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16 July 2001

Our current howler (part IV): Will do and say anything to spin

Synopsis: Pandering pundits will do and say anything to tell you the story they like. (Featured pundits: Juan Williams, Chris Matthews)

Commentary by Cliff Van Zandt, Chris Matthews
Hardball, MSNBC, 7/12/01

Commentary by Juan Williams
Fox News Sunday, Fox News Channel, 7/15/01

Just how far with pundits go to tell you the stories they like? It’s now perfectly clear that our leading pundits are willing to do and say anything. Consider, for example, a clown-like exchange that occurred on Thursday night’s Hardball. The program’s fast-talking, excitable host was concocting a spin that he likes. His guest was "former FBI profiler Clint Van Zandt," who was "looking at this case as a professional." And Cliff Van Zandt knew just what to do. He offered up a bit of spin which he knew that our pundits now like:

VAN ZANDT: What challenges me in this, Chris, is that the last thing we know about [Chandra Levy] is she walks out of her apartment, her bags are mostly packed, her purse is there, her cell phone is there. She’s got her keys in her hand. The only reason a woman would walk out like that is that she’s either taking the trash out and coming right back or she’s going out to meet someone who she trusts enough that she doesn’t need money, she doesn’t need ID, she doesn’t need a cell phone. She’s going to run out, meet this person that she trusts, and she’s planning on coming right back and didn’t do it.

But just because Levy left the house without her purse, does that mean that she left without money? As would be obvious to anyone with an IQ above 11, she might have gone out for a quart of milk with twenty bucks stuck in her pocket. But for reasons that we’ll soon make clear, pundits love the "no money" theory. And just how dumb will Van Zandt pretend to be to tell his host the story he likes? Within moments—and no, we’re not making this up—the FBI profiler said this:

VAN ZANDT: [Y]ou know, if you take any young woman in that area, my wife or anybody else, for example, when they walk out of their house, they’re going to have a few bucks, they’re going to have a driver’s license—


VAN ZANDT: —they’re going to have a cell phone. These are the tools of the trade that a young woman in that area would carry. For her to have enough trust to walk out on—of her own volition, to run out and get a sandwich and come back, let’s say, or to go out and meet someone, that’s what is very interesting me. What could promote her to leave without the normal things that a woman would carry, with the complete trust that she wouldn’t need money, she wouldn’t need a cell phone and that she would be right back to her apartment?

Hay-yo! Hay-yo, everybody! Our question: Where was Levy going "to run out and get a sandwich" where she "wouldn’t need money?" Clearly, Van Zandt isn’t yet a skillful dissembler—he contradicts himself within this one soundbite. But unless he’s the dumbest person on earth, he is dissembling here for all that he’s worth, playing dumb to establish a spin-point that he knows his host very much likes.

And why do our pundits just love this idea—this idea that Levy left the house without money? They love it because they want to make Gary Condit the killer, and the story works better if she left with no dough. Let a more skillful dissembler entertain you:

CHRIS MATTHEWS: If it was someone who called her up and said, "Meet me outside or meet me at the nearest Starbucks. I’ll buy you a cup of coffee." Or, "I want to talk to you, because somebody told me to talk to you"—


MATTHEWS: —isn’t that the interesting lead possibility here?

Matthews wants you to think that Levy went off with Condit (or his agent). So he pretends something that is plainly untrue—he pretends that we know that she left without money. Helpers like Van Zandt are willing to play the fool in order to make the tale work.

What exactly should free people do when such shameless dissemblers run their public discourse? Maybe Van Zandt really is a bit slow; but Hardball’s host is a very bright man; there’s no chance no this earth that Hardball’s slick host can’t make out this obvious point. In this exchange, Matthews commits two disgraceful offenses—he spins his audience, and he tries to lynch Condit. Matthews—who almost got journalist Cody Shearer killed, and who then started in the next week on Wen Ho Lee (links below)—is now conjuring silly tales of free sandwiches in D.C. in the effort to lynch his next mark.

What should free people do about dissemblers like Matthews? We’re not sure, but on yesterday morning’s Fox News Sunday, Juan Williams spun the point more disgracefully in questioning DC assistant police chief Terrance Gainer. It has long been clear that there is nothing on earth the shameless Williams won’t do or say. But try to believe that any human could say something as stupid—or disgraceful—as this:

WILLIAMS: Chief, what do you take away from the fact that Chandra Levy had nothing but her keys on her when she disappeared? I’ve read where one columnist suggests there are only two places a woman doesn’t take her purse, and that would be to the gym or on a motorcycle. And we know that congressman Condit has a motorcycle.

Before you began to study this press corps, could you even have imagined that a human being could make such a shameless remark? Luckily, Chief Gainer isn’t a Washington pundit, and therefore doesn’t engage in balls-out dissembling. He shot down Williams’ imbecile premise. "I happen to have an 18-year-old daughter and a 24-year-old daughter," Gainer said, "and I see them leaving the house a lot, much to my chagrin, with only keys or only a few bucks in their pocket…It’s not unusual, I don’t think, for the early twenties, late teens not to be carrying stuff around like we do." By the way, does Condit have a motorcycle in D.C.? We don’t know, and neither do you. But don’t worry—Williams doesn’t know either.

