Howling Dog Graphic
Point. Click. Search.

Contents: Archives:

Search this weblog
Search WWW
Howler Graphic
by Bob Somerby
E-mail This Page
Socrates Reads Graphic
A companion site.

Site maintained by Allegro Web Communications, comments to Marc.

Howler title Graphic
Caveat lector

22 December 1998

Life in this celebrity press corps: Lid on Doe

Synopsis: The celebrity press corps will not report what led to that GOP vote.

Commentary by Tom Squitieri, Chris Matthews
Hardball, CNBC, 12/19/98

Party defections cancel out one another
Tom Squitieri, USA Today, 12/21/98

After Agonizing, Fence-Sitters Can’t Get Past Clinton’s Words
Michael Grunwald, The Washington Post, 12/17/98

GOP’s Pro-Perjury Caucus: The Sequel
Human Events, 12/18/98

By Saturday night’s special edition of Hardball, there wasn’t any doubt about it. In the course of the week’s impeachment deliberations, a group of GOP moderates had been urged to vote on the basis of an unproven rape allegation--an allegation which formed no part whatever of the actual counts with which Clinton was charged (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/20/98). Over the course of two night of Hardball, three different House Repubs had confirmed it. Moderates had been marched off to see raw files, which had been the basis of no formal charges at all--material to which the White House had been given no chance to respond to in the course of the impeachment debate.

Had this astonishing process changed anyone’s vote? USA Today’s Tom Squitieri said it had:

MATTHEWS: Tom, you’ve been covering, is it your estimation that this affected the vote?

SQUITIERI: Yes, I think it affected the votes of a small number. And all you needed in this case was working on a small number of people to turn this thing around.

Remarkable. Major Garrett had reported it the night before, and now Squitieri was confirming it. The impeachment outcome may have been decided by this stunning, extra-legal procedure, in which members were shown secret, untested files which had formed the basis of no formal charge.

But when USA Today hit the stands Monday morning, the story was nowhere to be found. Squitieri wrote an article specifically devoted to explaining how various House members had made up their minds. And nowhere did he mention the remarkable fact that he had described on Hardball two nights before--that a small number of votes, perhaps enough to be decisive, had been changed by an untested charge.

Squitieri said that wavering GOP moderates had been persuaded to “split the difference,” voting “yes” on articles 1 and 3 only. But nowhere did he mention the remarkable fact that had been revealed and confirmed Saturday night.

Indeed, none of the five major papers we treat has reported this stunning story. None has reported the information that was confirmed on Hardball last week. As such, they have continued the practice of “happy talk” reporting about how GOP moderates decided their votes--stories which told us how principled members agonized about how they should vote:

GRUNWALD: The newly decided [GOP pro-impeachment voters] all said they had agonized over their choice for months, received calls from hundreds of constituents, studied reams of legal analysis. Several said that in recent weeks they had lain awake for hours, wrestling with their consciences...

And indeed, it’s well they might well have suffered from conscience, if they’d voted on the basis of the Jane Doe charges. But none of them mentioned the matter to Grunwald, to judge by the reporting the faithful scribe rendered. Instead, members recited heroic tales, obediently typed up by the Post:

GRUNWALD: Patrick Bilbray made a plea to his father, Rep. Brian Bilbray, Tuesday afternoon at a family beach house in San Diego. “Dad, don’t do it.” But his father, a maverick Republican who went surfing while trying to decide how to vote, finally decided yesterday that he had to vote to impeach, regardless of the effect impeachment might have on his job security...

Isn’t he great? Don’t you love him? A surfer! Grunwald’s readers were treated to self-serving tales about the brave decisions House Republicans made.

It’s intriguing that Bilbray’s self-serving tale was repeated without any challenge from Grunwald, because the conservative weekly Human Events had already published a different explanation of Bilbray’s (changed) vote. On November 27, the weekly had published an article titled “Meet the GOP’s Pro-Perjury Caucus.” In it, Human Events had urged readers to pressure House Republicans leaning against impeachment. In its December 18 edition, Human Events gave a before-and-after listing of quotations on impeachment from several such members (including Bilbray). Sandwiched between a Bilbray anti-impeachment remark on November 11, and a Bilbray pro-impeachment remark on December 8, was this account from the Los Angeles Times about the effect of the Human Events article:

LOS ANGELES TIMES, quoted in HUMAN EVENTS (two paragraphs): When Human Events, a conservative magazine, recently mentioned nine Republicans who were opposed to or leaning against impeachment, the feature was picked up by Republican talk radio hosts around the country. The targeted lawmakers--including Bilbray--saw switchboards light up, e-mail baskets fill and fax machines jam in response.

An aide to one House member said that kind of response is part of the reason why, after a flurry of moderate Republicans had announced their opposition to impeachment, defections essentially halted. “People started diving under their desks,” the aide said.

Did Bilbray consider factors like these as he made up his mind on his lonely surf mission? Grunwald didn’t seem to inquire or care. Post readers were treated to a succession of stories in which GOP moderates made the hard choices. Here’s Grunwald, after quoting Rep. John Porter’s wife, who told us that Porter had had a “soulful conversation” with their two-week old grandson as he made his lonely decision:

GRUNWALD: The members gave similar reasons for their decision, but they all took different journeys to make them, and some of them discussed those journeys in interviews yesterday.

But did some of the members “journey” by the Ford Building, to take a look at secret, untested charges? As of this morning, major papers hadn’t shown that they were prepared to inquire about that. On Hardball, we’d learned that GOP members had voted for impeachment on a truly remarkable basis. But the white-shoes press doesn’t like the word “rape”--doesn’t much like to sully itself by reporting what’s true. So they looked away, and didn’t report the real “journey” some members had taken.

Again we praise Chris Matthews On Saturday night, Chris Matthews asked Tom Squitieri why the “Jane Doe” story was not being reported:

MATTHEWS: Tom, you’ve been covering this, how come this has been played down? I’ve been reading the papers like everyone here, every day for a week. And behind the scenes is this sort of sideshow of moderate Republicans, as [Rep.] Jim Moran [D-VA] has just pointed out, being encouraged to go down to the Jerry Ford Building to look at documents which suggest an unproven case which has a little bit of gray matter obviously because the primary person involved won’t testify...

Hurrah! Matthews actually showed he had a sense of the impropriety behind the Jane Doe field trips. But if he was wondering on Saturday why the major press had failed to report this remarkable story, he can now see press conduct in stark relief. He can now see that, even after the topic is outed--discussed and confirmed on a major TV show--the white-shoes press will refuse to tell readers the basis on which votes were cast.

Press releases: Grunwald’s reporting on December 17 is writing as bad as it gets. He reports as fact a succession of matters he cannot possibly know to be true. He cannot possibly know what Bilbray’s son did or did not say to his father. He cannot possibly know if Bilbray decided to vote “regardless of the effect impeachment might have on his job security.” He cannot know if Brian Bilbray made his decision while he was surfing. Grunwald types up a press release, and recites it to readers as fact.

Here at THE HOWLER, we do not know why Bilbray decided to vote to impeach (having said he’d vote otherwise earlier). But neither, of course, does Michael Grunwald. Why does he type up stories, and report them as fact, when he can’t possibly know if they’re true?

For the record: Were House Republicans sent to the Ford Building? The story was confirmed on Hardball by Tillie Fowler (R-FL), Jim Talent (R-MO), and Bob Ehrlich (R-MD). Ehrlich specifically said he’d avoided the material, because he thought the procedure was improper.