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19 July 2001

Our current howler (part III): Tailgunner’s spawn

Synopsis: The loathsome ghost of Tailgunner Joe was back last night with Paula.

Commentary by Paula Zahn, Jim Robinson, Terry Lenzner
The Edge, Fox News Channel, 7/18/01

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

Commentary by Bill Press, Tucker Carlson, Lisa DePaulo
Crossfire, CNN, 7/18/01

An array of loathsome historical types were on display last night on cable. On The Edge, Paula Zahn had finished her romp in the marsh (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/18/01). Instead, Zahn asked Jim Robinson, Anne Marie Smith’s lawyer, to play Tailgunner Joe once again. One question seemed to promise High Excitement:

ZAHN: All right, Mr. Robinson, before we take a short break here, your client has said that she has told federal investigators everything she knows, but if there were some things that were shared publicly, it would blow the roof open on this case. Can you explain to us what that means tonight?

Zahn’s question involved an Invented Fact—one of the staples of cable TV’s treatment of Chandra and Condit. Did Anne Marie Smith ever say that if certain things were shared publicly, "it would blow the roof open on this case?" In last Friday’s hour-long appearance on Larry King Live, Smith said nothing that dimly resembled that statement; in fact, she said, in response to a caller’s question, that "it’s been one of my theories…that someone is trying to set [Condit] up." In reality, it’s been Robinson, Smith’s repulsive lawyer, who has gone on TV and made vast insinuations—almost always when Smith isn’t present. Anyone who has followed this case will have noted one of its striking aspects—the way Robinson’s statements bear little relation to the things that his client has said. At any rate, given Zahn’s leading question, the tailgunner knew where to take it:

ROBINSON (continuing directly): In Mr. Condit’s apartment, Anne Marie was not allowed to go into a particular closet. She had to use the hall closet. She couldn’t go into his closet in the bedroom. And she was forbidden from doing that. And apparently, they found very interesting things in that closet, along with the—with the other DNA evidence all over the apartment.

Before we look at the substance of this comment, note that Robinson is a compulsive dissembler. "With the other DNA evidence all over the apartment?" No one has said a word about any such evidence coming out of the search of Condit’s apartment. And—as has been widely noted—if there were "DNA evidence" in Condit’s apartment, it would likely have no significance whatever, since Condit has acknowledged Levy’s presence in his apartment. But Robinson rarely opens his mouth without serving up a slimy suggestion. And Zahn, of course, sits silently by, as well-paid hosts now know to do.

But that is a look at Robinson’s character; instead, let’s examine his comment. According to Robinson, police "found very interesting things in that closet." Cynthia Alksne asked, "Like what?" And, as has happened all throughout human history, the tailgunner plagued us again:

ROBINSON: I really don’t want to say. I basically have this from talking to other reporters, and they’ve told me what they believe that they had found.

Incredible, isn’t it? After making a vast insinuation, Robinson refuses to say what he’s talking about. And he also makes a striking admission; his statement is based on what he has heard from unnamed reporters—from what they "believe" the police found in the closet. Loathsome chapters of American history were dredged up by the counselor’s refusal to comment. But incredibly, Zahn went ahead and asked Terry Lenzner what Robinson’s non-statement meant!

ZAHN (continuing directly): All right, Terry, what would that mean in the investigation, that the guy had a lot of sex? Or does it mean something else?

Follow his now: Robinson says "they found very interesting things in that closet." He refuses to say what those things were. So Zahn asks, with no elaboration, if that means that Condit had a lot of sex! And—as would be incredible anywhere except on The Edge—Lenzer explained what you could "obviously" infer from Robinson’s unexplained comment:

LENZNER (continuing directly): Well, obviously, you could infer from that that—and look at the issue of whether or not he was engaged in more physical domination type of activities that could have resulted in some sort of accident to the people or persons that he was engaged with. And that would be one possible theory that I’m sure the police must be exploring, if that’s the kind of equipment that they found in his apartment.

"If that’s the kind of equipment they found?" Robinson never said a word about what they found. And then, just to complete the comical air, here’s what Zahn said as she went to the creepy, crawly music with which her disordered program now signals breaks:

ZAHN (continuing directly): All right. But trio, of course, I can’t independently confirm that this evening, Jim, some of the things you’ve just said. And I think we need to continue to make it clear the police say tonight that Gary Condit is not a suspect, never has been, and continues not to be one tonight.

Zahn can’t confirm what Jim just said? She can’t even say what Jim just said. The Edge is now far better choreographed than the Moscow show trials were at their height. But that seems to be what Roger Ailes has ordered up for his loathsome "news" station. He’s ordered up disturbing echoes of the worst chapters in our recent life.

