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28 October 1998

Life in this celebrity press corps: The press corps Gennifer Flowers

Synopsis: The press corps claims that it loves the truth. But it doesn’t seem to get too upset when it’s lied to by presidential accusers.

We’re psychologically invested in this story because journalists emotionally don’t like liars. We think of ourselves as being truth-seekers.
      --Tom Rosenstiel, Project for Excellence in
   Journalism, quoted in the Washington Post,
   9/15/98

We’ve often heard this sentiment expressed in the course of the treatment of the Clinton scandal stories--the claim that the press corps is especially concerned with the Clinton matters, because the press corps just hates being lied to. And we have no doubt, by the way, that Tom Rosenstiel, for example, presents this argument in total good faith.

But the simple evidence of the past six years seems to tell a different story. The press corps, so vigilant about President Clinton’s truth-telling, seems to have very little concern about possible lying by Clinton accusers. The corps maintains a high tolerance level for questionable statements from them. Paula Jones, for example, said that Clinton had a “distinguishing characteristic,” and the distinguishing characteristic, it turned out, wasn’t there. But how many times have you seen the press ask the Jones camp to account for that?

Of course, Jones also had said, in her sworn deposition, that she hadn’t checked to see if she had received her pay raises on time. What an oversight! Four years into a suit against a sitting president, she hadn’t remembered to take a look to see if her factual claims were valid! Of course! Indeed, if anyone wants the obvious proof that we don’t pursue perjury in civil cases, the proof of that is very simple--no one’s pursued Paula Jones for her howlers! But you’ll never see Jones’ statements brought into the scrum, as the press corps sits around debating Clinton conundrums. The corps’ great hatred for being deceived seems to dissipate quickly in cases like these. And we’ve seen it again in the past few weeks, as Linda Tripp’s contradiction of Kathleen Willey’s charges has gone right down the memory hole--that memory hole the press corps maintains for evidence that makes accusers look shaky. (See “Our current howler,” 10/27/98)

But what’s the most embarrassing example of this remarkable syndrome? It must be the press corps’ long-running affair with the original-and-great Gennifer Flowers. The press corps has long asserted, as a mantra, that “we now know that Flowers is telling the truth.” The assertion is ludicrously, howlingly false; it is absurd to say we “now know” she spoke truly. That the press corps accepts this as Sacred Truth--that it engages in ritual affirmation of Flowers--shows how low the press corps is willing to go in accepting the word of accusers.

*          *           *           *           *

The president said Gennifer Flowers was not telling the truth; we now know she was.
    --John Fund, White House in Crisis, MSNBC,
       10/26/98
Ever since the release of President Clinton’s January 17 deposition in the Paula Jones case--in which he was questioned about Gennifer Flowers--the press corps has asserted, with ritual regularity, that we “now know that Gennifer Flowers was telling the truth.” It has become one of the most familiar assertions of the Clinton discourse. Yet, it is a statement that is flagrantly, laughably false--a statement that is virtually impossible to defend. It now stands as a testimonial to the press corps’ low standards for evaluating claims by accusers.

For the record, here is the exchange, in Clinton’s deposition, from which this conclusion has been derived:

QUESTION: Did you ever have sexual relations with Gennifer Flowers?...

CLINTON: The answer to your question, if the definition is section one there in the first piece of paper you gave me, is yes.

QUESTION : On how many occasions?

CLINTON: Once.

QUESTION: In what year?

CLINTON: 1977.

Clinton went on to state, in answer to questions, that he had made no other advances on Flowers, and that she had made an advance on him one other time, which, in the language of the question, “did not culminate in sexual relations.”

Does this answer prove that Flowers “was telling the truth?” Flowers had claimed a twelve-year affair, and Clinton here asserted one sexual incident! Indeed, if we take Clinton’s statements in this deposition to be true, then Flowers on balance has lied through her teeth.

Yet, on the basis of this one bit of testimony, we supposedly “now know” that Flowers “was telling the truth!” In the (brave new) truth-loving world of this celebrity press corps, Contradiction = Agreement.

