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24 March 2000

Our current howler (part III): Ol’ Reliable

Synopsis: Are pundits always wrong on the facts? Michael Kelly—irked again—made us wonder.

Reform Joke
Michael Kelly, The Washington Post, 3/15/00

Anarchy in Kosovo
Michael Kelly, The Washington Post, 3/22/00

Campaign reform hypocrisy
Joseph Perkins, The Washington Times, 3/13/00

Commentary by Morton Kondracke, Fred Barnes
Special Report, Fox News Channel, 3/23/00

White House Is Probed On E-Mails
John Harris and Lorraine Adams, The Washington Post, 3/24/00

Are pundits always wrong on the facts? Probably not, but sometimes it seems so. This past Wednesday, perpetually furious Michael Kelly was in a state of rage down at the Post. The previous week, in a furious column, he had penned this peculiar construction:

KELLY (3/15): On March 2, Hsia, a longtime Gore friend and fund-raiser, was convicted on five felony counts for funneling more than $100,000 in illegal donations to the Democratic Party and the Clinton-Gore campaign in 1996...Some $55,000 of this money was raised at a visit by Gore himself to the Hsi Lai Temple, from Buddhist monks and nuns serving as "straw donors."

Was the money raised "by Gore himself?" No, and Kelly doesn't say so. But a casual reader might well have thought otherwise, given his strange formulation. When Lanny Davis wrote in to complain, the Furious One scribbled off a reply. He hadn't said that Gore raised the dough, Kelly noted, and what he had said was perfectly accurate:

KELLY (3/22): What I wrote was that "some $55,000" of the more than $100,000 raised by recently convicted Gore fund-raiser Maria Hsiah "was raised at a visit by Gore himself to the Hsi Lai Temple, from Buddhist nuns and monks serving as 'straw donors.'" [Emphases by Kelly]

Kelly's parsing would get him off in any court in the land. But then—Oops!—we ran into trouble:

KELLY (continuing directly): This claim is true and uncontroverted: Maria Hsiah raised $55,000 at a visit to the Hsi Lai Temple on April 29, 1996 by Al Gore.

But of course, anyone who had spent ten minutes on this story would know that statement is utterly false. The $55,000 was raised on April 30, the day after Gore appeared at the temple. If you followed Maria Hsiah's recent trial, you read the basic chronology there. If you read the 1997 Senate Committee Final Report, it was clearly explained there also. The chronology is completely clear and undisputed—except in Kelly's irate work.

We doubt that Kelly was up to old tricks—making a dull story better. Our guess? Kelly doesn't know what he's talking about—doesn't know even the simplest facts about the Hsi Lai case. Which didn't keep him, of course, from his usual ranting in the furious column about which Davis complained. Kelly began with his usual insinuations, suggesting that various people were criminals (see postscript). One week later, we find the truth: Kelly—unencumbered by facts, but seeing Big Pictures—doesn't understand the simplest elements in the case about which he declaims.

We don't know why the Post tolerates this, but in the press corps, this sort of thing barely registers. Factual buffoonism, high and low, runs all through the press corps' work on this case. Sometimes pundits monkey with facts that matter; sometimes they play with facts that don't. Perkins, for example, in his recent column, served up this entertaining old chestnut:

PERKINS: Yet, to this day, Mr. Gore, the wannabe campaign finance reformer, insists he was blissfully unaware that the temple-event was a fund-raiser, that he was under the impression he was simply attending a "community outreach" event (even as his campaign staff was accepting $1,000 checks from nuns and monks sworn to poverty).

It makes no difference in this case, of course, but it was clearly explained in the 1997 Senate hearings: the Hsi Lai temple's religious acolytes do not take vows of poverty. Elimination of factual misstatement was once assumed as a basic goal of the press. Now, the tired old standard is tossed away if misstatements set up pleasing jokes. (For the record, this joke originated with the Dole campaign on 10/17/96, the day the Buddhist temple story came to light.)

But let's get back to Michael Kelly, lambasting the "always-dependable" Lanny Davis. Davis' letter, Kelly writes, is "a splendid example of Clintonite defense tactics." But what are we to say of Kelly's reply, in which he baldly misstates basic facts of this case? Can we possibly see in Kelly's bluster a familiar example of press corps malfeasance?

