Part 4—After the gunman appeared: On Tuesday, May 11, 1999, Chris Matthews engaged in heinous misconduct on his cable “news” program.
In a truly ridiculous bit of behavior, he put a false accusation into the mouth of Kathleen Willey, one of his most beloved accusers. By the end of the week, he had almost gotten someone killed.
(For background, see part 3 in this series.)
Matthews’ conduct that night was astounding, though it presaged much that would follow over the next several years. Indeed, over the next several nights, the clownish cable news hit-man just kept pouring it on.
On Wednesday, May 12, Matthews spent the bulk of the hour reviewing his interview from the night before. As part of his ongoing misconduct, he continued making the false accusation which would almost get somebody killed.
Early during that program, Michael Isikoff warned Matthews about his continuing conduct. Warning Matthews about such behavior is a bit like scolding an eel:
MATTHEWS (5/12/99): Last night—I will just briefly state it...[Willey] alluded to a name that she had, she had seen, which was thrown to her by an ABC reporter, Jackie Judd. And she said, “Oh, yeah, that's the guy that, that came up to me in the morning in, 6 in the morning, and scared the hell out of me and threatened me.”Once again, Matthews’ behavior was heinous, as it often is today, when he’s paid to behave this way in the other partisan direction.
She said in many ways that she was the victim of a White House scare tactic to shut her up, to kill her story and to discredit her in the public. Was that a coordinated campaign, and what do you know about it?
ISIKOFF: Well, we know some things, but, you know, we don't have the final answer and we don't have the— You know, nobody's gotten to the bottom of this, including Starr's people. Some of what you were quoting her as saying was simply what she was repeating from what has been in press stories—
She does assert that there was this guy who, posing as a jogger, who made these, what could be construed as quite intimidating statements to her, on the eve of her Paula Jones deposition. Starr's people have been investigating that now for over a year and they haven't arrested anybody. They have reason to believe that there is some aspects of the story that checks out, but they have yet to identify who this jogger is, if he indeed exists.
MATTHEWS: Was he sicced on her by the president?
ISIKOFF: Well, since we don't know who it is, Chris, we can't say whether it's sicced on by the president.
MATTHEWS: Yeah, I don't know. She, she will tell you— She will tell you off camera pretty much exactly who this person is. And that's why I threw that name out last night.
MATTHEWS: Cody Shearer.
Isikoff kept warning Matthews that Willey wasn’t necessarily telling the truth. He plainly said the mysterious jogger may not even exist.
But so what? After reading a statement from Shearer’s lawyer, Matthews kept pouring it on:
MATTHEWS: All the story we know is that Kathleen Willey believes that the person who assailed her that morning is Cody Shearer, based upon a picture shown to her by Jackie Judd of ABC. That's all we know. And she has—Matthews’ behavior was heinous and inane, and it continued all week:
ISIKOFF: Right. And I—I mean, you know, let's not take it for more than it is.
ISIKOFF: Somebody, a member of the news media, thinks that for, it might have been Cody Shearer, shows a picture of somebody who Kathleen Willey had a, you know, brief encounter with over a year ago—
ISIKOFF: —and she thinks there might be a resemblance.
MATTHEWS: “Encounter” meaning that person who came up to her in the morning, right?
ISIKOFF: Right, right. Sure. And she—as far as we know—
MATTHEWS: Because when you say “encounter” in any of these conversations, it sounds like “encounter.” You gotta be careful around here.
ISIKOFF: I— Look, then, there are just two things. ABC hasn't gone with the story and, and Starr hasn't filed any charges.
ISIKOFF: So I— You know, I don't know how far we should take this. I mean, it just—
MATTHEWS: All right. Well, we'll take it as far as we have.
Later on Wednesday night’s program, he fielded a phone call from Gennifer Flowers, who praised Willey’s obvious greatness and made some groaning misstatements.
On Thursday night, Matthews was still pimping Willey’s claims, although he had finally stopped using Shearer’s name. That may have been in response to complaints from Shearer’s lawyer.
How inane was the Hardball of this era? At one point on Thursday night, Matthews asked his own version of “Sybil the Soothsayer” to figure out what must have happened between Willey and President Clinton.
At this point in time, Matthews’ regular soothsayer was an expert on body language. On this program, she broke the news that Kathleen Willey “steeples her fingers a lot”—and of course, that she didn’t seem to be lying.
This nonsense went out on the air:
MATTHEWS (5/13/99): Well, let's go to Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, who's an expert at reading people. In fact, that's the name of her book. Jo-Ellan, read Kathleen Willey for us.Performing her assigned role in the drama, Dimitrius explained that Willey was being consistent and didn’t seem to be lying.
DIMITRIUS: Well, Kathleen, what we've seen demonstrated in the time that she's been on TV is, she's very consistent because she, she is very nervous when she has spoken on TV. She does a lot of things like looking down. She kind of gets her words mixed up a little bit. She steeples her fingers a lot when—
MATTHEWS: What's that mean?
