending to Congress.

That’s why we couldn’t help chuckling when we finally stepped back and took a dispassionate look at the three scribes’ reporting--why we shook our heads in disbelief at the way we had gulped down their line. This page-one report in the nation’s paper is just a real good example of real bad reporting. It’s just empty PR cranked out by the IC, fawningly turned into a big page one story.

What is the theme of the three scribes’ report? Ken Starr has a mountainof evidence! He’ll present “reams of evidence,” the headline shouts; and the first paragraph tells us he’ll “hold nothing back!” The third and fourth paragraphs talk about the “mound of evidence” and “the sheer mass of the information” that he’ll be producing.

By paragraph six, the theme is summed up with a statement from a Ken Starr adviser:

KEEN/JOHNSON/SQUITIERI: If there is a report, “People can be assured that it will be done very carefully,” says Ronald Rotunda, a University of Illinois law professor who advises Starr on ethics and constitutional law.

No countervailing concerns, from any source, were offered up in the breathless report.

So at first, we’ll admit, we were pretty much reeling, at the sheer weight of evidencethe IC would present! Then reason invaded our ruminations, and a new view of this story held sway.

One of the analysts excitedly shouted, “Take a good look at paragraph 2 there, me maties!” Curious, we did as he asked:

KEEN/JOHNSON/SQUITIERI: With his report, Starr intends to send to the House of Representatives reels of audiotape, physical evidence, thousands of pages of grand-jury transcripts and Clinton’s videotaped testimony, people with knowledge of Starr’s plans say.

Our minds flashed back to college term papers we had padded with big fat wide margins. Was thisthe “evidence” the scribes had trumpeted in their excited, page one headline? The notion that Starr would send grand jury transcripts didn’t actually seem that surprising to us. Is it really worth a big “COVER STORY,” with a big screaming headline, to give readers “information” like that?

The fact is, nothing in the three-scribe-panel’s posting tells us anything of substance about Ken Starr’s report; and nothingin the three-scribe-panel’s posting supports the clear inference the story suggests. Does Starr have “reams of evidence” to support his conclusion--that Clinton committed an impeachable offence? Are there “reams of evidence” to support Ken Starr where the facts are still in dispute? The fact that the transcripts make a really big pile doesn’t tell us that much about what the transcripts may mean--but that didn’t keep our excitable scribes from engaging in some big image-building.

Yep, it must have been a slow news day indeed when this mess turned into a page one report--when USA Today cranked out a big COVER STORY because Starr would be sending some transcripts to Congress. And we had to chuckle, over here at THE HOWLER, at how badly we’d been fooled at the start. We’d read about “reams of evidence”--a “mound” of evidence--and how Starr and the Ken Crewe would “hold nothing back.” We hadn’t realized, reading quickly, that all that this meant was that Starr would send transcripts to Congress.

But you know what? We didn’t feel all that stupid, when we thought it all through, and we bet lots of others got taken in too. Because who’d ever think that such pointless PR would be turned into a big page-one screamer?

Discourse on “evidence:” Conscientious scribes should be careful indeed when they find themselves talking about “evidence.” Colloquially, to say that Starr has “reams of evidence” implies that he has lots of material that establishes his case. But absolutely nothing in the three-scribe report attempts to sustain that conclusion. The inference most readers will draw from this headline is not argued in the panel’s meager tale.

The crafty scribes get lots mileage out of use of the highly evocative (and ambiguous) term “evidence.” For example, imagine that the paper had written a headline that simply stated what the scribes’ report says:

NEW HEADLINE: Starr will send large piles of transcripts to Congress with his report

That is, literally, removing spin, what the three-scribe story actually says. Can anyone imagine a page-one COVER STORY announcing a big bunch of hoo-hah like that?