Smears! Lies! Gossip! But No Corrections?

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

Scaife.

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

prosecution.”

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

license.