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Caveat lector

10 May 1999

Our current howler (part II): Slick magnolia

Synopsis: In the end, the Steele trial showed one thing--how wrong the press was about Willey.

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

Willey accuses Clinton lawyer of ‘badgering,’ threatening her
Tom Squitieri, USA Today, 5/6/99

Commentary by Julie Carey
Rivera Live, CNBC, 5/5/99

Has Julie Steele been fibbing about Kathleen Willey? Did Willey tell Steele, back in 1993, that Clinton made an unwanted advance? Here at THE HOWLER, we have no way of knowing--and that’s especially true after reading press accounts of last week’s trial of Steele. Indeed, after reading four major papers’ day-to-day accounts of the trial, it wasn’t just hard to see what the verdict should have been. It was virtually impossible even to say what evidence Ken Starr had presented.

The standard summation of Starr’s case against Steele was presented in the Post:

SMITH AND DAVIS: As they sift through stacks of depositions taken in both the Paula Jones civil lawsuit and Steele’s grand jury appearances, jurors have been directed by the prosecution to pay close attention to three of Steele’s former friends, who testified that Steele told them about Willey’s alleged encounter before 1997.

This reference to the “three former friends” was standard throughout the press corps. But Smith and Davis, in their daily Post stories, never said who the three friends were--and the summation we’ve quoted flies in the face of the evidence in the Post’s daily stories. Indeed, even after reading the daily reports of four major papers, we aren’t sure who the three friends might be. (THE DAILY HOWLER read the daily coverage in USA Today, the Washington Times, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.)

In the course of their dispatches, Smith and Davis named two former friends who testified for the prosecution. On May 4, they named William Poveromo, a former Steele boyfriend, who testified that Steele told him about the matter in April 1997. This, of course, was one month after the time Steele says she learned of Willey’s allegations. They also named former Steele friend Mary Highsmith, who testified that she had heard Willey’s story at a luncheon in 1996, at which Steele also was present.

As we reported last week, the Post never described the groaning problems with Highsmith’s testimony--problems which surfaced the next day on cross (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/5/99). According to the Washington Times, Highsmith had initially told the FBI that there had been no such discussion at the luncheon in question. Indeed, Highsmith hadn’t recalled the discussion in her first six interviews with Starr’s FBI investigators, and initially told Starr she first heard of the matter in early 1998. One would think that the Post, after describing Highsmith’s direct testimony, would have wanted to mention these striking facts. But the Post, like USA Today and the New York Times, never noted this problem with Highsmith, and just lumped her in as one of the “three former friends” who said that Steele spilled the beans “before 1997.”

Who then are the three “former friends” who had talked to Willey “before 1997?” Here at THE HOWLER, we have no idea, because none of the papers named three such people. Poveromo was mentioned in several papers, but he says he first heard of the incident in 4/97; Highsmith clearly seems to be one of the witnesses to whom the Post refers. The only paper which even mentions a second such friend was USA Today, on May 6:

SQUITIERI: Another former Steele friend, Amy Horan, testified that Steele shared the details of Willey’s allegation with her in September 1996.

Neither the Post, the Washington Times, or the New York Times ever mention Horan in their coverage. But at any rate, Horan and Highsmith--for all of Highsmith’s problems--only make two witnesses who say they heard before 1997. And Julie Carey, in a puzzling report on Rivera Live, said that Horan “believes that Julie Steele is telling the truth; still, she remembers Steele telling her of Willey’s alleged encounter with the president as early as [September] 1996.” So much observers fight for simple facts when following a tale in the press corps.

So the trial coverage gave us another chance to see how hard it is to get simple info--how hard it can be to assemble even the most basic facts about a story. But it also let us revisit the fawning coverage the press corps gave its darling, Kathleen Willey, when she appeared on Sixty Minutes last March. Willey made very serious charges against President Clinton, essentially alleging a sexual assault. There was no apparent way the press could have known if these charges were true at the time.

But as we’ve told you so often before, the press corps just loves those accusers! Pundits raced to affirm every word Willey said, in the most embarrassing press blunder of the year (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/2/98). A stream of major pundits--Will and Safire; Kelly and Dowd--were absolutely certain that Kathleen Willey spoke truly. They raced to see who could compose the silliest affirmation of Willey’s unknowable claims.

Well, one thing the Steele trial surely did show was the problems with Willey’s credibility. In the course of Willey’s cross-examination, her problems in this area became clear. She had lied to investigators so many times that she had to be given immunity on two separate occasions. Her testimony in the Jones deposition (1/98) differed substantially from what she said on Sixty Minutes two months later. She had even gave Jones a slickly worded deposition, denying sexual conduct with “Governor Clinton” (see postscript). She had engaged in crackpot conduct with a boyfriend, falsely telling him that she was pregnant.

This, of course, is just part of the evidence suggesting that Willey ain’t a lock in a truth-telling contest. As the Nation reported last week, Willey’s account of her encounter with Clinton has been severely contradicted, under oath, by several of her acquaintances. And she went to great lengths to avoid paying her debts in the aftermath of her husband’s suicide. Several of these matters were already known when the pundits swore Faire Willey spoke true. But in the rush to affirm the latest accuser, none of them much seemed to care.

Here at THE HOWLER, we have no way of knowing what did or didn’t happen between Clinton and Willey. But neither did the pundits who vouched for Willey in March of 1998. The coverage of the Julie Steele trial was a frustrating experience for us as readers. But the pundits’ original reaction to Willey was inexcusable, as even the press corps’ jumbled coverage of the Steele trial made all too clear.

Slick: Tom Squitieri, describing Willey’s deposition:

SQUITIERI: Willey acknowledged that the January 1998 deposition she signed for the Jones case was carefully worded so she could honestly deny having any sexual contact with “Gov. Clinton.” The alleged advance came after Clinton became president.

Two months later, William Safire loved Willey on Sixty. “Here was no slick Willey,” he wrote. Boy oh boy, was Safire clever! But as is common, he also was wrong.