DIMITRIUS: Well, generally that's, it's a form of nervousness. And then ultimately the question becomes, is she nervous because of the circumstances or is she nervous because she's lying? And I would submit to you, based on everything that I've seen, that she is nervous simply because she's nervous about, you know, all of the pressure and the, the focus that it's going to place in her life. I mean, she is taking on the entire world here—
DIMITRIUS: —and saying one more time, bringing this whole issue up in front of the country, and anybody would be nervous under those circumstances. You don't see any difference in her behavior and, and that's—
The pattern to reading somebody is, is looking at the consistency, and she is very, very consistent in each one of these matters.
All through 1999, Dimitrius would appear on Hardball and offer analyses of body language which tended to agree with Matthews’ well-known perspectives. In her most embarrassing appearance, she was present in November to help Matthews worry about the troubling sexual implications of Candidate Gore’s three-button suits, one of the most ludicrous episodes in the history of “cable news.”
Presumably, Dimitrius’ clowning enhanced her bottom line as an author/jury consultant. As the career liberal world sat silent, her clowning made fools of us all.
Matthews’ behavior was heinous all week. On Friday, he began linking the Willey matter to Candidate Gore, who he would trash in remarkable ways right through the November 2000 election (and then beyond). In this brief passage, you get the flavor of the discourse maintained on Hardball over those two years:
SQUITIERI (5/14/99): Chris, I keep thinking of that cartoon, you know, Chris, where Pepe LePew, the amorous skunk, is chasing the, the dog and the cat that gets the accidental white stripe down its back. It's, it's completely two different animals. And Al Gore is never going to be Pepe LePew—Matthews was certainly right on one score. Repeatedly, for two solid years, he would refer to Candidate Gore as “the bathtub ring” of the Clinton scandals. He would then marvel at the fact that Gore got no credit for the accomplishments of the Clinton years.
MATTHEWS: Actually, when you're with him, he'll wear his T-shirt and tell jokes and laugh at your jokes. He's kind of a normal person, like this, as hard as that is to imagine.
On television he stiffens up like Clutch Cargo or somebody. He's an amazing character. Only his mouth moves, you know, one of those characters. And yet, for some reason, he's got all the goo of the Clinton administration coming down on his head like—
I always say he's the bathtub ring. I'm sure he loves that one. And yet all the good things like the economy and international trade and expansion and high tech, and—he didn't get any credit for that. So you fix it. Tell me what the situation is.
The mocking comparison to cartoon figures would also be routine, Clutch Cargo being one favorite. Presumably, Matthews was behaving this way in service to his owner, GE CEO Jack Welsh. His conduct was relentless, inane and disgraceful. It was also completely accepted by the career liberal world.
Back to Matthews’ love for Willey, perhaps his favorite accuser:
Over that weekend, two things occurred. That Sunday, a man with a history of mental illness appeared at Cody Shearer’s home, brandishing a gun. It also became appallingly clear that Matthews had made a false accusation when he said that Shearer had threatened Willey in the incident Isikoff said may not have happened at all.
Something else happened that Sunday; Matthews actually spoke with Shearer. On Monday night, in the aftermath of the dangerous incident he had created, this unbalanced person went on the air and opened his program like this:
MATTHEWS (5/17/99): Before we get started with a favorite topic of mine, Bill Clinton and his leadership, I have to recount something that happened to me on Saturday afternoon. I had just come down the steps to the train platform at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia after spending the day with my brother, Jim. And a man approached me, shook hands and said, “I'm Cody Shearer.”Do you think? Three days later, on May 20, the news of the gunman at Shearer’s home appeared in the nation’s newspapers, then quickly faded from view. Matthews never mentioned the dangerous incident he had spawned.
Well, after a moment of surprise, we had a heated discussion about Kathleen Willey's appearance here last week, in which I brought up his name as the person Mrs. Willey had told a reporter was the man who approached her in a suspicious manner in January of 1998. She had made this identification to me in previous conversations.
Last week on the air, she said she wouldn't divulge the name because the Office of Independent Counsel was still investigating. Mr. Shearer told me, in a very impassioned but what seems to be a very credible way, that he was 3,000 miles away during that alleged pre-dawn meeting, and he can prove it.
Last week, I read Mr. Shearer's denial from his attorney on the air. Today Mr. Shearer's attorney sent me a further letter stating that Mr. Shearer had nothing whatever to do with the events described by Ms. Willey.
He wrote, and I'm quoting here, "During the entire period that Ms. Willey identified, including the date on which she was accosted, Mr. Shearer was in California.” He says he was—he has documentary proof of that, including restaurant, ATM and other travel receipts.
Well, after my Philadelphia encounter with Mr. Shearer, which I did find credible, I now regret having spoken, having spoken about him—not spoken beforehand with him before I mentioned his name on the air. I should have never brought his name up till we had vetted it.
As far as we know, Matthews was never sanctioned by NBC News for his astonishing conduct. Very few journalists spent any time discussing the obvious lessons involved in the horrible things he had done.
A few behaved more appropriately. Joe Conason hammered Matthews for his behavior in the pages of Salon and in later columns at the New York Observer. And in the New York Daily News, the late Lars-Erik Nelson wrote the column which wasn’t written by anyone else in the guild.
