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23 September 1999

Our current howler (part IV): Facts are boring

Synopsis: The press corps still hasn’t reported the simplest facts about the clemency matter.

Liberation Movement
Michelle Cottle, The New Republic, 10/4/99

Commentary by Mara Liasson
Special Report, Fox News Channel, 9/21/99

Commentary by Robert Novak
Crossfire, CNN, 9/18/99

Commentary by Robert Novak
Crossfire, CNN, 9/11/99

FALN brought bloody battle into American streets
Tom Squitieri, USA Today, 9/21/99

Yep. There's no end to the fun when the pundits get busy trying to figure out motive. In the case of the FALN clemency deal, you have a whole range of options to ponder. You can imagine that President Clinton was trying to help out his wife—or that he was actually trying to mess the gal up (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/22/99). And the best part of the whole shebang? There's no way to know if anyone's right! The silly chatter goes on without end. It's just perfect for cable news programming.

We don't intend to lump Michelle Cottle in with this mess, but her current article in the New Republic shows the problem with motive-churning. Cottle poses her question in her opening sentence:

COTTLE: Was Bill Clinton's offer of clemency to 16 convicted Puerto Rican terrorists a shameless attempt to curry favor with the 1.3 million Puerto Ricans of New York City, where wife Hillary is expected to run for Senate next year?

Cottle is after Bill's motive. "[I]t appears that Hillary's political ambitions were not crucial to the president's decision," she writes, and she lists evidence supporting that conclusion. But "any conclusion about the truth behind this episode must remain tentative," she writes early on, and she proves the point with a presentation near the end of her article. She refers to former president Jimmy Carter and White House counsel Charles Ruff, both of whom favored clemency:

COTTLE: Carter's lobbying may have made a difference. The president also might have been swayed by Ruff—"a lawyer's lawyer," as a former White House insider describes him, whose numb political fingerprints and highly legalistic view of the world might have predisposed him to accept the argument that the prisoners had been unduly punished...Moreover, Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder reportedly supported clemency, a fact likely reflected in the case review he sent to the counsel's office, which apparently muted the fact that all federal law enforcement agencies had reflected against clemency.

Do we detect a lack of certainty here? We're not only speculating on Clinton's motives—we're now guessing about Ruff's inner states as well, an amusement the pundits happily pursued on the cable news channels this week:

LIASSON: Chuck Ruff, who is known as being kind of a secretive guy who keeps things to himself...he said, "Look. I didn't do this—if this was meant to help Hillary politically, boy did it have the opposite effect. That wasn't what I was trying to do." I tend to believe Chuck Ruff.

Morton Kondracke tended to believe Ruff too. But three night earlier, Robert Novak thought otherwise, saying he considers Ruff "a politician." There's simply no way to know what's true when the scribes start to plumb mental states.

But for all that, the scribes just love motive. And this love affair has never been so clear as in the past month's FALN debate. As the scribes have argued long and hard about why the president did what he did, they have made no effort to report basic facts about the president's decision. What exactly were the crimes of which the prisoners were convicted? How did their sentences compare to those of others similarly convicted? To this day, we haven't seen a single report that has really tried to answer these questions. These simple facts would have helped a citizen evaluate the wisdom of Clinton's decision. Repeatedly, these basic facts have been pushed aside to make room for the motive debate.

Can it really be true that such basic facts have not been suitably reported? Writing in Tuesday's USA Today, Tom Squitieri offered the most detailed effort we've seen in this area to date. But even Squitieri, describing the prisoners' crimes, leaves a great deal unexplained. He lists a history of each prisoner. Here is the start of his list:

Edwin Cortes. Born 1955. Sentenced in October 1985 to 35 years for seditious conspiracy, including planning to bomb military training centers. Elizam Escobar. Born 1948. Sentenced in February 1981 to 60 years for seditious conspiracy and firearms violations. Ricardo Jiminez. Born 1956. Sentenced in February 1981 to 90 years for seditious conspiracy and firearms violations.

In general, the descriptions are similarly sketchy, with references to "seditious conspiracy." But the phrase is generally unfamiliar to us at THE HOWLER, and a bit difficult for us to evaluate. What sorts of acts made up the "seditious conspiracy" of which Escobar and Jiminez were convicted, for example? Were they also convicted of planning to bomb a training center? Squitieri's article is an admirable first step to present basic information about these cases. But it is amazing to think that, six weeks into this story, this is the press corps' best effort to spell out these basic matters. And there is no attempt made in this article at all to evaluate the length of the prisoners' sentences. Those who support clemency have claimed all along that the sentences here were disproportionate. We have not yet seen any serious effort to evaluate this seminal matter. Meanwhile, various plainly false factual claims have been standard in the endless debate. For example, here's Novak on the previous Crossfire:

NOVAK (9/11): First of all, when they put these people in the slammer, these acts of violence ended. That's number one.

The claim has been made again and again. But the simplest look at Squitieri's listing shows that most of these individuals were sentenced in 1981, before a 1982 bombing which has been widely discussed in the past month.

Was there a reasonable case for granting clemency? Some have said there was. (Michael Kelly, in the Washington Post, September 1: "A legitimate case could be made for commutation.") But here at THE HOWLER, we don't know if that's true, because we haven't yet seen the facts explored. We haven't seen an explanation of what these people did. We haven't seen any effort to evaluate the lengths of their sentences. We haven't seen anyone try to interview Jimmy Carter, to hear his reasons for supporting the deal. We haven't seen any real effort to lay out the facts of Cardinal O'Connor's approach to this matter.

What we have seen is endless speculation, centering on the president's motives. We can't help thinking that, in our current press culture, endless speculation is fun. And there's one other thought we can't avoid. To today's scribes, the facts may be boring.


Tomorrow! One day only: When 60 Minutes explored a middle-school program, it told a familiar old tale.