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23 July 2001

Our current howler: Train wreck

Synopsis: When Barbara Olson studied Amtrak, all (rail)roads led straight back to sex.

Commentary by Barbara Olson, Larry King, Nancy Grace
Larry King Live, CNN, 7/20/01

Commentary by Susan Levy
The Today Show, NBC, 5/17/01

Missing Intern’s Family Asks Condit for Help
Petula Dvorak and Allan Lengel, The Washington Post, 6/15/01

Where do they find them? Where in the world do they find human beings as disordered as Larry King’s pundits? On Friday, the police released a list of websites which Chandra Levy visited on May 1. "Barbara Olson," King asked Friday night, "do we learn anything from the web sites released today?" And when Olson responded, we got a real treat. We saw the way a "former prosecutor" can tear a tough case right apart:

OLSON: Well, it’s interesting. I was looking—you know, they said her travel plans. I thought that was interesting. Southwest Airlines, seems like they do fly not into San Francisco but Oakland. And then I looked at Amtrak. I thought, well, she wouldn’t be going from Washington to Modesto on Amtrak. But if you flew into Oakland, you could take a train down.

KING: Yes.

OLSON: The problem is, that doesn’t seem like the kind of travel she would take to go back home to see her parents. She would fly closer in. So I don’t know what other travel sites she was looking at. I’m sure they see—they know the exact location for Amtrak that she was looking at. Was it to meet someone, to see someone?

Amazing, isn’t it? Let’s examine the way Olson’s mind works.

Pursuit of the facts

A former prosecutor, Olson is strangely unskilled when it comes to pursuit of simple facts. In this instance, she’s done some nosing around about Southwest Airlines. "Southwest Airlines," she reports to King, "seems like they do fly not into San Francisco but Oakland." We couldn’t help chuckling at Olson’s construction. It "seems" that Southwest goes into Oakland? She makes it sound like the airline’s operations are some sort of closely-held corporate secret. You have to check with shadowy sources, and even then you’re not sure of the facts.

In reality, Southwest Airlines now publishes "schedules," which it hands out at airports and has placed on the web. As it turns out, Southwest does indeed fly into Oakland, as Olson has heard from her unnamed sources. But it also flies into Sacramento—a straight shot up Route 5 from Modesto (see road maps, published by Rand McNally)—and Southwest flies into San Jose, the closest site to Levy’s home.

Life on the streets

Olson is weak at pursuit of the facts, but she also seems to lack those key street smarts. To Olson, Southwest Airlines just doesn’t smell right. "That doesn’t seem like the kind of travel she would take to go back home to see her parents," Olson says. "She would fly closer in." Surely, no one familiar with life on this planet will need to be told just how stupid this is. In today’s world, people go ten states out of their way to take advantage of Southwest’s fares. Apparently, Olson has been lounging on corporate jets for so long she doesn’t know how the great unwashed do it. King might as well revive Piltdown Man and let him discuss Levy’s travel strategies.

Background research

Far more striking is Olson’s refusal to do any homework on this case. Indeed, she seems to have open contempt for her responsibilities as a national commentator. "I looked at Amtrak," she reports to King. "I thought, well, she wouldn’t be going from Washington to Modesto on Amtrak." She wouldn’t? Is there anything Olson does know about this case? Here was Susan Levy, Chandra’s mother, on the May 17 Today show:

SUSAN LEVY: She was talking about possibly taking an Amtrak train across the United States, as she likes to train travel.

Oops! But then, the same information also appeared in the June 15 Washington Post:

DVORAK AND LENGEL: Chandra canceled her membership at the Washington Sports Club on Connecticut Avenue NW on April 30. At some point, she e-mailed super-saver airfares to her mother. She also told Susan Levy that she might take the train home.