There’s only one word to say about Gainer’s point. That one word, of course, would be: "Duh." But what do we say about a person like Williams—and about the executives and hosts at Fox News Channel who keep the trashy dissembler on the air? It isn’t just that Williams was making an imbecile’s point—a point that made no factual sense. He was also putting himself at the head of a lynch mob—spinning and dissembling freely to suggest that Gary Condit committed murder.

Why does Fox keep this disgraceful man on the air? Roger Ailes? Tony Snow? Why do you tolerate conduct like this? And what exactly should free people do, when their public discourse is in hands such as Williams’?

Visit our incomparable archives: Life at the head of a dissembling lynch mob is nothing new for the reckless Matthews. In May 1999, he almost got journalist Cody Shearer killed. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/20/99 and 5/21/99. He started in with wild misstatements about Wen Ho Lee the next week.


The occasional update (7/16/01)

How to change a story: It’s a terrible thing to change your story. Unless, of course, you’re one of the Good Guys, in which case you can change it as much as you like. Billy Martin is the Levys’ lawyer; therefore, he is one of the press corps’ Good Guys. Yesterday, he did Meet the Press:

TIM RUSSERT: A lot of discussion as to whether or not Chandra Levy was pregnant. What can you tell us?

MARTIN: I can tell you that that is really—that’s something that we’re looking into. As part of our investigation, we’re looking into all of her past medical records and the fact that if she was pregnant, what that would mean. But we do not yet have a final answer on that.

Huh! Because this is what Martin said five days earlier, on the CBS Early Show:

JANE CLAYSON: Let me ask you about reports that Chandra told friends that she had a medical appointment just before she disappeared. Does her family consider the possibility, Mr. Martin, that she was pregnant?

MARTIN: Actually, as the investigators looking into this, we’ve looked into all possibilities including all of her health and medical records and not—we don’t want, in any way, to jeopardize the investigation that the authorities are conducting, and I don’t think we want to answer that, but we do know the answer.

CLAYSON: You do know the answer?

MARTIN: We do know the answer.

"Do you believe the police know the answer to that question?" Clayson asked. "I believe they do," Martin said, "and if they do not, we gladly will provide that answer to them."

Martin’s exciting exchange with Clayson provoked lots of rumor and speculation ("a lot of discussion," Russert said). Why did Martin change his story on Meet the Press? You aren’t going to find that out, of course, because the hapless Russert didn’t ask him. Instead, Martin made new suggestive statements which Russert, knowing his role, purchased wholesale. These new statements will provoke lots of rumor and speculation. And the credulous Russert will be right there, pushing the press corps’ preferred story forward until the tale changes again.

By the way, one silly story can now be discarded. That was the clown-like tale peddled to Paula Zahn by Anne Marie Smith’s kooky counselor, Jim Robinson (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/10/01). As you’ll recall, Robinson told the credulous Zahn that poor, misused Smith had "feared for her life" when she discovered neckties tied to Condit’s bed and a bottle of massage oil in his bathroom. This could only have happened in March, the last time that Smith saw Condit. But Smith made clear on Friday night’s Larry King Live that she was still dating Condit in May:

KING: So, when this erupted, when the story broke about Chandra Levy—did you ever know about Chandra Levy?

SMITH: I never knew about her.

KING: Never knew her name?

SMITH: Never knew anything.

KING: Were you still seeing him up to that point?


KING: Oh, so, you were still having a relationship?

SMITH: We were still talking, you know. I hadn’t actually seen him since March, end of March, but we were still talking to each other, and he was trying to work it out so that we could get together.

Weird, eh—from someone so "terrified" by the massage oil? According to Smith, Condit told her on May 5 or 6 that he "might have to disappear for a while." Her reaction? "A week later, I had a trip to D.C., and it was—I called him, I waited for like a week, and then finally called him. And I was very concerned about him. I didn’t know any of this [about Chandra Levy], we hadn’t heard about any of it on the West Coast yet. And I called him and said, you know, I’m going to be in D.C., let’s get together, let’s have dinner."

This was several months after Smith "feared for her life" because of the ties and that frightening oil. In short, as should have been perfectly obvious at the time, Smith’s batty barrister was dissembling wildly when he told his crackpot tale to Zahn. But Zahn now earns her pay as a sleazeball. She did her job—she pretended not to notice (and had Robinson back for more two nights later). And Robinson’s crackpot tale did its job—it produced lots of rumor and speculation, our press corps’ prized stock in trade.

Commentary by Tim Russert, Billy Martin
Meet the Press, NBC, 7/15/01

Commentary by Jane Clayson, Billy Martin
The Early Show, CBS, 7/10/01

Commentary by Larry King, Anne Marie Smith
Larry King Live, CNN, 7/13/01