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30 September 1998

Our current howler: Spin cycle soft, spin cycle hard

Synopsis: Howard Kurtz has given dueling accounts of what Kathleen Willey told Newsweek. The press corps didn’t notice either time.

Spin Cycle(hard cover)
Howard Kurtz, The Free Press, 1998

Spin Cycle(soft cover)
Howard Kurtz, Touchstone, 1998


It was because we enjoy his work so much that we were struck by the passage the first time we read it--back when the analysts all read Spin Cycle,sometime near the end of March. Occasionally we all read a book together--it’s kind of an “Oprah Book Club” thing--and the analysts were startled when they came to this passage, about what Kathleen Willey told Michael Isikoff in the summer of 1997:

KURTZ [hard cover]: [Mike] McCurry had known for weeks that Newsweek was sniffing around on yet another story about Clinton’s sex life, and this one was particularly explosive. A former White House aide, Kathleen Willey, was apparently telling the magazine that Clinton had propositioned her right there in the Oval Office, and that they had had some kind of furtive sex. [Our emphasis]

The analysts were surprised because Kurtz’s account seemed to contradict what Willey had said on Sixty Minutesin January, when Willey had told a national audience that the president had groped and assaulted her. Her accusation became a major story around the time the Lewinsky charges broke; Spin Cycle,published shortly before her Sixty Minutes appearance, now seemed to suggest that Willey had once told a different story. Indeed, as we continued to read, Kurtz’s account caught our eye once again:

KURTZ [hard cover]: The White House was right about one thing: Isikoff had gotten the tip from Jones’s lawyer, Joseph Cammarata. Isikoff tracked down Kathleen Willey, a former campaign volunteer, who told him off-the-record that she had succumbed to Clinton’s advances in 1993.

Again, this was Kurtz’s account of what Willey told Newsweek in the summer of 1997; and it did not seem to jibe with the story Willey told Sixty Minutes five months later, around the time Spin Cycle went to print.

We got off a letter and a call to Kurtz, and he responded with a voice mail message, telling us that he planned to revise the Willey passages when Spin Cycle went to its paper edition. We halloed off thanks, then pensively waited for the publication of Spin Cycle (soft).

And sure enough, when the paperback came, the passages on Willey were different. Here’s how Kurtz amended the Willey passages when he published Spin Cycle (soft):

KURTZ [hard cover]: McCurry had known for weeks that Newsweek was sniffing around on yet another story about Clinton’s sex life, and this one was particularly explosive. A former White House aide, Kathleen Willey, was apparently telling the magazine that Clinton had propositioned her right there in the Oval Office, and that they had had some kind of furtive sex. This was not some ancient Arkansas allegation; that was said to have happened while Clinton was president, in the office where he received heads of state.

KURTZ [soft cover]: McCurry had known for weeks that Newsweek was sniffing around on yet another story about Clinton’s sex life, and this one was particularly explosive. A former White House aide, Kathleen Willey, was telling the magazine that Clinton had propositioned her right there in the Oval Office. This was not some ancient Arkansas allegation; this was said to have happened while Clinton was president, in the office where he received heads of state.

The part about Willey and Clinton “having some kind of furtive sex” had now disappeared from Spin Cycle. The second passage was substantially different:

KURTZ [hard cover]: The White House was right about one thing: Isikoff had gotten the tip from Jones’s lawyer, Joseph Cammarata. Isikoff tracked down Kathleen Willey, a former campaign volunteer, who told him off-the-record that she had succumbed to Clinton’s advances in 1993.

KURTZ [soft cover]: The White House was right about one thing: Isikoff had gotten the tip from Jones’s lawyer, Joseph Cammarata. Isikoff tracked down Kathleen Willey, a former campaign volunteer, who told him off-the-record that Clinton had kissed and groped her in 1993.

Kurtz’s version of what Willey had said to Newsweek now aligned perfectly with the statement she’d made on Sixty Minutes. Readers of Spin Cycle (soft) read a quite different story than readers of Spin Cycle (hard).

We were naturally curious as to why Kurtz had changed his account. But the analysts were more concerned--they were frankly disturbed--with other members of the Washington press corps.

Before we look again at the changes Kurtz made in Spin Cycle--and evaluate his reasons for making those changes--let’s look at the way the celebrity press corps “reacted” to Spin Cycle’soriginal account.

*          *           *           *           *

When the hard cover version of Spin Cycle came out, Kathleen Willey’s accusation was, without any question, one of the country’s top political stories. Her appearance on Sixty Minutesgained massive attention, and was being debated all through the press.

Spin Cycle came out and it quickly became the best selling book in the country. Kurtz appeared on every political talk show, discussing the themes of his book.

Inside that book? An account of what Willey had said to Newsweek that flatly contradicted her Sixty Minutesallegations. Plainly enough, if Kurtz’s account in Spin Cycle was reasonably accurate, it seemed that Kathleen Willey may have changed her story.