Doh! If Olson had made the simplest effort, she would have known these basic facts. In case you’re wondering, by the way, there’s an Amtrak station right in Modesto. You take the "California Zephyr" from Chicago to Martinez, CA, and connect for Modesto two hours later. Following Southwest Airlines’ lead, Amtrak releases this info.

So here’s our question: Do you know anyone—anyone at all—who knows less about her daily business than Olson knows about this case? Could normal people function like this? For example, what would happen to a real estate agent who knew next to nothing about her listings, and didn’t have the slightest idea how she might find out? A normal person couldn’t survive in Olson’s total know-nothing state.

But Olson isn’t a normal person—she’s an important national figure, offering nightly commentary on one of our most influential TV shows. And, despite her ignorance of basic facts, she constantly insinuates that a public figure has actually committed a murder! It’s hard to believe that such repulsive conduct would be tolerated for a minute in any other sector. Why in the world does Larry King keep pundits like this on his show?

Why she’s there

Clearly, there is absolutely no due diligence required of Larry King’s guests. They aren’t required to know basic facts; and they aren’t required to make accurate statements. (They are required to wring their hands, of course, and swear this is all about Chandra.)

But there’s one other thing they’re expected to do—they’re expected to rub their thighs each night, and bring the thrilling tale back to sex. And so Barbara Olson’s laughable "research" did have an obvious method. Rejecting the notion that Levy would go home by train, Olson took the train where she wanted to go. She quickly concocted a thrilling speculation: Was Levy considering Amtrak "to meet someone, to see someone?" We’ll say out loud what Olson implied: Chandra Levy was checking out Amtrak to meet Gary Condit and fuck. (Olson, of course, also spent time complaining that Condit has dragged Chandra through the mud.)

Read back through Olson’s risible comments on what those travel sites meant. Nowhere else are people allowed to be so incompetent in public. But, irresponsible and hapless though the pundit may be, there were methods to her surface dysfunction. As a partisan, she wants to hang the Democrat Condit (and keep the president out of the news). As a pundit, she wants to bring the tale back to sex. As such, she is willing to say whatever it takes to make all (rail)roads lead to sex. And Larry King allows this conduct—indeed, his producers now seek it.

Yep. Barbara Olson’s repellent conduct was on display again Friday night. But so, of course, was the new tabloid soul of Larry King’s irresponsible program.

Tomorrow: What did Condit tell the police? The pundits know what they can’t mention.


The occasional update (7/23/01)

Not so amazin’: Nancy Grace don’t reed much neeither. On Friday night, King mentioned a Newsweek report about Condit’s May 1 schedule. Predictably, King was wrong on his basic facts; the report to which he referred was already posted on Newsweek’s website:

KING: Newsweek magazine will report on Monday, panel, that Condit on May 1, the day in question, had a private meeting with Dick Cheney on Capitol Hill to discuss the California energy crisis. The meeting began at 12:30, lasted for 20 to 25 minutes. And then Newsweek reports that Condit went back to his office and stayed there until 5 p.m. doing office work. Does that, Nancy, give him an alibi?

GRACE: Absolutely not. We know she logged off her computer around 1:00. That was the last that was seen or heard of her.

KING: But he’s working till 5 o’clock.

GRACE: Till 5 o’clock. And then what?

KING: Well, we don’t know.

GRACE: Then we don’t know. I’d like to know.

Grace spends so much time accusing Condit of murder that she doesn’t keep up with her reading. As she spoke, the full timetable was on Newsweek’s website. Among other things, the Isikoff/Hosenball report said this: "Around 5 p.m., Condit left his office and went to a doctor’s appointment, returning to Capitol Hill sometime after 6 p.m. to vote twice on the House floor on resolutions involving autism and supporting National Charter Schools Week." Those, of course, are recorded votes. By the way, nothing kept Grace and her Court TV staff from finding that out on their own. As she endlessly intones on King’s show, she’s had [insert number] days now to do it.

"Well, we don’t know," the hapless King said. That’s so true. Now our question: "Why not?"