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12 July 2001

Our current howler (part II): The Rules

Synopsis: Sometimes, if it weren’t for Invented Facts, there would be no facts at all.

The Lost Girls
Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, 7/11/01

Commentary by Bobbie Battista, Ann Rule
Talk Back Live, CNN, 7/11/01

Authorities Ask Condit to Take Polygraph Exam
Arthur Santana and Bill Miller, The Washington Post, 7/11/01

Commentary by Andrea Mitchell
Nightly News, NBC, 7/10/01

Levy Family Seeks Condit Polygraph
Petula Dvorak and Allan Lengel, The Washington Post, 7/9/01

If it’s the vacuous soul of the press corps you want, you go to the source—Maureen Dowd. This week, Dowd phoned excitable writer Ann Rule to see what Rule thought about Chandra:

DOWD: I called Ms. Rule to see what she thought about the police story obsessing Washington. She said that even if Gary Condit is not culpable, his relationship with the missing Chandra Levy is integral to figuring out the case, and press interest cannot be dismissed as tawdry or prurient.

In fairness to Rule, we rely here on Dowd’s account of what the crime writer said. But is it true? Is it true that "[Condit’s] relationship with the missing Chandra Levy is integral to figuring out the case?" Chandra Levy may have walked out of her house on May 1, been killed by a street hood and thrown in a dumpster. Ann Rule—and Maureen Dowd—have no idea if Condit’s relationship with Levy will have anything to do with figuring out this case.

But Maureen Dowd and her pundit pals are busy typing up a Good Story. And part of the way Good Stories get told is by use of Invented Facts. Rule turned up in the flesh this week, guesting on CNN’s Talk Back Live. First step? The inevitable puzzling question, served up by host Bobbie Battista:

BATTISTA: Ann, it seems that the suspect that’s been flushed out here is the congressman. And there has been a great deal of focus on him. Why, if he’s not involved with her disappearance, why would he still be so integral to the investigation?

Where do they find them? Where in the world do they find the hosts who are capable of asking such questions? Condit is "still integral to the investigation" because police don’t know if he was involved. At any rate, Rule—who also doesn’t know if Condit was involved—took the opportunity to hang ’im high. An Invented Fact jacked up her story:

RULE: Well, they haven’t proved it yet. I think he probably is involved in her disappearance. I think the fact that he has withheld, and stonewalled, and made the gesture of putting up money for a reward but not allowing them into his home—if he is truly innocent of any role in his murder, I don’t see why he wouldn’t talk to the police, wouldn’t talk to the family, wouldn’t open all his doors.

Rule then took the opportunity to plug her latest true book.

Where in the world does one begin with Rule’s statement? The police haven’t proved that Condit was involved? In fact, the police haven’t claimed to have one bit of evidence suggesting that he was involved. But Rule writes books—she says they’re "true" crime—and she knows how to make a good story much better. For Rule, the fact that Condit put up reward money helps us see that he probably did it. And then too, there’s Rule’s Invented Fact.

Twice Rule claims that Condit didn’t "allow [police] into his home." It certainly helps to make him seem guilty, but of course, it’s a totally phony fact; either Rule is incompetent or she’s lying. (Quite clearly, she’s preternaturally careless.) No one has claimed that Condit ever barred the police from searching his home, and no one has claimed that they ever asked for a search. Last weekend, in fact, Condit’s lawyer explicitly said they had not made such a request, and no one—repeat, no one—has contradicted him. (He also pointed out that the first police interview took place in Condit’s home.) But on CNN, Rule Invented a Fact, and Battista did what good hosts always do. She moved ahead to the next pointless question, never saying or doing a thing to clarify or correct what Rule said.

But then, Invented Facts are everywhere now as pundits make a good story better. Rubbing their thighs in furious fashion—feeling alive with the talk of Big Sex—excitable pundits are Helping Out Truth in the way they recite this sad story. Our favorite: as part of the pundit corps’ drive to convict, many pundits are stating the "fact" that Condit told Mrs. Levy one thing about when he last saw Chandra, and then told police something different (see postscript). Condit has a perfectly plausible explanation, which has been published, in the Post; according to Condit, one date refers to the last time he saw Chandra, the other date is the last time they spoke. Pundits have no idea what Condit told Mrs. Levy, but they loudly claim that he lied on this point—being careful never to mention his perfectly plausible explanation.

