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Caveat lector

5 May 1999

Our current howler: Half a story

Synopsis: Apparently, at the Washington Post, half a story is better than none.

Ex-Boyfriend Takes Stand Against Steele
Leef Smith and Patricia Adams, The Washington Post, 5/4/99

‘His hands were all over me,’ Willey says of ’93 encounter with Clinton
Pete Yost, The Washington Times, 5/5/99

Clinton’s Hands Were ‘All Over Me,’ Willey Testifies
Leef Smith and Patricia Davis, The Washington Post, 5/5/99

Commentary by John Fund
Rivera Live, CNBC, 5/4/99

We hadn’t planned to review the Julie Hiatt Steele trial; it was depressing just to revisit the Willey matter in yesterday’s DAILY HOWLER. We had even sent the tired analysts off for some rest and recreation.

But today’s Washington Post reporting is so gloriously bad we had to swing into action. Here’s a passage from yesterday’s Post:

SMITH AND DAVIS (5/4): Mary Highsmith, once Steele’s best friend in Richmond, described to jurors a “volatile” on-again, off-again relationship between Steele and [Kathleen] Willey. Before Highsmith moved to Colorado in the fall of 1996, Highsmith said, the three women gathered for a lunch at which Willey’s story was raised in casual conversation.

This would contradict Steele’s claim that she first heard of the alleged incident in 1997. Without being named, Highsmith was referred to in the Post again today:

SMITH AND DAVIS (5/5): As the prosecution’s case has unfolded this week, two former friends of Steele’s have testified that Steele told them she knew about the alleged incident earlier than 1997.

One of those friends is Highsmith.

Well sir, we were thinking it sounded bad for Steele, being contradicted by two former friends and all. But then we read this morning’s Washington Times, and deep in a loving recitation of Willey’s Tuesday testimony, we found ourselves reading this:

YOST: But Mrs. Highsmith admitted on cross-examination yesterday that she had changed her story on a crucial point involving Mrs. Steele and remembered new information last November that she hadn’t recalled in her first half-dozen interviews with investigators...Mrs. Highsmith admitted that she initially told Mr. Starr’s investigators that the first time she ever spoke to Mrs. Steele about Mrs. Willey’s accusation was in January or February 1998. In that initial FBI interview on June 26, 1998, Mrs. Highsmith stated there was no discussion at the 1996 luncheon of any sexual advance by Mr. Clinton...Mrs. Highsmith admitted she called Mr. Starr’s investigators back the next day and said the first time she had heard of the Willey incident was in a November 1997 phone call from Mrs. Steele. She changed her story again when testifying to Mr. Starr’s grand jury in Alexandria six weeks later.

In other words, when Highsmith first testified, she explicitly said there had been no naughty talk at the luncheon. And even when she called back the next day, her new story didn’t contradict Steele. (Steele claims she learned of the incident in the spring of 1997.) It was only six weeks later that Highsmith presented a third story, one that fits Starr’s theories (and Willey’s account)--a story she had explicitly denied when she spoke to the FBI the first time.

Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t know when Julie Steele first heard of the alleged incident. We have no way of knowing whether or not it was discussed at the 1996 luncheon.

But the Washington Post has told its readers that Highsmith contradicted Steele. And it didn’t bother to tell them that, under cross-examination, her story developed a large, gaping hole.

The conveniently changed story is, of course, one of the troubling themes of the entire Starr probe. It is amazing that a pair of Post reporters wouldn’t see the significance of the events the Times related.

But more to the point: the Post has told readers that Highsmith has contradicted Steele, in a case in which Steele is accused of serious crimes. It is astonishing--but typical of coverage of this whole matter--that when evidence surfaced casting doubt on the accusation, it went right down a memory hole. (And by the way: Highsmith’s accusation was repeatedly referenced, by John Fund, on Rivera Live last night. No one mentioned that she had testified differently in her first six FBI interviews. Six!)

The Post has told readers what Highsmith said on direct--and kept them from knowing what happened on cross. We’ve seen this silly pattern all through the Willey case. Why in the world can’t these people do better?