With Willey accusing Clinton of sexual assault, you’d think this would be a major bit of news. But absolutely no one we saw, in all the media coverage, ever asked Kurtz to explain this contradiction. In fact, no one in the press corps even seemed to notice Kurtz’s account of what Willey had said.

We’ve reviewed our tape of Kurtz on CNN’s Inside Politics:no questions were asked about Kathleen Willey. We’ve watched Kurtz again on the inventive show Hardball. No mention of Willey’s account.

During the period when Kurtz was promoting Spin Cycle,we saw him appear, again and again, on shows all over the cable dial. And we never saw a question asked about his account of what Willey had originally told Newsweek.

In fairness: perhaps if the press corps had asked some questions, some explanation for the apparent contradiction would have emerged. Perhaps there would have been an explanation for Kurtz’s surprising account.

On the other hand: perhaps if the press corps had asked some questions, it would have begun to seem that Willey may, in fact, have amended her tale. Needless to say, this would have raised obvious questions about the validity of story she’d told on Sixty Minutes.

But the press corps, true to its somnolent nature, simply never bothered to ask. For this endlessly languid celebrity press corps, the contradiction simply didn’t exist.

Kurtz appeared on show after show, and no one asked him about the story. Meanwhile, the press corps went its merry way, reporting Willey’s dramatic Sixty Minutescharges. You know, folks--reporting the good stuff.

*          *           *           *           *

Anyway, after we saw Spin Cycle (soft) in late summer, we again wrote Kurtz, asking why he had changed his account of what Willey said. And Kurtz was forthright enough to give us this account of why he made the changes (by voice mail):

KURTZ: The passage in the hard cover edition involving Kathleen Willey was based on my best reporting at the time. While the circumstances remain murky, I felt it was only fair to use her on-the-record account, which had not been available earlier, in the paperback edition.

Here at THE HOWLER, of course, we have no way of knowing what Kathleen Willey told Michael Isikoff. And we have no way of knowing what may or may not have occurred between Willey and President Clinton.

But we do know that accusers sometimes lie, and that their contradictions need to be looked at carefully. Kurtz’s decision to accept Willey’s Sixty Minutesaccount? Barring further explanation, we think it reflects the exceptionally wide berth that is so often afforded accusers in this strange era of attack-and-destroy.

We presume that Kurtz’s original reporting was based on some sort of reasonable evidence. That is: when he published his original hardback edition, we assume that Kurtz had substantial reason to think that Willey had told Newsweek the things he reported.

Look then at the reasoning behind Kurtz’s decision to change his account of her story. Kurtz tells us that, because she made a differentrepresentation when she went on Sixty Minutes,he thought it was “fair” to report only thataccount--as if he now could assume that thatwas the story she had told Newsweek some five months before!

But why isn’t it equally “fair” to assume, as well, that Willey may have changed her story? This possibility doesn’t seem to have entered Kurtz’s thinking. Further, though he tells us that the Willey situation remains “murky,” he does notsay that to Spin Cycle’s readers. He tells his paperback readers, without qualification, that Willey told Newsweek that Clinton groped her. He never tells them what he seems to tell us--that he isn’t actually all that certain that this really is what Willey said.

His unqualified account of what she said in 1997 is based on what she said in 1998. If we really do care about pursuing the truth, can thatbe the way that we reason?

*          *           *           *           *

At this point, the question of whether Clinton groped Kathleen Willey is clearly the least of the president’s problems. But this episode does reveal all too clearly certain tendencies of the mainstream press corps. Kurtz gives wide berth to Kathleen Willey, as the press corps routinely gives wide berth to accusers (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/1/98). No apparent effort is made to explore the possibility that when Kathleen Willey went on Sixty Minutes,she may have improved a prior tale.

But whatever we may think about Kurtz’s logic, one thing is all too clear in this episode. That is the press corps’ relentless ability to overlook even the most obvious and significant facts. Back in February 1998, Spin Cycle offered an account of what Kathleen Willey had said that flatly contradicted what she’d said on Sixty Minutes. And, incredibly, no one in this celebrity press corps--none of those eagle-eyed pundits, sleuths and seers; you know, the ones who always seem to know who deserves to hold office?--none of them noticed the obvious significance in Kurtz’s account of what Willey had said.

And when Spin Cycle came out with a second (soft) account, so that there are now dueling Spin Cycle’syou can buy at your bookstore--well, have you heard any pundits ask any questions about that? As far as we know, no major member of this sleep-walking crew has even inquiredabout Spin Cycle’stwin accounts.

To all of us here at THE DAILY HOWLER, Kurtz’s hard-cover account had just jumped off the page. You absolutely couldn’t miss it. Remarkably, the press corps did.

Read on: One eagle-eyed scribe, at a minor rag, did notice Spin Cycle’s account. See “Smile-a-while,” September 30.