Kausfiles Special

Toobinwatch, Day 141: Ann Godoff vs. Charles Peters

After Jeffrey Toobin agreed to correct several factual errors in his book A Vast Conspiracy–caving in to the demands of Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff–Toobin must have felt at least a frisson of fear. The admission of error did not play well in the press; David Carr, of Inside.com, termed it a “significant embarrassment for Toobin and his publisher.” Isikoff crowed, while kausfiles exercised its vast opinion-molding power to point out why Toobin’s mistakes were (contrary to his claims) significant.

Worse, Toobin had said that “one of the responsibilities of journalism is that when you have an opportunity to correct an error, you correct it”–seemingly an invitation for other aggrieved parties to obtain similar concessions. Soon Washington Post reporter Susan Schmidt appeared with a written request that Toobin correct four “mistakes,” while Starr deputy Sol Wisenberg said he was preparing his own, substantially longer, list of errors. It was, Carr said, “Open Season on A Vast Conspiracy.” One more round of corrections, one more cave-in by Toobin’s publisher, Random House, and it would look like a rout. Toobin might lose his most precious asset, his affable respectability, while Random would see a valuable franchise diminished. Perhaps Peter Jennings would even have second thoughts about the desirability of having a serial screw-up be the premier legal analyst for ABC News.

What to do? Draw the line, obviously. Declare hunting season over. Make no more concessions. So it’s not surprising that Random editor Ann Godoff stiff-armed Schmidt in a letter on Thursday, writing that “no corrections are warranted” in response to the Post reporter’s four complaints. (See Carr’s report here.) Godoff even went on offense, saying Toobin had “disclosed that it was, in fact, the Post that made important errors in its story of February 5, 1998,” (reporting Starr’s rejection of an immunity deal with Monica Lewinsky). Godoff accused Schmidt of trying “to shoot the messenger.”

Unfortunately for Godoff, she wasn’t the only person Schmidt complained to. Charles Peters, editor of the Washington Monthly, also received Schmidt’s evidence packet after he urged his readers in March to rely on Toobin “for a devastating demonstration of the high percentage of falsehood and misleading innuendo” in the same Feb. 5 story.

Now, Peters is not really a neutral judge in this dispute. He vigorously defended Clinton during the Flytrap scandal. He praised, and still praises, Toobin’s book. And, like any writer, he had his ego invested in what he’d already written. He is also an honorable man.

So what did Peters do? He looked at the evidence … and apologized to Schmidt and her co-author Peter Baker in his June issue. Specifically, Peters concludes:

Toobin’s book, on which I relied, was wrong in stating that there was no internal inconsistency or evidence of Clinton’s culpability in Lewinsky’s late January proffer of testimony. He was also wrong to state that Lewinsky had not asked Linda Tripp to lie.

Peters’ apology covers three of Schmidt’s four alleged Toobin errors. (The fourth concerns whether Schmidt would “invariably” parrot to Lewinsky’s lawyers Starr prosecutor Jackie Bennett’s line.) Peters still argues that Schmidt and Baker “were used” by Starr’s office to give the impression that Starr had a better case than he had. But he concedes that in their Feb. 5 story, “they were never inaccurate,” and he offers them “my heart-felt apologies” for accusing them of basically what Godoff accuses them of.

It’s worth looking at one of Schmidt’s charges to see why Peters is right to apologize, and why Godoff is bluffing. In their Feb. 5 story, Schmidt and Baker wrote:

Individuals who have spoken to Tripp … have said the other pages of the talking points discuss how Tripp should deny any knowledge that Lewinsky had any sexual relationship with the president.

About this passage, Toobin writes:

In fact, the talking points, which were also released later, said nothing at all about how Tripp should testify about Lewinsky.

Was Toobin correct in making this sweeping (“nothing at all”) charge? No. The last paragraph of the talking points (which were, remember, supposed to guide Tripp) reads:

By the way, remember how I said there was someone else that I knew about. Well, she turned out to be this huge liar. I found out she left the WH because she was stalking the P or something like that. Well, at least that gets me out of another scandal I know about.

The “huge liar,” of course, was Monica Lewinsky. If Lewinsky, as she claims, wrote the talking points, she was advising Tripp to discredit her and the idea that she had a sexual relationship with the president.

How does Godoff justify avoiding a correction? With the following:

On this issue, Ms. Schmidt might want to consult page 37 of her own book. There she states (accurately) that the talking points concerned “what had happened between Kathleen Willey and Clinton”–not what happened between Lewinsky and Clinton.

This is desperation-time fudging, since on Page 37 of her book, Truth at Any Cost, Schmidt and co-author Michael Weisskopf are just introducing the reader to the talking points and generally describing them as “a script for altering Tripp’s account … of what had happened between Kathleen Willey and Clinton,” which they are. Schmidt obviously isn’t saying the document didn’t discuss any other possible Tripp testimony. Godoff simply ignores the final, smoking-gun paragraph in the talking points, the paragraph that Schmidt’s Feb. 5 story describes.

Will Godoff’s stonewall stand? Wisenberg is next up to take a whack, with a list of at least 40 to 50 alleged Toobin errors, some of which (I’ve gotten a preview) are as open-and-shut as Toobin’s talking points blunder. But Wisenberg’s easy to blow off–he was, after all, on the hated Starr team.

Charlie Peters’ verdict is a tougher to dismiss. He was on Toobin’s team. Or is Peters, too, somehow trying to “shoot the messenger”? The conspiracy gets vaster.

Note: I’ve never believed in libel suits. But it’s hard not to notice one other possible explanation for the difference in Random House’s treatment of Isikoff and Schmidt: Isikoff retained his own lawyer, hinted he might take legal action, and won some of the concessions he deserved. Schmidt was collegial, avoided legal threats, and got attacked. Know a good lawyer, Sue?