Part 3—What Chris Matthews did: As a matter of theory, journalists aren’t supposed to fall in love with accusers.
Sometimes, accusers’ claims are false, whether by design or by error. For that reason, journalists should approach their claims with appropriate caution.
When that isn’t done, the results can be quite bad. Case in point:
Back in the late 1990s, the mainstream press corps fell in love with a string of high-profile accusers. Their accusations were assumed to be true, even when they were false.
One such accuser was Kathleen Willey. In March 1998, she burst into prominence, claiming that President Clinton had groped her right in the Oval.
(The unwelcome advance was said to have occurred in 1993.)
Willey was rushed onto 60 Minutes. Following her dramatic appearance, stampeding journalists fought to see who could vouch for her honesty more, an embarrassing spectacle we will review tomorrow.
As it turned out, Willey wasn’t an especially reliable witness. In his final report on the endless probe of President Clinton, independent counsel Robert Ray said he had “agreed not to prosecute her for false statements” she had made in the course of the investigation.
As of 2007, Willey was strongly suggesting, in a book, that Clinton had been involved in the 1993 suicide death of her husband. She also claimed that Clinton’s agents had broken into her home and stolen the book’s manuscript.
In 2002, Willey even landed her own talk radio show, though it lasted less than a month. For a new overview by Media Matters, just click here.
Whatever! In May 1999, Willey made a thrilling guest appearance on Hardball. She arrived with a new accusation, involving the death of her pet cat and implied threats against her children.
Part of Willey’s new accusation, bruited in private, would turn out to be false. But before it was known to be false, it almost got a journalist killed, thanks to the astonishing conduct of Chris Matthews, who was conducting a love affair with the stories of the woman known as “Irish.”
Yesterday, we reviewed the results of this false accusation, which could have gotten the journalist killed. Today, consider the astonishing way the accusation was brought forward by a cable demon in love with a raft of accusers.
On May 11, 1999, Willey appeared on Hardball for the full hour. An excited cable host opened his program in a state of agitation:
“Kathleen Willey speaks for the first time in more than a year, for the next hour here on Hardball.”
The next night, Matthews would feature a phone call from Gennifer Flowers commenting on Willey’s greatness. On this evening, he engaged in one of the most appalling acts of anti-journalism of the whole “cable news” era.
Eventually, Willey voiced her new accusation concerning the mysterious death or disappearance of her 13-year-old cat. Shadowy agents of Clinton had done it, she said or suggested.
This is the way she could tell:
MATTHEWS (5/11/99): Talk about the thing that I really would love to hear you talk about, which is the, the attempt to cover this up, as you say. Tell about what happened when you went jogging in 1998, right before you were about to testify in the [Paula] Jones case.According to Willey, the mysterious man cited the name of her missing cat. He asked if she had ever gotten her tires fixed. (Allegedly, they had been slashed.) He even inquired about her children, using their names.
WILLEY: I had—the previous month, had had surgery, neck surgery for a herniated disk, and I was in a collar and I was having a terrible time sleeping. And I got up very, very early one morning and—
WILLEY: Yes. And I, I went out. And I live in a, what I thought was a very safe neighborhood. I went out for a walk. I had my three dogs with me, and I saw a man coming towards me.
WILLEY: And I saw this man coming towards me, and I just thought he was another neighbor. I had not met all my neighbors because I hadn't been there long. And he was coming towards me, and he called my, out my name, and he said, “Kathleen.” And I stopped and I said, “Yes?” And he said, “Did you ever find your cat?” And I said, “No.”
And I thought he was a neighbor. I'd asked a couple of neighbors to keep an eye out for this family pet, a 13-year-old cat. I'd never told anybody his name. I just described him to these neighbors, and I thought that maybe word had gotten around in the neighborhood that there's a cat missing. Just, here's who you call, if he—
WILLEY: And so he asked me, “Did you ever find your cat?” And I said, “No, I didn't.” And I said, I said, “Not—no, I haven't, and we really miss him.” And then he said, “Did you ever get those tires fixed on your car?” And I said, “No.”
And that's when the hairs started standing up on the back of my neck.
“It was a very insidious thing, and it was meant to scare me,” Willey said. “We're going to come back and talk about that,” Matthews heroically vowed.
Did such an encounter actually happen? We have no way of knowing; everything is possible! That said:
Shortly after this alleged incident, Willey testified in the Paula Jones case and swore than no one had tried to influence her testimony. It must also be said that Willey has sometimes told colorful stories which turned out to be untrue.
(Example: During the probe of Clinton, she told the FBI that she had become pregnant at one point and had an abortion, later admitting that these claims had been untrue.)
Willey’s claim of an encounter isn’t in question here. At question is the identity of the man who supposedly approached her.
When Matthews came back, he encouraged his guest to name the shadowy figure who had approached her and scared her. When Willey refused to supply the name, Matthews did so himself!
