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10 March 1999

Our current howler: Tabloid Nation

Synopsis: When The Nation decided to stick with Hitch, they showed that the truth doesn’t matter.

Tabloid Shocker!
Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post, 3/8/99

Howard Kurtz put the bad news right up front:

KURTZ: Christopher Hitchens is staying at the Nation, at least for now.

Kurtz explained that the brawling Brit would still be writing for The Nation; the decision was made in a meeting last Thursday, when Hitchens sat down with the brass. During the Senate impeachment trial, Hitchens had told House committee staffers that Sidney Blumenthal called Mo-mo a stalker. According to Kurtz, at last week’s meeting, Hitchens dared staffers to call him a snitch. And no one said “yes” to the deal.

The fact is, The Nation and Hitchens deserve one another, based on the journal’s publication of his March 1 piece, in which Hitchens presented a disgraceful account of how the Blumenthal flap had occurred. Hitchens’ piece was filled with misinformation and slander--a stunning example of a free press at its worst. And to date, The Nation has never said even a word about how such a total mess got into print. The Nation has never said even one word about how it decided such a mess should be published. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/22/99, for our original treatment of Hitchens’ article.)

You may recall the background. Hitchens’ piece was just the latest rendering of a puzzling story about Sidney B, one that has been popping up in the media at least since November 15. According to this exciting tale, we “now know” that Blumenthal is a liar. And how do we know that? Because of what he said on the courthouse steps after his grand jury appearance of 2/26/98. Over and over, major press entities have told the tale: Blumenthal lied about what he’d been asked in the grand jury. And how egregious was his lying? So bad that he was scolded the next time he appeared.

It makes a very compelling story, except that it’s totally false. As we first told you before the Hitchens piece was even published, Blumenthal’s description of his questioning was perfectly accurate, as a simple review of the grand jury transcripts will show (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/5/98). The notion that Blumenthal had lied in his statement is impossible to square with the record. And the next time he appeared before the grand jury, not a word was said about his statement. The tale Hitchens typed up was groaningly false--impossible to square with the facts.

The Nation was made aware of these facts soon after it published Hitchens’ slander. In its March 8 issue, Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn disputed Hitchens’ piece, detailing its howling errors. Embarrassingly, Cockburn also drew attention to the original source of the tale--Ronald Rotunda, an adviser to IC Ken Starr. Rotunda had been extensively quoted in the 11/15 New York Post, angrily (and falsely) describing Blumenthal’s conduct. The Nation’s piece was not only false; it was also cheap OIC spin.

You’d think a journal like The Nation would be concerned about something like that. You’d think it would want to know how its man could have typed up such an absolute mess.

And you’d think The Nation would want to explain another thing to its readers--you’d think it would want to explain how a column so false could ever have made it to print. It’s amazing enough that a writer like Hitchens could type up such a pack of slander. But how in the world did the brawling Brit’s editors ever put such complete tripe into print? Again--ten minutes of fact-checking would show any editor that Hitchens’ article was groaningly false. One can only assume that The Nation’s brass doesn’t bother with matters like that.

At any rate, when The Nation printed letters about Hitchens on March 15, they only printed letters about Hitch’s snitching. Not a single letter addressed the question of how Hitchens was so wrong on the facts. And the editors of the once great rag have chosen to ignore their own conduct completely. On its editorial page, The Nation hasn’t printed a word for its readers about how such an article ever got into print.

Meanwhile, we’re disappointed in one other writer, and that’s Howard Kurtz himself. On Monday, Kurtz said nothing at all about the errors in Hitchens’ ridiculous column. And we’re pretty sure that Kurtz is aware of the matter, because we wrote him when Hitchens’ article appeared, calling attention to Hitchens’ errors; and we sketched out the way this false tale about Sid worked its way through the Washington press corps.

But Kurtz wrote up the Hitchens flap as if he’d never heard of the factual errors--and as if he didn’t know that the widespread false tale seems to come from the IC himself. Does it matter if writers get basic facts right, even in stories where they call people liars? Does it matter if the press corps is so lazy and soft, it types up slanders from interested parties? Apparently not, to judge by Kurtz, and to judge by the silence from the folks at The Nation. It seems that total factual error doesn’t bother the press any more.

So why should we believe a word Hitchens says, if he’s able to type up such painful nonsense? And why should we believe a word in The Nation, if it doesn’t even check out simple facts? And why should we believe what we read at all, if the dean of critics doesn’t care about facts? We’ve said it before and we say it now--this celebrity press writes the stories it likes. Exciting stories are welcome--No questions asked!--in the ever-expanding tabloid press.

To be fair: To be fair, it’s possible The Nation isn’t saying a word because of liability problems. That doesn’t help with our problem. Why should we believe other work in a journal which is able to publish such an absolute mess? And what does it mean when a top critic like Kurtz seems to feel this is “par for the corps?”

We want our money back: When we sent all the info to Howard and Bernie, we even dug deep for FedEx!

Visit our incomparable archives: We’ve followed this ridiculous story over the course of the past five weeks:

THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/5/99: On February 3, three major entities all chose to publish this absurdly false story on Sid.

THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/22/99: Hitchens became the latest scribe to type up this groaning account.

THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/23/99: Cockburn corrected Credulous Chris--and suggested the source of his story.

THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/24/99: Does truth matter? We suggested The Nation--and major critics--had to explain this odd tale.