In case anyone missed the follow-up story buried inside the New York
Post or the last few editions of the Drudge Report , the results
are in on the DNA testing of the supposed Presidential love child, Danny
Williams. The lurid claim by the boy’s mother, a former prostitute and
cocaine addict named Bobbie Ann Williams, that Bill Clinton sired her son
during paid liaisons, was a costly hoax. According to editors of the
Star , the supermarket tabloid that sponsored a laboratory comparison
between Mr. Clinton’s DNA and that of his purported offspring,
“it wasn’t even close.
This latest exercise in smear journalism, promoted as an adjunct to the
impeachment trial, proved useful in assessing the professionalism and
decency of various media, new and old. It also showed that a baseless
charge can reach an audience of millions, even when major newspapers and
networks restrain themselves.
The “Clinton love child” is a hoary Arkansas legend revived
from time to time by the President’s unprincipled enemies. The most
recent version traces back to an on-line Web site maintained by Christopher
Ruddy, a writer employed by right-wing billionaire Richard Mellon
Beginning last November, Mr. Ruddy’s Web site featured a “love
child” series, including a credulous interview with the boy’s
aunt, and then boasted on Jan. 3 that its coverage had “caught the eye
of Star sleuth Richard Gooding, reviving his interest in the story
and propelling him down to Little Rock.”
Although the Star apparently tried to keep its investigation
secret, Matt Drudge heard about the tests and blared his “world
exclusive” over the New Year’s weekend. Then Rupert
Murdoch’s media conglomerate, sponsor of Mr. Drudge’s weekly TV
show, splashed his “scoop” across the front page of the
Post and in the once-august Times of London.
From there the mindless repetition was taken up by Tonight host
Jay Leno, babbling on about “the hooker and the President” during
his monologue every night for a full week. No one expects accuracy or
restraint from a comedian, of course, but let’s hope Mr. Leno never
suffers the kind of calumny for which he (along with various lesser
broadcasters on talk radio) was such a gleeful conduit.
In this ugly episode’s aftermath, respectable journalists
congratulated themselves for passing up the bait offered by Mr. Drudge (who
assiduously sought the Star ‘s DNA test, it must be noted, and
dutifully reported the deflating result). In The Washington
Post and on CNN, media pundit Howard Kurtz noted with satisfaction the
decision by his own paper as well as The New York Times and the
networks to ignore the love child without solid proof.
Yet that commendable judgment shouldn’t obscure the tabloidish
excesses of some prominent mainstream journalists who deserve the kind of
condemnation always reserved for Mr. Drudge and the Star . An
outstanding example came to light on Jan. 5, when an almost unnoticed
Associated Press item reported that over the objections of independent
counsel Kenneth Starr, Judge Norma Holloway Johnson had unsealed certain
documents showing that White House aides Bruce Lindsey and Sidney
Blumenthal “were fact witnesses and not targets for
In a phrase, the A.P. debunked copious speculation by various news
outlets that Mr. Lindsey and Mr. Blumenthal would sooner or later be indicted by the independent
counsel for obstruction of justice and other possible offenses.
Among the many egregious examples that could be cited, a series of
columns by The Times ‘ William Safire stands out. The
Pulitzer-certified Op-Ed columnist might be deemed the Drudge of the
Beltway establishment–but that would be unfair to Mr. Drudge, who has
a better record of correcting himself.
Last year, Mr. Safire repeatedly suggested that Mr. Lindsey was the real
author of the “talking points,” the famed “smoking gun”
of Lewinsky scandal obstruction that turned out to be much smoke and no
gun. As early as March 9, 1998, he implicated Mr. Lindsey as the
“talking-pointer.” Having described Mr. Lindsey as
“notorious” and “conspiratorial,” he returned to the
subject on June 15, citing the “brilliant exegesis” of the
talking points in The Observer by Philip Weiss to support
conjecture that Mr. Lindsey was the talking points’ “suborn-again
author.” (Seven months later, my esteemed Observer colleague
also hasn’t found time or space to acknowledge that his accusatory
analysis was flat wrong.)
Around the same time last June, Mr. Safire remarked without citing any
evidence that Mr. Blumenthal “may be Colson Revisited,” a
reference to Watergate felon Charles Colson, who “pled guilty to
disseminating derogatory information from Daniel Ellsberg’s F.B.I.
file.” Such defamation, the old Nixonite noted, “was obstruction
of justice … I suspect Starr will charge that a defamation conspiracy
is obstruction whether aimed at defense or prosecution.” Now we know
that there will be no obstruction indictment of either Clinton aide, and
that none was ever considered.
Fortunately for Mr. Safire, defamation in a newspaper column is not a
crime, and often is not even actionable if couched in clever phrasing. It
is merely a public disgrace, to him and to the editors who give him
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