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Caveat lector

28 August 2001

Our current howler (part II): The Martin rules

Synopsis: Martin lied in Russert’s face. We’re waiting for Tim to address it.

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

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

Commentary by Jim Robinson, Roger Cossack
Burden of Proof, CNN, 7/16/01

How does cable construct its fables? Consider, if you will, Billy Martin. On July 10, the Levys’ lawyer appeared on the CBS Early Show. And he must have been having a very good day, because he even said something that was accurate:

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."

As we now seem to know from Judy Bachrach’s reporting, what Martin said to Clayson was true; the family did know whether Chandra was pregnant. As it turns out, the family knew that she wasn’t pregnant; Mrs. Levy has told Bachrach that Chandra had her period in mid-April, a few weeks before she disappeared (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/27/01). If Martin had simply said so to Clayson, he could have ended the speculation that was running wild all over cable. At any rate, he did Meet the Press five days later, and he was in a more typical mode:

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.

If Bachrach’s reporting is accurate, Martin’s answer that day wasn’t true. But the pregnancy tale was playing well—cable loved the thrilling story—and Martin apparently lied to Russert, letting cable’s summer fun roll along.

Readers will note an intriguing part of Martin’s twin performances. What he said to Russert on July 15 contradicted what he’d said five days earlier; he’d told Clayson that the family did know the answer, and now he told Russert they didn’t. How did Martin explain his flip-flop? To state the obvious, he didn’t have to—Russert knew enough not to ask him why he had changed his story. Martin, you see, is the Levys’ lawyer, and on cable TV (and on Meet the Press), the current rules of the road are quite clear. Anything stated by the Levys will be taken on face, as pure gospel. Their lawyer can change his story—can lie in Tim’s face—and no one will say one word about it. Russert, once a newsman, is now a mere shill, pushing hard for the corps’ favored side.

So there is the first of the Martin Rules—Billy Martin can say what he pleases. He can change his story within five days, and no one will say "Boo" about it. And to understand the importance of this, you must grasp the role which the pregnancy tale has played in the overall story. All over cable, the crackpots were clucking; Gary Condit had killed Chandra Levy because she was preggers and their affair would come out. It was suggested on cable night after night; Martin—and the Levys—knew it was false. Condit was being accused of murder on a basis Martin knew to be false, and Martin lied in Russert’s face, keeping the rumor mill going. And by the way, for a taste of the commentary which Martin’s lying sustained, here is Anne Marie Smith’s lawyer from the deep, Jim Robinson, in a sadly typical outing. Robinson appeared on Burden of Proof on July 16, the day after Martin lied in Tim’s face:

ROBINSON: Interesting question—if [Chandra] shows up dead and she’s pregnant, DNA by—his baby, did he have a motive to whack her? I don’t know.

ROGER COSSACK: Well, right, but that hasn’t happened yet.

ROBINSON: You’ve got to look at it, you know?

COSSACK: Well, you have to look at it, but it hasn’t happened yet

Of course, we didn’t "have to look at it" at all; Martin knew all this speculation was false, but he lied to keep it all going. And any viewer of cable will know that this speculation has been out here every night for six weeks. If Bachrach’s reporting is accurate, Martin allowed Loopy Jim to proceed on the morning he lied to Tim Russert.

So Tim, what you gonna do now? You’re upset by the notion that Condit ain’t truthful. You bellow when other folks lead us astray. Just how soon will you ask Billy Martin why he withheld the truth all these weeks? Or is it now OK to lie in your face—if it keep cable potboilers going?

Wednesday: On that very same Meet the Press, Martin launched the "no-ID rule" story.

Big pimpin’: How hard will Russert push Approved Stories? In the aftermath of the Condit-Chung meeting, cable spinners ran to say that Condit had called Mrs. Levy a liar. The claim, of course, was plainly false—Condit said that she "misunderstood" their phone call—but it helped make Condit sound like an *ss, and the pundits all ran off to say it. On Sunday morning—three days later—Big Tim was pushin’ the pleasing tale, too. Here’s what Abbe Lowell, Condit’s lawyer, said about that phone conversation:

LOWELL: It is possible that two people have misunderstandings in a conversation. I wasn’t there, Tim. It’s a while ago. The congressman was upset. Mrs. Levy was upset. I don’t know if anybody should trust the congressman’s perfect memory on this or the Levys’, but I do know that the congressman is not a cruel man. He would have not gone out of his way to lie to Mrs. Levy. And if Mrs. Levy has a memory that that was the exchange, then that’s her memory. But I do believe that there was more to that conversation than simply that question.

And I think, more importantly, I mean, let’s say it happened just the way Mrs. Levy says it does. This was a man who was being confronted by the mother of somebody who was, number one, missing, and number two, he had a very close relationship with. I think people could forgive him that he didn’t know exactly the right way to answer that question. But you know what? It’s a moment in history; it’s gone. We’ll never know exactly what happened, and we’re all sorry that there was this misunderstanding. And if Mrs. Levy heard it one way or if Mr. Condit spoke it the wrong way, he apologizes.

