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20 May 1999

Our current howler (part IV): Hardball most foul

Synopsis: Hardball’s gong show hit rock bottom when Chris Matthews accused Cody Shearer.

Commentary by Chris Matthews, Kathleen Willey
Hardball, CNBC, 5/11/99

“Hardball” strikes out
Joe Conason, Salon, 5/18/99

There are a hundred reasons why the celebrity press corps shouldn’t have done what it did with Kathleen Willey--shouldn’t have novelized the Willey story, telling the public the story it liked. The corps’ treatment of Willey hit its logical end with three remarkable TV interviews last week. Compliant hosts deceived their viewers, refusing to report even basic evidence concerning their darling “Kathy” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/19/99).

But the inevitable outcome of this mind-boggling approach came during Willey’s first interview last week. A former journalist turned tabloid talker was barking brio at a standard brisk pace:

MATTHEWS: Talk about the thing that I really would love to hear you talk about which is the attempt to cover this up, as you say. Tell about what happened when you went jogging in 1998 right before you were about to testify in the Jones case.
Matthews’ favorite story concerned Willey’s claim that she was intimidated by an unknown jogger near her home. After Willey told the treasured tale, Matthews asked who this jogger might be:
MATTHEWS: Who do you think this was? Do you recognize him from any pictures you’ve seen? Have you ever seen a picture of a person who looks like this person who accosted you this morning?
Willey had identified a picture, she said, but she didn’t want to say who it was. She repeatedly declined to name any names, saying the event was still under investigation. But Matthews knew who Willey had named. He went ahead and named names for his lady:
MATTHEWS: Who showed you the picture of the person that you think might have been him?

WILLEY: Jackie Judd.

MATTHEWS: From ABC. And did you identify it positively?


MATTHEWS: So it’s Cody Shearer.

WILLEY: I can’t tell you.

MATTHEWS: OK, but you identified it positively.

The exchange provides a classic example of Hardball’s oddball logic. Willey identified it positively--so it’s Cody Shearer! The analysts roared, here at DAILY HOWLER World Headquarters, at the latest exhibition of the talker’s strange arts.

We now know that, if there was such a jogger, it surely wasn’t Cody Shearer, brother-in-law of a White House official. Matthews opened his show this past Monday night with an apology for having named Shearer (Matthews spent several nights, after May 11, bravely pretending that Willey had named Shearer). Matthews said that Shearer (and his lawyer) had convinced him that Shearer was nowhere near the alleged crime. Joe Conason, in Salon, filled in the facts about the day in question:

CONASON: I did what Matthews should have done and called Shearer. He told me that on the date cited by Willey, Jan. 8, 1998, he was far from her house in the leafy suburbs of Richmond, Va. He can prove that he stayed at the Hyatt Regency hotel in San Francisco on the night of Jan. 7 and that at 2:53 p.m. on Jan. 8, he withdrew money from a cash machine at the Embarcadero Center in that same city.
And why don’t real journalists make reckless accusations? We’ve learned part of the reason in the past several days. Conason reported that Shearer has received death threats in the wake of the Matthews accusation; and this morning, a warrant has been issued for a Washington man’s arrest. Over the weekend, the man appeared at Shearer’s home, slashed his tires, and threatened guests with a shotgun.

But the Hardball incident was the logical culmination of the game this sad press corps has relentlessly played, in which the corps has abandoned all rational standards in bucking up their beloved, Faire Willey. From March 1998 right up to the present, the mainstream press corps has novelized news, telling the public the story they like. The corps has refused to report detailed, sworn testimony severely contradicting Willey’s serious charges; and has routinely glossed over embarrassing episodes suggesting Willey may not be reliable. As we’ve told you often before, dear friends: this celebrity press corps just loves those accusers! In Willey, they finally had an accuser with nice clothes and good hair. Nothing would interfere with her story.

But when the corps is allowed to make up the news, let’s not be surprised when less stable members reach the point Matthews reached Tuesday night. NBC has disgraced itself by allowing Hardball to proceed on its wierd course this past year. Frankly, we at THE HOWLER hope Shearer’s lawyer ends up proving his mettle in court. It’s clear now: only the threat of legal sanctions will make this press corps rethink its willful conduct.

John and Tom: Note the implications of the Shearer mess for the lovefest conducted on Hockenberry (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/18/99). Willey appeared on the show on May 13, the third night of her interview run--two days after making new, serious charges about Mickey Kantor and Sixty Minutes producers. She charged Kantor with criminal conduct.

Kantor issued a denial of her charges, read on the air by Larry King on May 12. King also read a somewhat ambiguous statement from Sixty Minutes. To us, the Sixty Minutes statement seemed to dispute Willey’s charges.

It was a perfect chance for an actual journalist to attempt to clarify what Sixty Minutes had said. Instead, when Willey repeated her charges on Hockenberry, neither Hockenberry nor guest journalist Tom Squitieri even mentioned the denial from Mickey Kantor, or the statement from Sixty Minutes. Viewers were given no way to know that anyone had denied Willey’s charges.

But then, why should this be such a surprise? They weren’t told about Linda Tripp, either.

The absurdity of this judgment is now clear. Willey’s charge against Shearer was plainly false. Why were other charges from this shaky witness treated like tablets from Moses? Simple. The celebrity press corps loves those accusers; Willey’s story was one the show liked. After fourteen months of propping up Willey, and hiding evidence contradicting her charges, why would it occur to John and Tom to do the sort of work that’s the norm for real journalists?

Tomorrow! Smile-a-while: The phrenologists and sooth-sayers were all booked up. So Hardball checked Willey’s body language.