That’s right, folks. While pundits thrill to Invented Facts, they send Facts They Hate down the memory hole. Here, for example, is an Undesirable Fact from Wednesday’s Washington Post:

SANTANA AND MILLER: Law enforcement sources said three men have been asked to take polygraphs, but whether Condit will agree to the test was unclear yesterday.

If true, that’s what you call "real news"—the fact that police want to polygraph two other men along with Condit. Tuesday night, on NBC Nightly News, Andrea Mitchell reported the same thing:

MITCHELL: Police are asking several men who knew Chandra to take lie detector tests, but say they have no suspects.

Who exactly are these men? Does this mean that there are other non-suspects along with Condit? If this fact is true, it seems important—but we’ll bet you haven’t heard it discussed, because it tamps down the corps’ preferred story. If police want to polygraph other men, it suggests that there are suspects who aren’t Gary Condit. Although this is one of the biggest pieces of potential news in days, it has been sent down the memory hole by our pundits, who are keeping this story where it belongs—on the topic of hot, steamy sex.

And that’s where Maureen Dowd wants it, too. "Ms. Rule, a former Seattle police officer and F.B.I. consultant, often writes about lovely young women who vanish," she writes, before gushing that the Levy story "is the stuff of great drama and novels and journalism through the ages." But novels and journalism play by different rules. If Dowd wants a novel, she ought to go write one. But "great journalism?" What’s she know about that?

Notes from the memory hole: What did Condit tell Mrs. Levy? We don’t have the slightest idea. Neither, of course, do all the pundits who are saying that he lied about when he saw Chandra. These pundits are careful—very careful—never to mention Condit’s explanation. But then, who is more selective with facts than our press corps? Michael Frisby is a lawyer for the Levys:

DVORAK AND LENGEL: Frisby said that Condit, a California Democrat who represents the Levys’ home town of Modesto, has provided conflicting accounts of when he last spoke to Chandra Levy. Frisby said that Condit told Susan Levy in a meeting June 21 that he was last in touch with her daughter April 24 or 25. Two days later, law enforcement sources have said, he told police that he had last spoken to Levy on April 29…

A source representing Condit, who was familiar with the meeting between Susan Levy and Condit, said that if there seemed to be a discrepancy in the dates Condit provided about his last contact with Chandra Levy, it was because Condit was referring to the most recent time he spoke to Levy in person, not by telephone. But Frisby said Condit was asked about the last time he either saw or spoke to Levy.

By the way, this accusation is the result of Condit’s June 21 meeting with the Levys. Can you guess why he doesn’t want to talk with them further? Ann Rule can’t figure it out at all—but then, she writes true books.

The occasional update (7/12/01)

At long last, a real chance to serve: We’ve said for year that Maureen Dowd is the soul of a vacuous press corps. But listen to this latest gem:

DOWD: This is not merely a scintillating tabloid story. This is the stuff of great drama and novels and journalism through the ages. It’s just as legitimate as covering the patients’ bill of rights or campaign finance, maybe more so, because here the press has a crucial role in forcing out the truth.

Here the press has a crucial role? In this story—but not in those others? It was simply delish that Dowd penned this lulu on the same day that her long-ignored colleague, Paul Krugman, wrote his latest on the Bush budget problems. Krugman has tried, for the past year, to "force out the truth" on some important budget topics. But Dowd was busy popping her bon-bons, glomming over "true books" by Rule, keeping our discourse as dumb as possible and ignoring All Topics That Matter. In fact, the press corps has "a crucial role in forcing out the truth" on a wide range of Washington topics. But if you’ve followed Dowd, you surely know this: Dowd will only "force out the truth" in stories that involve steamy sex.