18 March 1999
Our current howler (part II): Noticed by Fred
Synopsis: We should have seen it coming in the March 8 Standard, when Fred Barnes penned a strange Love Child II.
The Unaccountable President
Fred Barnes, The Weekly Standard, 3/8/99
Well return tomorrow to the March 15 Standard, with its remarkable compilation of howlers and canards, but the analysts had actually seen it coming as theyd looked through the March 8 issue. The issues lead editorial, by Executive Editor Fred Barnes, had begun to showcase the journals odd new posture--suggested that the editors were so upset by the Clinton scandals, they were prepared to trash standard rules of debate.
The analysts howled and glanced round the room as they read Barnes opening paragraph:
BARNES: The accusation is serious: rape. The accuser is credible: an Arkansas businesswoman named Juanita Broaddrick. The accused, then the attorney general of Arkansas, is now the president of the United States. The question is: Will he get away with what no other American could get away having to answer the accusation directly? [Our emphasis]
We start by noting our points of agreement: Mrs. Broaddricks charges are serious charges, and Mrs. Broaddrick is indeed a credible person--although, as we have pointed out before, credible is not the same thing as true.
But the closing sentence of the paragraph begins to signal the problem. What could Barnes possibly mean, we wondered, in saying that the average person, in a similar circumstance, would have to answer the accusation directly? Mrs. Broaddricks charges are twenty-one years old; the statute of limitations has long since passed. The fact is, no average person would have any obligation at all to respond in a similar situation.
But there we were in the brave new world of the Standards Broaddrick coverage. No assertion, no matter how plainly false, is disqualified from going to print. It is especially odd that Barnes starts out by telling his readers that Mrs. Broaddricks charges are serious. In our view, people who understood how serious these charges are wouldnt stoop to reporting like this.
Note, for example, Barnes idea of important corroborating information:
BARNES (paragraph 2): NBC aired Myers interview and added important corroborating information to Broaddricks powerful account of being sexually assaulted. In addition to three contemporaneous witnesses who corroborated Broaddricks story, Myers found a document showing Broaddrick attended a convention of nursing home operators in Little Rock on April 25, 1978, a date on which Clinton appears to have been in Little Rock as well. [Our emphasis]
The fact that witnesses say Broaddrick gave them this account is significant, but its significance is limited. Sometimes complaining parties lie at the time, a fact one will not likely see discussed in the Standard.
But the emerging style of Standard coverage is suggested at the end of this segment. Clinton was attorney general of Arkansas in 1978; he was in Little Rock pretty much all the time. Does his presence in Little Rock provide important corroboration? Please. His presence in Little Rock hardly shows he committed the assault that is described.
At other points, Barnes begins showcasing major themes that the Standard would billboard the next week (see tomorrows DAILY HOWLER). But we were especially drawn to one odd passage, midway through Barnes report. Barnes seems to believe hes come up with a scoop--has done some new reporting:
BARNES: Heres another interesting detail about this story no one seems yet to have noticed. In the final Tripp tape, a conversation between Linda Tripp and Monica Lewinsky on January 15, 1998, the two women are discussing what Tripp will say when she is deposed by Paula Joness attorneys. All of a sudden, Lewinsky changes the subject and muses over the presidents looming deposition:
| ||MS. LEWINSKY: I wonder how hell explain that 128-minute call to Juanita.|
MR. TRIPP: 158.
MS. LEWINSKY: 158 to Juanita.
MR. TRIPP: Say it wasnt him, I guess.
MS. LEWINSKY: Or, well, I mean the truth is, it could have been--I really dont remember.
MS. TRIPP: (Laughter)
Where does the story go from here, Barnes asks, and offers no comment on the excerpt he has quoted.
The obvious suggestion is that President Clinton had made a lengthy phone call to Juanita Broaddrick--though it is clear that Barnes has no information to offer, other than the fact that this excerpt appeared on the tape. He doesnt know who this Juanita is, or what this phone call may have concerned. That is to say, he hasnt done any actual reporting--he has simply tossed out an item he cant explain, to excite and amuse his readers.
Barnes has since acknowledged that Tripp has said they were discussing a different Juanita. Wouldnt you know it? The interesting detail Barnes rushed to print wasnt about this story at all. And can we make one correction to Barnes account, when he says no one seems to have noticed this conversation? Wed guess that others had noticed this interesting detail, but didnt report it until they tried checking it out--didnt print it precisely because they understood the serious nature of the crime that is alleged.
Mrs. Broaddricks charges are serious, and they may well be true. But because these charges may also may be false, they shouldnt be treated as Barnes treats them here--like Love Child 2, like a bit of cheap gossip.
Tomorrow: Barnes piece neatly morphed into William Kristols lead editorial the next week.
Discarded standard: It is disappointing that Barnes would place in print a matter he hadnt tried to check out. It is especially odd because, if his suspicion had been true, it would mean that Mrs. Broaddrick was involved in some sort of conduct that would have been hard to square with her stated attitude toward Clinton.
We understand that revulsion for the alleged crime may have led Barnes to jump the gun on this matter. But standard procedures keep this sort of error from happening. Standard procedures exist to keep journalists from following their hearts and ignoring their heads.