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Caveat lector

19 January 1999

The Howler wrap-up: Swimming upstream

Synopsis: In talking about the “love child” debacle, Bill Sammon kept peddling old howlers.

Commentary by Howard Kurtz, Bill Sammon, Bernard Kalb, David Talbot
Reliable Sources, CNN, 1/16/99

The roots of the Clinton smear
Gene Lyons, Salon, 2/5/98

In another review of the “love child” debacle, Howard Kurtz asked Bill Sammon of the Washington Times to discuss the Times’ original story:

KURTZ: [S]peaking of sitting on information, let me turn to Bill Sammon. Because the Matt Drudge story that the Star was conducting a DNA test of this old rumor that Clinton had fathered an out-of-wedlock son in Arkansas, most of the mainstream press did sit on that because they didn’t see any evidence it was true...Now your newspaper was one of the ones that went with it, wrote about the rumors, the buzz...You’re not here as a spokesman for the paper, but did that make you uncomfortable at all?

We’ll give Sammon a pass for his vague, rambling answer, in which he called some of the initial stories “bizarre” without saying which papers’ stories he meant. Maybe it’s too much to ask the scribe to put the slam on his very own paper. But when Bernard Kalb opined that “barely-dressed sex” is “motivating a lot of the mainstream media,” Sammon jumped in with this reply, in which he continued to spread distorted old tales about Bill Clinton and sex:

SAMMON: I think most reporters are old-fashioned in that they want to wait, they want to find out the facts, and I think that was the case when the first campaign started with Gennifer Flowers. Even when she had audiotapes of his voice, even when he went and apologized to Mario Cuomo for slighting him on the tapes, which was an implicit verification of the tapes, most media never gave it more than a news cycle or two...The Clinton campaign was able to knock it down. There was a reluctance to go with those things. [Sammon’s emphasis]

And so again a Times reporter, discussing the “love child” hoax, recycles other bogus old tales. Sammon implies that Clinton denied that the telephone tapes with Flowers were real; he suggests Clinton disputed speaking to Flowers, then dumbly apologized to Cuomo. But Clinton never disputed the fact that he knew, and had spoken to, Gennifer Flowers, although last year it became a part of conservative spin to pretend that’s what Clinton had done. There was a dispute about the tapes, a dispute that involved the L. A. Times. Here’s the way Gene Lyons described in, writing last year in Salon:

LYONS: An expert analyst told the Los Angeles Times that Flowers’ tapes had been “selectively edited” and opined that a raunchy remark by Flowers about “eating p####” had been overdubbed.

So there had been a dispute about the Flowers phone tapes. It just was nothing like the dispute that Bill Sammon somehow conjured.

But none of CNN’s “reliable sources” disputed Sammon’s puzzling account; the incident again showed CelebCorps’ careless approach to the spreading of disinformation. Indeed, at several points the CNN panel showed a real lack of outrage at press corps debacles. For example, Kurtz praised the Times for the sterling way it reported that the “love child” was false:

KURTZ: The Washington Times, I should note, did run with the same prominence on the front page the fact that the tests were negative. Other papers kind of put that story inside.

We’ve seen, of course, that the story Kurtz praised itself recycled old gossip and rumor (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/14/99). And Kurtz even tried to take Drudge off the hook for his usual inane, dimwit conduct:

TALBOT: I think the mainstream media has given Matt Drudge too long a ride. He’s their favorite bad boy, he’s wrong again and again...he should be nailed on this.

KURTZ: Although technically, he was not wrong, he was reporting on a test that was being conducted, so he has the cover of saying, “Hey, I didn’t say it was true.”

Kurtz displays a casual concern about the way that gossip and rumor are spread. And we’ll let readers recall standard press corps reaction when Clinton claims that “technically,” he “has cover.”

Again we were struck, as the panel went on, by the casual attitude toward disinformation. No one wondered how Drudge may have learned that the Star was conducting the testing. No one asked if folks at the Star had leaked the information to Drudge. The Times and Matt Drudge were openly praised for conduct in which they passed on silly rumors. And right on the show, as others sat by, Sammon passed on more disinformation. No one spoke up to challenge Sammon as he passed on the old Flowers howler.

Bill Sammon, by the way, in recent weeks has been piling up quite a track record. Two weeks back, you’ll recall, he helped Chris Matthews misinform viewers about Tripp-on-Willey (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/8/99). In this show, he managed to broadcast a silly canard about the Flowers tapes. And, when Woody West wrote his original “love child” tale in the Times, Sammon was quoted inside the piece, dogging Joe Lockhart for “smearing” the Star. To us, it begins to look like the truth has to swim upstream when Sammon starts roiling the waters.