Jewish World Review March 10, 1999 /22 Adar 5759
Strausbaugh: Prior to the Broaddrick case, you were best known for your work in those child sex-abuse cases. How were you first drawn to those stories?
It’s interesting to me, because I never cared about children, or school issues. I was working in New Jersey at WWOR, and I looked up at the television screen one day in the ghastly moment before you go on the air, and there was this woman—Kelly Michaels [accused of abusing 34 children at the Wee Care Day Nursery in Maplewood, NJ (December 1985).] When you’re a journalist you say to yourself—there’s always a click—"Something is wrong with this story." And I kept thinking for days, "Something is wrong with this story." And at the same time, Debbie Nathan in the Village Voice was confirming, there’s something wrong with this story.
As soon as I raised this issue at the station I was immediately exiled and told, "Don’t ever raise this again. How could you raise this?" Which only enlarges one’s suspicion. If something is an untouchable story it—as soon as you call up some dean somewhere else and he says, "There is no story here," there is a story there. So I looked at this woman who was charged with something like 248 charges—I said, this one woman?
Whatever she was, 28 at the time, she was sent away for 40 years!
I went to see the prosecutor. Now, I already had a reputation as a person who was not exactly at the left, and I was also older than these [young reporter] kids with microphones. It was really wonderful to see all of these reporters who were the products of the disbelieve-authority, they were all post-Watergate mentality, and all of them just swallowed every word the prosecutor said without the slightest skepticism. And you know, my heart sort of sank. And he said, "We know she did it. How dare you come and ask?" What do you mean how dare I come and ask? They couldn’t tolerate the fact that anyone was asking questions about this conviction. They sealed everything. They sealed all the transcripts. The Times made a halfhearted effort to get at the transcripts.
Cut to the chase, I found someone who would give me the transcripts of the trial, and that’s all you needed. You just see in cold, clear print how these children had had [ideas] pounded into them, just how these charges had been brought. These children had been told what to say and what had happened to them. It was a very shocking moment for me. Once you’ve seen an innocent person in prison for the first time, it really is a deeply life-altering experience. I went into this hideous prison in New Jersey...and I see this waiflike young woman Kelly Michaels, and I almost fainted—and I don’t faint. And I listened to her, and I knew...
That was the seminal case that made it possible for all of these other cases to be overturned...
It was the archetypal defense. The children being led [by prosecutors].
We had this wonderful appeals court, it was like something from an MGM movie. We watched these two female prosecutors—you know, almost all of the most dedicated, intense prosecutors determined to make you believe what no sane person would believe about what had happened to these children, were women. These women with these fiery eyes, always like—you have to think of the last person running the mimeograph machine in the 60s, you know, like slovenly, slatternly, sitting there. So suddenly we’re sitting in the appellate court with Kelly Michaels’ mother grabbing my hand... A black judge, a blonde woman judge and another judge. And the prosecutor started the usual, "Your Honor, children don’t lie." And the black judge leaned forward and said, "We are sitting here with an aggregate number of how many years on the bench? Are you trying to bamboozle us?" And all of a sudden these fingers were digging into mine. It’s rare that at the end of a hearing that you know for certain that you’ve won, because this was just the oral hearing, but by the end of it people were just pouring over to shake hands, and it was all over. And that was the beginning of all the rest of them too.
Strausbaugh: That was in ’93. The big McMartin Preschool case in Los Angeles had been dismissed a little before that, I think.
A little before that.
Strausbaugh: Did you cover the trial of the Doggetts’ in Wenatchee, WA? [Mark and Carol Doggett, accused of running a child sex ring in ’94, were released from prison after three years with all charges dropped.] I did. I found that was total madness there, because it came late in the day...
Strausbaugh: Yeah, 1994, that’s well behind the big wave of these cases in the mid-80s.
Yeah, because look, this is a tiny town. People in Washington, you know, they’re not connected to what... By this time the media [was over it], so no one could get the slightest attention to these cases, and Bob [Bartley] said, "Why don’t you go out there?" I really didn’t want to go there, because I had already done the Amiraults in Massachusetts, and all the rest of them... And also, you’re writing the same thing over and over, because all the prosecutors made the same charges. How many children do you think are abused by sexual predators by having jam and ice cream poured over their bodies, with all of these wonderfully bizarre things done to them? It came from the interplay of the prosecutors and "expert witnesses," meeting, passing these stories around the country.