Just think of what this situation means about the truth-loving press corps. If Clinton’s testimony here is true, then Flowers is surely one of the most despicable figures in our recent political history. If Clinton’s statement here is true, Flowers injected herself into a presidential campaign with howlingly false statements about a major candidate, presumably in order to make large sums of money. One would think an offended, truth-loving press corps would want to determine if this might be the case.

Think again. The situation was good enough for the John Funds of the world, who seek any excuse to speak up for accusers. Clinton’s testimony flew in the face of the elaborate claims that Gennifer Flowers had actually made. But because it made her story true in one small part, her story was then affirmed in whole! Incredibly, Clinton’s wide-ranging contradiction of Gennifer Flowers became the proof that Flowers “was telling the truth!” So it goes with this celebrity press corps, which, Tom Rosenstiel passionately insists, is so magisterially offended by anyone out there who would dare to tell less than the truth.

*          *           *           *           *

But there is an even greater problem with the situation, staring us right in the face. Clinton’s modest agreement with Gennifer Flowers turns out to be less than it might seem. The “definition” to which Clinton explicitly refers in his answer is the specialized definition of sexual relations with which he was presented by the Paula Jones lawyers. For purposes of the Clinton deposition, the lawyers had defined “sexual relations” to include a wide range of activities, including activities that fall far short of sexual intercourse. In other words, one does not have to engage in sexual intercourse to meet the terms of this technical definition--the definition to which Clinton explicitly referred in giving his answer about Flowers.

It wasn’t long after the deposition was released that Time magazine reported, on its web site, that Clinton had told friends that the incident at issue was a grope-and-grab session in a Little Rock night club--not an act of sexual intercourse, and not an act, by the way, that would contradict his 1992 claim that Flowers was “a woman I didn’t sleep with.” Such Clinton associates as James Carville, Mandy Grunwald, and Dee Dee Myers all explained this distinction on national TV shows, pointing out what was plain on face--that in answering the question in the way that he did, Clinton hadn’t testified to sexual intercourse at all, let alone to a twelve-year affair.

In other words, Clinton didn’t testified to sleeping with Flowers at all in his Paula Jones deposition. Clinton had testified to one unspecified event, which may well have been a grope-n-grin session. And yet, because Clinton had made this modest admission, the press corps “now knows” that Gennifer Flowers “was telling the truth”--Gennifer Flowers, who had said, by contrast, that she had engaged in a twelve-year affair!

Was Gennifer Flowers “telling the truth” when she made her claims in 1992? Here at THE HOWLER, we have no way of knowing. We were busy elsewhere during the late 70s, and didn’t have time to chaperone Governor Clinton around; and we don’t know whether Clinton and Flowers engaged in conduct beyond what Clinton has said.

But there’s someone else who doesn’t have a clue whether or not Flowers “was telling the truth,” and that person, of course, would be John Fund, whom we quoted at the top of this section. Neither John Fund, nor any one else in the press corps, would seem to be in position to say that Gennifer Flowers was telling the truth. Did Flowers engage in a twelve-year affair? Did Flowers get wild with Bill Clinton at all? We cannot begin to imagine how John Fund could possibly think that he knows this. But then, when you’re living within this celebrity press corps, it doesn’t take much to make judgments like this--as long as you’re dealing with presidential accusers, and looking for ways to pretend you “now know” that accusers are “telling the truth.”

*          *           *           *           *

No, Virginia, the press corps has no apparent way to “now know” that Gennifer Flowers “is telling the truth.” We state what is painfully obvious. But while we’re exploring the Flowers affair, it might be worth recalling the numerous indications, long ignored, that Flowers is not a reliable witness. Tomorrow we’ll review the long-standing indications that Flowers may not be telling the truth. This is evidence the press corps has long since dispatched down the memory hole it reserves for bad news--the memory hole the press corps reserves for news that casts doubt on accusers.

Visit our incomparable archives: The press corps also Kathleen Willey. See “Our current howler,” 10/27/98.