Four nights later, a man with a history of mental illness showed up at the accused person’s home brandishing a gun. Making the story even worse, the accusation against this person turned out to be false.
As became clear, Matthews had named a person who could prove that he didn’t threaten Willey that morning. By his astonishing conduct, Matthews could have gotten him killed.
Below, you see the astonishing way in which Matthews aired this false accusation. As “journalism,” the conduct shown here is well beyond crazy—and it almost got someone killed.
During the course of this program, Matthews falsely accused journalist Cody Shearer as the man who threatened Willey. Below, you see Matthews’ first attempt to get him falsely accused:
MATTHEWS: When this man came up to you at dawn that morning, in Richmond five years after this incident, who was that guy? I'm gonna ask you again, because I think you know who it was.“Is it a Shearer?” Matthews had now stated part of the accused person’s name, even as Willey refused to.
WILLEY: I do know. I think I know.
MATTHEWS: Why don't you tell me who it was? This is an important part of the story here, why would you want to come out and, on this program tonight, on live television and not tell us who you think that person was? Do—
Let me ask you a more careful way. Were you ever led to believe who it might be, and who led you to believe it and what did they lead you to believe?
WILLEY: I was shown a picture and—
MATTHEWS: And who was in the picture?
WILLEY: I can't tell you. I'm not trying to be coy—
MATTHEWS: Would I recognize the picture?
MATTHEWS: Is it someone in the president’s family, friends? Is it somebody related to Strobe Talbott? Is it a Shearer?
WILLEY: I can't say.
MATTHEWS: It's not?
WILLEY: I've been asked not to discuss—
MATTHEWS: You've been asked not to admit that?
WILLEY: Yes. By the Office of Independent Counsel, because they are investigating this.
In that passage, Matthews was told that the OIC was still investigating the matter. He heard Willey say that she thought she know who the alleged person was.
Except to someone who’s badly deranged, the qualifying phrase, “I think I know,” should serve as a serious warning. That said, Matthews has been deranged for years, a problem he’s happy to put on display.
Matthews had stated part of the name. Unsatisfied, he returned to his unholy task at a later point in the program:
MATTHEWS: Let's go back to the jogger, one of the most colorful and frightening aspects of this story. You were confronted as you were out walking. You couldn't sleep, your neck was hurting, you—this guy came upon you who never met before...Tell me about that—what he said, finish up that whole story.As it turned out, Cody Shearer had been in California at the time of the alleged threatening incident—and he had the proof. But so what? Matthews had blurted his name on the air even as Willey refused to.
WILLEY: Well, he mentioned my children by name. He asked how they were and, at the, at this point, I started asking him who he was and what he wanted.
WILLEY: And he just looked me right in the eye and he said, “You're just not getting the message, are you?” And I turned around and, and ran. I had no business running, and probably ran about 100 yards, I was so frightened, and I turned around and he was gone.
MATTHEWS: Who showed you the picture of the person you think might have been him?
WILLEY: Jackie Judd.
MATTHEWS: From ABC?
MATTHEWS: And did you identify it positively?
MATTHEWS: So it's Cody Shearer.
WILLEY: I can't tell you.
MATTHEWS: OK. But you identified it. Let's talk about a couple of other things just to tie up the loose ends here.
(Presumably, Willey had told Matthews the name off the air. When she wouldn’t say the name on the record, Matthews said it for her.)
As a result of this astounding misconduct, Rush Limbaugh began pimping Shearer’s name the next day. That Sunday, a man with a history of mental illness appeared at Shearer’s home, brandishing a gun.
In the normal flow of events, false accusations don’t get accused people killed. In this instance, Matthews’ astounding behavior easily could have done so.
That said, the most remarkable part of this incident is the sheer illogic of Matthews’ commentary and the recklessness of his behavior. Though this is one of Matthews’ most appalling “journalistic” episodes, he behaves in similar ways every night of the week.
He has done so for many years. He has been doing so in the past few weeks. Reckless, unfounded assertion is what Chris Matthews does.
Rachel Maddow tells the world that Matthews is her “beloved colleague.”
It’s dangerous when pseudo-journalists entertain us rubes with reckless, unfounded accusations. It’s extremely ugly behavior. It makes us all very dumb.
That said, casual, reckless accusation has been the stock in trade at The One True Channel ever since the Fort Lee debacle gave them a way to swell their ratings and please their liberal viewers.
On cable, casual, unfounded accusation is the stuff of partisan entertainment programming. It swells the hearts of true believers. TV stars’ bank accounts grow.
In the next few days, we’ll recall more of the press corps’ conduct when they fell in love with accusers during the Clinton-Gore years.
As a matter of theory, journalists aren’t supposed to fall in love with accusers. But that’s what happened in the late 1990s, and that’s what’s been happening now.
This is very bad behavior. It makes us very dumb.
Tomorrow: After her 60 Minutes appearance, who could praise Willey the most?