Plainly, Lowell didn’t say Mrs. Levy was lying. But Russert serves corrupt cable gods. Incredibly, this is what he said later on, restating what Lowell had said:

RUSSERT: Why does the congressman want to dance on the head of a pin? Why not get credibility by saying, "OK. I did some bad things. I’m sorry for it. But please believe me on the big issue I wasn’t part of her disappearance?" By denying, denying, denying—so far this morning Chandra Levy’s mother is lying. Chandra L—

"Stop there," Lowell interjected. "That’s so unfair, Tim. That’s wrong. That’s wrong. That’s so wrong. That’s wrong." And of course, it was unfair and grossly wrong. "Or mistaken," Russert now quickly said. But look what happened when Lowell tried to correct the erroneous record:

RUSSERT: Or mistaken. Joleen and Anne Marie Smith are lying. Everyone is lying.

LOWELL: That’s unfair. That’s unfair. I didn’t say any of the above. I didn’t say any of the above. That’s a cheap shot.

RUSSERT: They’re all wrong and Congressman Condit’s right.

LOWELL: It’s a cheap shot.

RUSSERT: How can it be?

LOWELL: I’m going to try again, Tim.

RUSSERT: These are Congressman Condit’s words. Let me show you—

LOWELL: If you want me to try again, I’ll try again. Otherwise, if you want to kind of yell at me, then go ahead.

RUSSERT: I’m not yelling. We’re having a conversation.

LOWELL: I understand, but if you want to sit—

RUSSERT: I’m trying to elicit information. Let me show you what Anne Marie said specifically.

LOWELL: OK. You know, all the media—

RUSSERT: "He called me"—

LOWELL: —sort of talks, and doesn’t let either Congressman Condit or us respond.

RUSSERT: Mr. Lowell, you’ve had more than enough time to—

LOWELL: Not now. Not now.

RUSSERT: I’m trying to get an honest answer.

"Trying to get an honest answer!" Russert never did let Lowell respond to his baldly inaccurate characterization. Plainly, Lowell had not said Mrs. Levy is lying. But Russert bows to cable gods. And on cable, the gods loved his false story.


The Daily update (8/28/01)

How we reason on cable: Did Condit lie to Mrs. Levy? At THE HOWLER, we don’t have a clue. To state the obvious, people misunderstand one another all the time; it may well be that Condit’s account of their phone conversation is more accurate than Mrs. Levy’s. On the other hand, people also lie all the time; it may well be that Condit lied, if the question really was clearly asked. It’s hard to know just how a third party is supposed to know whose account is correct. Would you bet your life on who was right? If so, then you ain’t all that smart.

Which brings us back to our cable press corps, inventing their pleasing new novel. In their tale, the Levys are always right, so it’s now a requisite part of the story—Mrs. Levy is surely right about what was said during that phone call. There’s no chance that she could be wrong. Just get a load of Marcia Clark, earning her guild card on The Edge Friday evening. Paula Zahn played tape of Condit saying that Mrs. Levy misunderstood. Then she played tape of the outraged Martin saying that Condit was lying:

ZAHN: Is there any way, given what Billy Martin said…that there could have been a misunderstanding about what Gary Condit said to Mrs. Levy?

"Is there any way" that there could have been a misunderstanding? Of course there could have been a misunderstanding! But on cable, they bow to cruel gods. Marcia Clark knew how to serve them:

ZAHN: Is there any way, given what Billy Martin said…that there could have been a misunderstanding about what Gary Condit had said to Mrs. Levy?

CLARK: No. No! Absolutely not! I think this is abs—You know, Paula, I don’t know how, how to express myself when it comes to this interview. He was awful in what he said, he was awful in what he didn’t say, he was awful in the way he said it…This was just awful. And it was sickening and reprehensible of him to say what I believe to be an outright lie, that somehow Mrs. Levy or Mr. Levy misunderstood what he said, and misconstrued what he said. That was disgusting!! Disgusting!!

As a good cable pundit should, Clark waved her arms in the air and she shouted. And now both pundits expressed their certainty about a conversation which neither one heard:

ZAHN (continuing directly): Well, didn’t he basically say she was really confused, she brought up a bunch of names of other people Chandra might have [inaudible] and other Congress people and blah blah blah—

CLARK: Yeah, blah blah blah. Exactly, Paula! I couldn’t have put it better. Yeah, that’s all it is. This was garbage!!

Readers, did Mrs. Levy mention Condit only, or did she mention other people too? To state the obvious, there is no way on earth that Clark and Zahn can possibly know. But our cable pundits are writing a novel. And they decide which facts fit the tale, discarding the ones they don’t care for.

By the way, here’s a passage from Leiby and Dvorak’s portrait of the Levys. You’ll never see this passage again, for reasons which will be all too clear:

LEIBY AND DVORAK: Susan Barbara Katz met Robert Lee Levy at Ohio State during the late ’60s…Sue struggled with a learning disability to become an art teacher. She says she suffers from auditory dyslexia: Sometimes words and conversations get mixed up in her mind. This appears to contribute to her disjointed manner of speaking. She flits from topic to topic, her ideas connecting at right angles instead of in straight lines.

Uh-oh! The writers clearly wandered off message when they let that factoid appear in their text. Did Mrs. Levy misunderstand Condit? We don’t have the slightest idea. And neither do our shouting pundits. But it’s cable; Clark and Zahn don’t much care.

Commentary by Paula Zahn, Marcia Clark
The Edge,
Fox News Channel, 8/24/01

The Wait Of Their Lives
Richard Leiby and Petula Dvorak, The Washington Post, 8/26/01