The case of the kooky counselor

Let’s review this bizarre exchange. Robinson says that unnamed reporters now believe that the police found "interesting things" in Condit’s closet. He refuses to say what they are. Zahn asks Lenzer what that means for the case, and Lenzer says it may mean that Condit may have had a "physical accident" while engaging in "physical domination type of activities!" Zahn then tells Robinson that she "can’t confirm" some of the things he’s just said. A normal viewer, of course, would have no idea what these people were talking about. But they would know what Zahn’s panel had just suggested. Viewers would know that Zahn’s panel had just said that Gary Condit killed Chandra Levy while having weird sex.

To say that Zahn should be fired for allowing this exchange is like saying that grass can be found near the ground. However, one can begin to deconstruct this bizarre exchange if you’ve followed this case rather closely. As HOWLER readers may recall, Robinson began raising issues of kinky sex when he appeared on The Edge on July 9 (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/10/01). At that time, he told a tale that made little sense, and subsequently seemed to be contradicted by his client; Robinson told Zahn that Smith had become "terrified" and had "feared for her life" when she found neckties tied to the posts of Condit’s bed and massage oil in Condit’s bathroom. (She had also found hairs from another woman in Condit’s bathroom.) This would have to have happened in March, the last time Smith saw Condit in D.C.—a time when Smith had never heard of Levy, and well before Levy disappeared. The notion that Smith "feared for her life" when she found these things was hard to imagine given this context; clearly, Robinson seemed to be lying, though Paula Zahn knew not to notice. But it got worse—when Smith appeared on Larry King Live just four nights later, she said that she was still dating Condit in the middle of May. How did this relate to Robinson’s claim had she had "feared for her life" back in March? Sadly, King is now the perfect tabloid host; he knew enough not to ask. (Tabloid hosts are paid not to notice when the Good Guys seem to dissemble.) But King was well aware of the "kinky sex" allegations. He raised the topic with Smith two times. The second time produced his exchange:

KING: Did you find things in his apartment—there were reports you would find things in his apartment that led you to be curious?

SMITH: I found a couple items, and I asked him—

KING: Like?

SMITH: I found some hairs, obviously women’s hairs.

KING: Not yours?

SMITH: Women’s hairs.

ROBINSON: [Putting hand on Smith’s arm] That’s about it. You want to not talk about other, other things—

Wouldn’t you know it? Right when Smith might have discussed the matters that involved contradictions, Robinson told her to stop! And when King asked why, Robinson gave a typical Jim Robinson answer:

KING (continuing directly): Those are the things that she could not talk about. Just so we explain to the viewers, why?

ROBINSON: Well, we have disclosed a lot of things to investigators, and we don’t want to put that out in the press, because of the fact that we don’t want Mr. Condit, if he is guilty of anything, to have nine months to figure out how to explain that away.

"Nine months!" This guy simply never quits—Robinson now was suggesting a pregnancy! King, however, stayed on point—and Robinson’s explanation, as always, failed to parse:

KING: You mean, some of the stuff that she pointed out to them might be part of a criminal investigation.


KING: Either with Chandra Levy or something that they could use.

ROBINSON: Yes. And since the hairs we have talked about before, some of the other things we’ve only talked to prosecutors about, and they have asked us obviously to not put that out, so they have that as evidence for a later date.

It was all extremely Top Secret!! But it wasn’t just the hairs which the two had "talked about before;" plainly, Robinson had also discussed the neckties and the very frightening massage oil. He’d done so, of course, on national TV, telling an ugly story that didn’t make sense, which his client had tacitly contradicted. If King had been a competent host, he would have asked Smith if she had really "feared for her life" back in March, the way her lawyer had publicly said in one of his many ugly accusations. But cable hosts now know when to stop. King backed off at what Robinson said. King’s next question? "Just as an offshoot," he said to Robinson, "do you think Congressman Condit is in big trouble, Chandra Levy aside?" Let’s play softball, boys and girls! Robinson began spinning again.

Jim Robinson’s statements often make no sense on face, and they often seem to contradict his client. But thanks to King’s lack of pursuit, Robinson lived to spin another day. That new day came around last night, as Zahn gave her latest repulsive performance. The ghost of Tailgunner Joe drifted by, insinuating that Gary Condit killed Chandra. Zahn and Lenzer, performing some ancient rites, knew just how to greet him.