Nelson started his column like this, making many important points which remain important today:
NELSON (5/21/99): Kathleen Willey, the socialite who claims President Clinton groped her in the Oval Office, also claims that a mysterious jogger tried to intimidate her against testifying about her encounter.To this very day, of course, Matthews remains a “screaming, manic TV opinion-monger who poses as a journalist.” In an astonishing moment, another person who poses as a journalist described Matthews as her “beloved colleague” last year.
The jogger has never been named. But on May 11, with Willey as a guest, CNBC's Christopher Matthews broadcast the name of Cody Shearer, a freelance writer who is the brother-in-law of Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott.
Rush Limbaugh picked up the story and repeated Shearer's name the next day. Shearer immediately began receiving death threats.
Last Sunday, an armed man broke into Shearer's garage and slashed tires on two cars. When confronted, he waved a gun and fled. The intruder has been identified by his own family as Hank Buchanan, 61, the mentally troubled older brother of Republican presidential hopeful Pat Buchanan.
Hank Buchanan has an excuse. He is a manic depressive. Matthews has none. His story was wrong. Shearer was not the mysterious jogger. He was in California when Willey says she was threatened.
When Shearer confronted Matthews with the facts, Matthews backed down. He had never bothered to check his story before blurting it out, never bothered to call Shearer. In the new world of talk-show TV there is no need to be accurate, only to make money.
"The past year has been, I think, the worst year for American journalism since I entered the profession 44 years ago," David Halberstam writes in the preface to "Warped Speed," a Century Foundation study of current reporting standards. "The standards for verification, so critical to serious and fair reporting, have fallen dramatically."
Matthews is a central figure in this book, a screaming, manic TV opinion-monger who poses as a journalist...
At the heart of this ugly story is the practice of casual accusation. When that gunman appeared at Shearer’s home, he embodied one of the dangers of this practice, which is still widespread on MSNBC today.
That said, very few people ever get shot because of false accusations. The larger danger involved in this practice involves the relentless dumbing-down of the national discourse—the abuse of the public trust in pursuit of partisanship and financial gain.
In his column, Nelson condemned this dumbing-down—a dumbing-down which still goes on so people like Matthews can make the big money to which Nelson alluded.
(According to press reports, Matthews’ salary went from $1 million to $5 million in the next year or so as he trademarked himself as a manic attack dog against both Clintons and Candidate Gore.)
Is Matthews mentally, emotionally or intellectually unstable? Nelson almost suggested as much at several points in his column. We’d say the possibility has often seemed brutally clear down through these many long years.
NBC News didn’t sanction Matthews, except by massively raising his salary. But the most important part of this story involves the silence of the lambs—the silence of the journalists who didn’t write the column Nelson wrote.
In a remarkably casual way, Matthews had made a heinous false accusation. As it turned out, he could have gotten somebody killed.
In the next few weeks, he began making crazed accusations against Wen Ho Lee, a Chinese-American nuclear physicist who had popped into the news. Death threats began pouring in against Lee, although Matthews was hardly alone in this bit of irresponsible conduct.
Throughout the next two years, Matthews would make wild, inaccurate accusations against Candidate Gore. More strikingly, he would maintain the level of ridicule and insult which helped cue colleagues as to where the guild’s Conventional Wisdom was running. Given the narrow way the 2000 election was decided, it’s hard to doubt that Matthews’ misconduct, all by itself, sent George W. Bush to the White House.
(Within the guild, Matthews was much more influential at that time than he is today.)
Today, Rachel Maddow refers to this “manic TV opinion-monger” as her beloved colleague. It takes a very cynical person to make such a statement. And in truth, Maddow has been quite casual with her accusations over the past several months.
She too is dumbing the nation way down as she stuffs big bucks in her pants.
For two solid years during Campaign 2000, career “liberals” tolerated Matthews’ misconduct, even though his gruesome misconduct was aimed directly at Us.
Today, the liberal world adores Maddow’s clowning, which is directed at Them.
Only in a world gone mad could a ludicrous figure like Matthews still hold the exalted position he holds. When you see Maddow clown around and mislead you each night, try to remember one basic fact—people are dead all over the world because of her beloved friend.
Rachel misleads us rubes every night. In a point of fairness, she studied under the best.
A pair of beloved accusers: On January 7, 1999, Elizabeth Holtzman appeared on Hardball and made an accurate statement. She accurately noted that Linda Tripp, in sworn testimony, had contradicted Willey’s story about the alleged assault by Bill Clinton.
(Tripp and Willey had been friendly co-workers in the White House.)
Holtzman made an accurate statement about what Tripp had said. For that reason, Matthews landed on her like a ton of bricks. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/8/99, with links to prior reports.
In August 1999, Matthews played softball with Gennifer Flowers for a deeply absurd half hour, praising her for her mammoth hotness as she rattled thrilling tales of the Clintons’ endless murders.
Flowers’ performance was so bizarre that Hannity & Colmes invited her to appear for the full hour. That said, the insanity had started on Hardball. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/26/03.
In what world can a person like this still be a major media figure? In what world would a person like Maddow praise him as she does?
In what world could a nation of liberals still be tolerating such conduct? The answer is, this appalling conduct continues and thrives in the world where you live.