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14 May 1999

Our current howler (part I): Passing Willey

Synopsis: Chris Matthews baldly misled his viewers about Faire Willey’s polygraph test.

Commentary by Chris Matthews
Hardball, CNBC, 5/13/99

Willey Passed Polygraph on Clinton Encounter
Leef Smith, The Washington Post, 5/13/99

A former journalist turned TV tabloid talker was barking out brio at a standard brisk pace. Right at the top of the program:

MATTHEWS: [W]e’ve got the federal court releasing the information, it’s in today’s paper, that Kathleen Willey was tested in a polygraph in 1998 in very particular detail...This is according to the Washington Post today: “In that test,” this is the polygraph test, “Willey was asked whether she was ‘making up’ any of the information she provided about Clinton allegedly touching her and whether she was ‘lying’ about the president placing her hand on his groin. Clinton has adamantly denied Willey’s charges.” So she passed the lie detector test.

Phew! No wonder the talker was so excited. Faire Willey all along told him true! Fortunately, our aggressive analysts had read the article from which the pent-up host was reading. They quickly brought it to our chambers--and showed us a talker’s latest ruse.

The article, written by the Post’s Leef Smith, described two polygraphs Willey was given, only one of which Willey had passed. Indeed, here is the passage in Smith’s short piece from which the talker had been sampling:

SMITH (paragraphs 3-5): The Sept. 15 test was Willey’s second polygraph. The first exam, administered six days earlier, was ruled “inconclusive” by federal agents, who said Willey demonstrated a “lack of consistent, specific and significant physiological responses.”

In that test, Willey was asked whether she was “making up” any of the information she provided about Clinton allegedly touching her and whether she was “lying” about the president placing her hand on his groin. Clinton has adamantly denied Willey’s charges.

Willey answered “no” to both questions, but in their final report, test administrators said that “no determination as to Mrs. Willey’s truthfulness can be made.”

That’s right. Smith had written a three-paragraph passage about a polygraph Willey did not pass. Matthews read the middle paragraph only--then told viewers his lady had passed.

All in all, just a typical evening for viewers of the inventive show Hardball--the latest chapter in the talker’s efforts to tell viewers a story they’ll like. Later in the evening, in a jumbled discussion, Cynthia Alksne tried to clear up the hoohah. But the talker, in a clown-like, double-talk effort, created confusion around a set of simple facts.

As reported by Smith, here are those facts. Willey took a test on September 9, 1998, which was deemed “inconclusive” by examiners. That’s the test Smith describes above, in the three paragraphs we have quoted.

Willey was tested again September 15. Smith described those results:

SMITH (paragraph 1-2): Former White House volunteer Kathleen Willey passed a polygraph examination in September 1998 in which she said President Clinton had touched her breasts and placed her hand on his groin, according to documents unsealed yesterday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria.

However, Willey was asked only if the touching occurred, not whether the alleged Nov. 29, 1993 encounter was consensual or, as she alleges, against her will.

In short, in the second test, which Willey passed, she was asked if sexual contact occurred, not if the contact was consensual.

It isn’t clear from Smith’s article, but Willey was not asked the questions Matthews quoted when she took the second (successful) exam. In Exam Two, she was not asked if she was “making up info” about Clinton. She was found to be truthful about the contact--not about other things she has said.

So if we are to put our faith in the polygraph tests, we know that Willey is being truthful about the sexual touching, but has not passed a test about whether the encounter was consensual. Most specifically, she has not been found truthful about the two points which Matthews rattled off on the air. Smith also reported that Willey, in Exam One, was found to show “deception” in her claims about Julie Steele. This is another point the talker never mentioned (see postscript).

No, the results of the test were easy to state. But a tabloid talker, barking out brio, had a much better story in mind. He baldly misstated Smith’s plain text, even as he read straight from it. The results of the tests were easy to state. But a talker played Hardball instead.

Tomorrow: Willey did three hour-long interviews, on three separate shows. “Journalism” doesn’t get too much worse.

Visits from the unread: Completely unmentioned by the tabloid talker was this, from Smith’s short article:

SMITH: In both polygraph exams, according to court documents, Willey said she told Steele about her alleged encounter with the president shortly after it occurred. However, in the first exam, the documents said, Willey showed “deception” in her answer about subsequent conversations she says she had with Steele about the White House incident.

Smith doesn’t say whether Willey was asked the same questions about Steele in each exam. In Exam Two, did she “pass” the same question on which she had “failed?” There’s no way to tell from Smith’s article. Smith also doesn’t state what was clarified elsewhere--that, in her second exam, Willey was not asked the question about “making up information” that she failed to pass in Exam One. More to come, in our Wednesday report, about the questions Kathleen Willey was asked.