So I went to Wenatchee and I wrote about it. We were like the bulletin board for these cases. As soon as I wrote about it, then the big media came down and then it would all blow up. The television pieces would be done, on 20/20, and all of that. It’s one of the great untold stories of our times, this mad witch-hunt, it really is.
Strausbaugh: The latest I’ve seen on the Amiraults is that Cheryl was released last summer, but her brother Gerald is— Is still in there. Well, we’re waiting.
Strausbaugh: He’s been in jail now for what, 12, 14 years?
We paid for his defense. As soon as I wrote about the Amiraults, readers called up and said, "What can we do?"
Smith: When you say we, you mean the Journal?
The Journal’s readers paid for it. We did something unparalleled. We set up a little box [in the paper] and said here’s where you can send money, and we set up a tax-exempt foundation, and hundreds of thousands of dollars [have come in]. They did that for the Grant Snowden case in Florida, too [a Miami police officer accused in 1984 of sexually assaulting a young child]. That was really one of the great moments, getting that guy out. Five life terms. Same charges. The Journal’s readers, you know, zeroed in on these cases... Money was everything in these cases. If you’re accused and you don’t have any money you’re sunk. You get a legal aid guy, and they are universally, with some rare exceptions, a disaster.
Strausbaugh: What does this say to you about the notion that prosecutorial powers are out of control?
Smith: Can we talk a little about Journal editorials? How many different people write them?
You know, I was dreading that question, I always do, because I can never figure it out. I mean, there’s a core group that always writes editorials. Like writing the Monica piece today fell to me.
Strausbaugh: So you wrote about her being "a twit"?
Did I say that? I didn’t write that.
Strausbaugh: People "seeing for themselves that the President had clearly taken advantage of a twit."
That was not my line. People will throw a line in, and that’s not a line I wrote. But I would have! I have no problem with it. It’s five people generally, but then we have people from our European edition, our Asian edition...
We just have a lot of—I hate to say this because people say it all the time, but we have a lot of fun in editorial meetings. One of the loudest sounds you hear is the laughter emanating from the editorial office. We spend hours—I don’t like being away from there. I like being there. Smith: Where do you live?
In Greenwich Village... I live with my dog Rudolph... This is true—he walks out of the room only when he hears Janet Reno’s voice. There is something about her... He walks out, really, with such determination. He doesn’t do that with Clinton or anyone else. Some primeval force drives him away.
I think it will be a heavy burden. It already is a heavy burden on him. If you look at his face, it’s the face of a stricken man. He already had the face of a wooden man to begin with. But to endure this past year, as he has done, and to have behaved as he has done, you have to be a block of ice. This is not going to help him on the campaign trail. In general he is not the warmest of presences. I think it will have a very negative effect on him.
Smith: Do you think he will get the nomination?
I think he will.
Smith: Do you think he can win the presidency?
I just don’t know. I think there may be enough leftover rage and resentment to cause people to say, "Well, we’re just going to put Al Gore in." If the statistics are as they’re represented.
I didn’t vote for anybody. I just couldn’t. These guys who have spent so much time protecting themselves...
Smith: What do you think of McCain?
I like him. Though he is another evader of the highest order, but let me tell you that McCain’s war record goes a long way with me. You know, there are these variables. You can say, "Oh yes, John Kennedy ran around, he did this, he did that and the other..." Yeah, but John Kennedy was also a man who had certain appealing attributes, and despite rumors to the contrary, he did have that war record and nobody made it up.
Smith: The book they made up.
The book they did make up, but the war record they did not make up, despite what far-right lunatics spent a lot of time saying about Kennedy.
I don’t know. I don’t think it would have changed the outcome, I really don’t.
Smith: Do you think some votes would have been different? I think some votes would have been different, but I don’t think it would have changed the outcome. There was just too much riding on letting this guy escape. But it would have had tremendous impact as a news program.
Smith: Instead, they ran it against the Grammys.
Absolutely. What NBC did is, if they couldn’t kill it, they buried it. They didn’t promote the show. They wouldn’t promote it on the nightly news—and the nightly news promoted Barbara Walters. ABC, for five minutes, they promoted Monica... They were so superior to all of this... I think I can speak with authority when I say that Tim Russert was probably the only reason that show was on the air in the end.
Strausbaugh: What do you think the show has done for Lisa Myers’ career?
I think it’s done well for her. Don’t you agree? I mean, she’s very
straight. This woman really went after... I wouldn’t go after a story
for two weeks, much less a year. She went after her, she called her, and
called her, and she really likes Mrs. Broaddrick and believes in her,
and she was
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