The tabloid programming that masquerades as broadcast journalism these days achieved a sickening new low last week. On the evening of May 11, CNBC "Hardball" host Chris Matthews identified an innocent person as the perpetrator of a notorious felony. The following afternoon, Rush Limbaugh made the same accusation on his nationally syndicated radio show. It also appeared on various Web sites, notably the Drudge Report.
Neither Matthews nor Limbaugh, whose shows appear on networks that purport to adhere to decent standards and practices, bothered to call the subject of their reports to hear his side of the story. (Matt Drudge naturally posted the story without checking as well.) For six days and nights afterward, the accused citizen received dozens of death threats.
Had Matthews bothered to do his job professionally, he would have discovered an important fact: The supposed perpetrator was more than 3,000 miles away from the scene of the alleged crime on the day it supposedly occurred. And there is ample documentation to prove it.
This disgraceful affair began last Tuesday night, when Kathleen Willey kicked off her latest round of media appearances as a featured guest on "Hardball." She is, of course, the Virginia socialite whose 1997 accusations of sexual assault in the Oval Office helped trigger the controversy that nearly consumed the Clinton presidency. Last January, she testified as a witness in the Paula Jones case and later told her much-disputed story on "60 Minutes."
Sometime last year, Willey told investigators for independent counsel Kenneth Starr that she had been threatened by an unidentified man two days before she testified in the Jones case. The man, sometimes known as "the jogger," approached her early in the morning outside her home, she says. She claims that he knew that her cat had disappeared and that her car tires had been riddled with nails. "You just aren't getting the message, are you?" the mystery man supposedly told her.
This tale of terror has been cited countless times since by Matthews, William Safire, the New York Post, the Washington Times, political consultant Dick Morris and others as damning evidence of a "secret police" apparatus employed by the White House to silence its critics. Those said to be involved in this conspiracy, aside from the president, have included Hillary Rodham Clinton; Clinton aides Sidney Blumenthal and Betsey Wright; private investigators Terry Lenzner and Jack Palladino; and the Pentagon press office. But until now, no specific date or place has been attached to the nefarious activities of the "secret police." All of the charges boiled down to rumor and innuendo based on anonymous sources who had heard something secondhand.
Flash forward to last week, when Willey publicly recounted the details of the "jogger" incident on "Hardball." The blustering Matthews, whose capacity to imagine Clintonian treachery knows no limits, strenuously induced his reluctant guest to admit that she had learned the jogger's identity.
"Who was that guy?" demanded Matthews. "I'm gonna ask you again, because I think you know who it was."
"I do know," said Willey. "I think I know."
"Is it someone in the president's family, friends?" Matthews pressed. "Is it somebody related to [Deputy Secretary of State] Strobe Talbott? Is it a Shearer?"
Willey resisted. "I can't say ... I've been asked not to dis--"
"You've been asked not to admit that?" interrupted the eager host.
"Yes, by the Office of Independent Counsel, because they are investigating this," she said.
Minutes later, Matthews said, "Let's go back to the jogger, one of the most colorful and frightening aspects of this story." Willey admitted that she had been showed a picture by Jackie Judd of ABC News, and had identified it "positively."
Matthews said, "So it's Cody Shearer."
"I can't tell you," Willey replied.
Before 11 p.m. EDT, Drudge had posted the Matthews "scoop" in his usual overheated style: "Willey was shown a picture of Cody Shearer -- the brother-in-law of Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and long-time friend of President Bill Clinton!"
The following afternoon, Limbaugh weighed in with his own review of Willey's "Hardball" debut: "She says Ken Starr asked her not to reveal the identity of the man who she says threatened her two days before her testimony in the Paula Jones case. Here's who it is. It's Cody Shearer, S-H-E-A-R-E-R ..." (Presumably the radio reactionary spelled out the name so that anyone wanting to call or visit Shearer would be able to find him more easily.)
Wondering whether any of this was true, I did what Matthews should have done and called Shearer. He told me that on the date cited by Willey, Jan. 8, 1998, he was far from her house in the leafy suburbs of Richmond, Va. He can prove that he stayed at the Hyatt Regency hotel in San Francisco on the night of Jan. 7 and that at 2:53 p.m. on Jan. 8, he withdrew money from a cash machine at the Embarcadero Center in that same city. In fact, he can show that he flew to Los Angeles before Christmas 1997 and didn't return until Jan. 11, 1998, the day Willey testified in the Jones case. By chance, he sat next to former Secretary of State Warren Christopher on the United Airlines flight back east.
Those are inconvenient facts for Chris Matthews, not to mention the credibility of Kathleen Willey, Ken Starr and all the pundits, pols and reporters who have promoted hysteria about the Clinton "secret police."
To anyone keeping track of leaks from the Office of Independent Counsel, it is interesting to note that ABC's Judd and her producer, Chris Vlasto, would know the identity of someone Starr is investigating. Apparently the ABC team has unusual access to Starr's ongoing investigations and to his witness Willey, who has been granted broad immunity despite her admission that she lied about certain matters to the OIC.
For a prosecutor to leak the name of someone being investigated is disgusting, even more so when that person is innocent. But Judd didn't broadcast Shearer's name. That distinction belongs to Chris Matthews, who didn't return several phone calls seeking his comment about this matter. Matthews opened his program on Monday with a quick, half-hearted apology to Shearer, whose denials he said he now finds "credible." He also said he now realizes he shouldn't have mentioned Shearer's name without having "vetted" Willey's allegation.
No one expects Limbaugh or Drudge to behave any differently than they did, although in all decency they should. (Limbaugh's slurs emanate from WABC radio in New York, evidently immune from any standards that govern ABC News.) But Matthews writes a column for the San Francisco Examiner and carries the title of "Washington bureau chief." In other words, he fancies himself a journalist. The first thing journalists learn to do is pick up the telephone. He should try it the next time he thinks he has a big story.