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11 March 1999

Minor mishaps: Just all tuckered out

Synopsis: Tom Squitieri’s been chasing Wild Bill’s former girl friends. It’s begun to show up in his work.

McDougal returns to face new charges
Tom Squitieri, USA Today, 3/9/99 Ink
John Cassidy, The New Yorker, 3/15/99

Whew! That Little Rock night life can hit a man hard, and it really showed in this Tuesday report, in which Tom Squitieri took a hard look at the Susan McDougal contempt trial. By his own account, Squitieri’s been chasing after Wild Bill’s former girl friends, getting more gal pals to go on the record, and the pace of the chase is now taking its toll on the hard-living USA Today scribe.

Here’s Tired Tom’s opening gambit:

SQUITIERI: Susan McDougal believes her ticket to acquittal is sitting in the federal district courthouse. She just does not yet know who it is.

Say what? We’ll have to admit, Tom had done it again--he’d hooked us in with his opening image. What could he mean in saying that Susan doesn’t know yet “who” her ticket might be? A ticket is an inanimate object; and Squitieri had used a personal pronoun. The analysts were simply compelled to read on. They devoured what Squitieri had said:

SQUITIERI: Her strategy for avoiding conviction and prison this time is simple: Raise doubt in the mind of at least one juror. Convince one person that she may be innocent of the charges and is being framed by Starr.

But the analysts quickly pointed to problems with the words that the subtle scribe penned. An acquittal requires a unanimous verdict, not the vote of one hold-out juror. We were willing to see it as a mere slip, until we read a few paragraphs further:

SQUITIERI: “We’re confident she is going to be acquitted,” Mark Geragos, McDougal’s lawyer, says. “I do not think, once anybody has heard her story and what they put her through, that if they were placed in the same situation and same circumstances, they wouldn’t do exactly the same thing.”

Strange! It didn’t sound like Geragos was trying to locate one friend. He’d clearly said that he wanted acquittal, and that every juror would agree with Sue’s case. Maybe Squitieri, tuckered out from his nights on the town, just hasn’t been listening as he took down the quotes. Moments later, in his own voice, he managed to muff it again:

SQUITIERI: McDougal’s strategy of finding at least one anti-Starr juror aims to capitalize on Starr’s image as an overly aggressive prosecutor. [Our emphasis]

Weird. He completely ignored what Geragos had just said. Why should the public read Tired Tom’s story? He doesn’t seem to have read it himself!

We’d be the last ones to say that Tom’s showing a bias, but he spun on as he closed his report. He gave a review of McDougal’s experience in her 1998 fraud trial in California:

SQUITIERI: [S]he and her lawyer believe she can be effective on the stand. McDougal was successful in winning over jurors last year, when she was acquitted on fraud charges in an unrelated case in California.

Tom made it sound as if Svengali-like Susan got up on the stand and just snake-charmed the jurors. Of course, those jurors didn’t say that she’d “won them over;” they said they became increasingly distressed with the prosecution’s complete lack of a case. Two of those jurors are in Little Rock this week, sitting in on the current trial; and on Rivera Live this past Tuesday night, they described their anger at the complete lack of evidence that the DA put on in that trial.

Maybe Squitieri’s too busy chasing Bill’s girls to listen to these juror ladies. Sometimes, when men-folk chase women around, it begins to show up in their work.

The dwindling role played by mere fact: We’re often struck, as we read the press, by the dwindling role that is played by the facts. It sometimes seems that the very concept of “fact” has begun to disappear from their thinking.

We were struck by these thoughts as we read John Cassidy’s New Yorker review of the Chris Hitchens meeting--the confab in which the Brawling Brit had met with The Nation’s big brass (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/10/99).

Cassidy has read Alexander Cockburn’s column on the Hitchens-Blumenthal matter, which Cockburn published in The Nation March 8. As we have discussed, Cockburn points out that Hitchens’ March 1 piece is full of howling factual errors about Sid’s grand jury appearances; and Cockburn points out that the egregious story seems to have originated with advisers to IC Kenneth Starr (see again yesterday’s DAILY HOWLER for full links to past work on this piece).

But in Cassidy’s review of the Hitchens matter, he only discusses the ethics of snitching; he makes no mention of the factual errors that explode out of Hitchens’ piece. Like Howard Kurtz (see yesterday’s HOWLER), Cassidy seems completely indifferent to the problems that Cockburn described.

Again we see the indifference to truth that CelebCorps so often betrays. Here’s what happened in Hitchens’ piece. A major journal called a public figure a liar, based on factual assertions that were totally false. The falseness of these factual claims could have been established by reading public transcripts (it would have taken fact-checkers ten minutes). The narrative that the journal published has been in the press for several months. And when the plainly false story had first appeared, it had been openly attributed to a major adviser to independent counsel Kenneth Starr.

The fact The Nation isn’t disturbed about this tells us a great deal about that journal. That Cassidy doesn’t mention these facts tells us a bit about him. We can’t avoid it: the concept of “fact” is fast disappearing from the corps’ very notion of what it does. The press corps’ role is not to serve fact. Increasingly, the corps exists to move story line on.

Note: Cassidy quotes Hitchens in praise of Ken Starr: “I’m very grateful to Judge Starr. I don’t know one wrong thing he’s done yet.” Spreading slander would be a wrong thing. Neither Hitchens nor Cassidy seems to know it.

Tomorrow: Celebrity pundits played real dumb discussing Mrs. Broaddrick with Larry.