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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

We’ll return tomorrow to the March 15 Standard, with its remarkable compilation of howlers and canards, but the analysts had actually seen it coming as they’d looked through the March 8 issue. The issue’s lead editorial, by Executive Editor Fred Barnes, had begun to showcase the journal’s 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. Broaddrick’s 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. Broaddrick’s 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 Standard’s 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. Broaddrick’s charges are serious. In our view, people who understood how serious these charges are wouldn’t 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 Broaddrick’s powerful account of being sexually assaulted. In addition to three contemporaneous witnesses who corroborated Broaddrick’s 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 tomorrow’s DAILY HOWLER). But we were especially drawn to one odd passage, midway through Barnes’ report. Barnes seems to believe he’s come up with a scoop--has done some new reporting:

BARNES: Here’s 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 Jones’s attorneys. All of a sudden, Lewinsky changes the subject and muses over the president’s looming deposition:
 MS. LEWINSKY: I wonder how he’ll explain that 128-minute call to Juanita.
MR. TRIPP: 158.
MS. LEWINSKY: 158 to Juanita.
MR. TRIPP: Say it wasn’t him, I guess.
MS. LEWINSKY: Or, well, I mean the truth is, it could have been--“I really don’t 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 doesn’t know who this “Juanita” is, or what this phone call may have concerned. That is to say, he hasn’t done any actual reporting--he has simply tossed out an item he can’t explain, to excite and amuse his readers.

Barnes has since acknowledged that Tripp has said they were discussing a different “Juanita.” Wouldn’t you know it? The “interesting detail” Barnes rushed to print wasn’t “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? We’d guess that others had noticed this “interesting detail,” but didn’t report it until they tried checking it out--didn’t print it precisely because they understood the serious nature of the crime that is alleged.

Mrs. Broaddrick’s charges are serious, and they may well be true. But because these charges may also may be false, they shouldn’t be treated as Barnes treats them here--like “Love Child 2,” like a bit of cheap gossip.

Tomorrow: Barnes’ piece neatly morphed into William Kristol’s lead editorial the next week.

Discarded standard: It is disappointing that Barnes would place in print a matter he hadn’t 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.