It doesn't necessarily make any difference when Hsiah gathered the $55,000. (For the record, she did not do so when Gore was present. And Hsiah's prosecutors asserted that neither Gore nor the DNC knew what Hsiah had done.) But Dear Readers: How much confidence do you have in Kelly's judgment, when you see he hasn't even familiarized himself with basic facts? Do you have any faith that he has read the record, and that he has ever so much as considered the explanations the DNC has advanced? If Kelly doesn't even know when Hsiah gathered the dough, do you have any confidence—any at all—that he has ever read the Sullivan/Strauss testimony? And how about another question: When pundits like Novak don't mention that testimony, could it possibly be for an obvious reason—because they haven't ever bothered to read it, and don't know what these principals have said?

That's right, folks. Pundits too lazy to do their work are highly susceptible to partisan spinners. Recent case in point: "congressional sources" approached certain scribes, and sold them exciting "new records."


Monday: Presented with exciting "new records," some scribes knew just how to react.

Kell's bells: Michael Kelly is unfamiliar with the basic facts in this three-year-old case. That doesn't keep him from his usual practice of portraying various people as criminals. Here, for example, is how he began his furious 3/15 column:

KELLY (3/15): After seven years of the Clinton administration, it takes something really rich to get a laugh here, but Al Gore's announcement last weekend that he was the candidate of campaign finance reform really did the trick. Clinton-Gore fund-raiser Terry McAuliffe, implicated in an illegal 1996 fund-raising scheme involving the misuse of Teamsters' funds, laughed so hard he dropped a large valise filled with sequentially numbered old $20 bills...

Kelly enjoys himself picturing McAuliffe engaged in some criminal conduct. Note, if you will, the scribe's choice of words here: McAuliffe was "implicated" in illegal conduct. ("Implicated" is a supple word, much more adaptable than "charged" or "convicted.") By the way, do you have any confidence that Kelly is better informed about McAuliffe than he is about Hsiah? (For Kelly's treatment of last year's "farm chores," see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/3/99.)

Kelly also touched on Hsiah in this paragraph. Here he continues directly:

KELLY (continuing directly): Recently convicted Gore fund-raiser Maria Hsiah tried to call Gore to share a giggle with him, but Big Mama, who pretty much runs Cell Block H, wouldn't let her use the phone.

Are we supposed to picture "Big Mama" as black or as Asian? The Post, for some reason, is now perfectly comfortable with B-room prison race humor. (And Hsiah, of course, is not in prison, as Kelly later pointed out.)

But how about the facts, Dear Post? Do you require your furious scribes to know them? In a follow-up column, responding to a complaint, Kelly comically swears that his facts are "uncontroverted." One last question: It's a given that Kelly doesn't know basic facts. Why don't his editors know them?

Hume-an error: At THE HOWLER, we're fans of Special Report, but this week, the panel has been in a snit. On Wednesday, the scribes were wondering why McCain's attacks on Gore didn't get big coverage, the way his attacks on Bush had once done. Boys—boys! Any chance it's because he stopped running for president? Seen any stories about Malcolm Forbes lately?

Last night, the grumbling panel was batting around that lost/stolen/strayed White House e-mail. Why was the Justice Department now looking into the case? It might be a cover-up to thwart Klayman, Mort said:

KONDRACKE: A continuing part of a continuing cover-up, is what I'm saying.

Fred was mad. He was crossing his arms:

BARNES (continuing directly): Does anybody really think that this White House, in this case, in these cases, unintentionally got rid of the e-mails? That's strange things. They have no credibility when it comes to this.

Except that one person thinks the deletions were unintentional. Here's a passage from this morning's Post, but it's been in the papers all week:

HARRIS AND ADAMS: The chairman of the committee, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), said he accepted that the problems were the result of inadvertent programming errors. But he and other Republicans on the panel said they were outraged by the failure of the White House to let his committee and other investigators know about the potential gap.

On Report, nobody mentioned what trusting old Dan Burton said. So why do we bother with four-member panels, if none of them will state basic facts?