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Caveat lector

23 February 1999

Life in this celebrity press corps: Again forever spun

Synopsis: It begins to look like the Ken Starr Gang may have been spreading those Blumenthal howlers.

How Hitchens Suckered Himself
Alexander Cockburn, The Nation, 3/8/99

Commentary by Brit Hume, Fred Barnes, Mara Liasson
Special Report, Fox News Channel, 2/3/99

Starr Staffer Blasts Clinton Aides
Brian Blomquist, The New York Post, 11/15/98

How did they manage to get it so wrong, this oft-repeated story on Sidney? How did so many media entities all broadcast the same false narration? It’s clear from grand jury transcripts that, on 2/26/98, Sidney Blumenthal was asked, again and again, about his contacts with the media. His statement that day, on the courthouse steps, was melodramatic, but perfectly accurate.

And no one scolded him, within the grand jury, for the comments he made that day. On his next appearance, on 6/4/98, no one even mentioned his remarks.

But all over the media, dating back to November, reporters have told a different story. They’ve claimed that Blumenthal lied about what he’d been asked, then was scolded for it in the grand jury. Chris Hitchens’ pathetic report in The Nation last week was the latest telling of this absurdly false tale (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/22/99). And, to understand how egregious the press conduct was, one must review the sting of their comments.

Again, here’s the treatment from FNC’s Special Report, with three major scribes dishing the howlers:

BARNES: We know Sidney is willing to lie. Remember when he testified before the grand jury he came out, spoke to television cameras in public, and lied about what he’d been asked about.

HUME: He complained, if I recall, that he never thought in his life he would see the day when he was called in to the grand jury to testify about what he told the news media, which is not what he was asked about.

LIASSON: And the grand jurors called him on the carpet the next time he was in there, which was pretty interesting. They were angry when they heard him say that on the courthouse steps, and they wanted the record corrected.

It isn’t just that the three are howlingly wrong about factual matters which would have been easy to check (Blumenthal’s transcripts became public on 10/2/98). It’s the fact that they were willing to go on the air and be so remarkably defamatory. We’re not lawyers here at THE DAILY HOWLER, but we think we know slander when we see it. Aggressively calling Blumenthal a liar, the three pundits are plain flat-out wrong.

Because this narration was so widespread, this has been one of the year’s most striking press breakdowns. In fact, the story that Hume, Barnes and Liasson told was broadcast all over the media. When we first covered the topic on February 5, we wondered how so many scribes could have had it so wrong. Now Alexander Cockburn, in The Nation, suggests a troubling explanation.

Cockburn’s piece is a reply to Hitchens’ disaster in The Nation last week. Cockburn sifts through the undeniable facts of the case, showing the errors in Hitchens’ narration. Cockburn makes the point that we have made before: Hitchens couldn’t possibly have read through the grand jury transcripts before writing a story so patently false. No one who glanced through the record even briefly could have repeated the tale Hitchens told.

But Cockburn suggests a possible source for this puzzlingly widespread story. He cites a November 15 New York Post piece which attributes the story to Ken Starr’s camp. Sure enough, Brian Blomquist’s Post piece extensively quotes Starr legal adviser Ronald Rotunda. Blomquist quotes the IC’s man repeating the whole silly tale:

BLOMQUIST: Rotunda particularly lit into White House aide Sidney Blumenthal, who’s been fingered as Clinton’s “dirt devil”...“You remember last February, Blumenthal came out of the grand jury room and announced how he was mortified and felt dirty because he’d been asked [by investigators] who in the press he had been contacting,” Rotunda said. “We now know...that [Blumenthal] was never asked that question and that the next time he showed up in the grand-jury room, the grand-jury forelady said, ‘How could you say this to the press? It was just a lie.’ ”

What is remarkable is the vehemence with which Rotunda attacks Blumenthal, while plainly misstating the facts. Rotunda tells Blomquist, “Everybody in this office knew since last February that Sid Blumenthal was lying, but that never leaked. Meanwhile, Sid Blumenthal knew he was lying.” And he said, “The Clinton apologists are so confident that we will not leak that they feel confident in baldly lying to the press,” and “[H]e was confident enough in engaging in a bald-faced lie last February because he was confident it wouldn’t leak.”

One searches the language for words to describe the oddness of Rotunda’s performance. Blumenthal was asked about press contacts--again and again--and had not been scolded by the foreperson. What could Rotunda possibly have been thinking, in making so remarkable a statement to Blomquist? And is Rotunda the source of this widespread narration about Blumenthal’s grand jury appearances?

These are questions that must now be answered by the mainstream press. But one thing does seem fairly clear, in reviewing Blomquist’s story. Rotunda must have felt sure of one thing--he felt sure that Blomquist would never take a look at the record. This press corps, remember, just doesn’t do transcripts. Rotunda must have known as he spoke.

Indeed, we told you not too long ago--this press corps just loves getting spun (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/15/99). Almost three months after Blomquist wrote, the Fox News Three went on the air. They eagerly recited the same false account. Wherever Hume’s panel had gotten its story, the corps was again gladly spun.

Visit our incomparable archives: Blumenthal was asked, again and again, about his White House press contracts. For a sample of the grand jury’s questions, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/5/99.

Tomorrow: Final thoughts--well, just for now--about this astounding press meltdown.