How to tell a story: Talk’s Lisa DePaulo loves the truth—except when it may not reflect well on the Levys. Last night, DePaulo appeared on Crossfire to discuss her upcoming article in Talk. Bill Press said this in his opening:

PRESS: Talk also says that Ms. Levy’s parents knew all about her affair with Condit, in fact, told police about it, but lied to the media about it when they first came to Washington.

Instantly, DePaulo contradicted:

DEPAULO: I think [the article gives] a real good sense of what Chandra’s state of mind was vis-a-vis the relationship in her last weeks. It is a story that is much different from what Congressman Condit has reportedly told police. But can I correct something you just said? Her parents certainly did not come out and lie to the press by any means. What her parents did was tell the police everything they knew from the beginning, and they trusted the police and the FBI to do their jobs, and that Congressman Condit would step up to the plate, tell the truth, as Mrs. Levy said to me, be a man, and that didn’t happen, which is why—

Then, Tucker Carlson did what hosts today never do. He interrupted DePaulo’s spin with simple facts:

CARLSON (continuing directly): Wait a second, Lisa.


CARLSON: As far as I know, the Levys met with police around May 6. On May 14 Mrs. Levy went on Good Morning America and said to Diane Sawyer almost verbatim, I know of no boyfriend that my daughter had. Now that’s a lie.

Seeing the surprising way the game would be played, DePaulo began to back-pedal:

DEPAULO (continuing directly): OK, but I think we have to give them a break here. I think it was very well-intentioned, and I’m going to tell you there were two reasons why: One was that they were advised to not put it out there, to let the police do their job. But No. 2, you have to realize something: In the early days, the Levys really, really believed that this woman was coming home, that Chandra was coming home. You don’t want to spill someone’s deep dark secrets.

The Levys didn’t want to reveal deep dark secrets. But wait a minute—isn’t that what Condit didn’t wanted to reveal?

Here at THE HOWLER, we would not say that the Levys "lied" in those early weeks. But quite plainly, they falsely stated, for several weeks, that they knew of no relationship with Condit. Did they tell the police the truth right away? Were they instructed by the police to misstate this in public? You don’t have the slightest idea, because the compliant press corps has simply refused to discuss this part of the case. The story might make the Levys look bad, and it might make their conduct resemble Condit’s. The press corps tells you the story it likes—just as DePaulo tried to do last night. Last night, DePaulo acknowledged the truth when forced. Where else have we recently seen that?

Last night, DePaulo ran into the rarest of birds—a host who interrupted her spin with a fact. Information moved forward as a result. Zahn and King know how to avoid that.


The occasional update (7/19/01)

More how to tell a story: Howard Kurtz is groaningly wrong in this morning’s Post:

KURTZ (pgh 1): The "CBS Evening News," the only newscast in western civilization that has studiously ignored the Chandra Levy story, finally got in the game last night.

Kurtz tells a pleasing tale. Alas, he is totally wrong.

The CBS Evening News had, in fact, done six stories on Condit and Chandra before last night’s report. It did one story on Saturday, July 7; two on Sunday, July 8; one on Saturday, July 14; and two more on Sunday, July 15. These stories were done on the network’s weekend broadcasts, not on weeknights, when Dan Rather rules. But Kurtz’s recitation—which repeats pleasing spin—is simply wrong on the facts.

And is Rather’s program "the only newscast in western civilization" ignoring the Levy story? Has Kurtz ever heard of the PBS NewsHour, a little-known broadcast run by Jim Lehrer? Through last night, the NewsHour has mentioned Chandra and Condit exactly once—in a July 11 examination of the way the story is being covered by other news entities. To date, the NewsHour has done no reporting of the story itself. No reporting, boys and girls, as in "none."

In truth, a number of major entities haven’t treated this as a big story. The NewsHour hasn’t done the story at all; NPR has barely touched it. And on Sunday, Paul Gigot was asked by Cokie Roberts about the Wall Street Journal’s slender coverage. "We have not run anything on it except for, I think, maybe some wire service items," Gigot said. A recent note in Jackie Calmes’ weekly "Washington Wire" column was the Journal’s first original mention.

By the way, here’s part of what CBS reported last night:

JIM STEWART: Meanwhile, laboratory tests on a hat, a jacket and other items taken from Condit’s Washington apartment have thus far disclosed no traces of blood or other useful evidence.

How does that compare with the sleazy insinuation about "DNA evidence" which Robinson later gave to Zahn? Maybe Kurtz should get off his ass, stop repeating Fox spin, and tell truth every once in a while about where the press culture is crumbling.

CBS Finally Finds an Entree Into Intern Story
Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post, 7/19/01