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Monday, February 19, 2007

Unreliable Narrators

by digby

The NY Times has apparently had some kind of revelation about the fact that the Whitewater and subsequent scandals were ginned up by rich rightwing character assassins.

Mr. Scaife, reclusive heir to the Mellon banking fortune, spent more than $2 million investigating and publicizing accusations about the supposed involvement of Mrs. Clinton and former President Bill Clinton in corrupt land deals, sexual affairs, drug running and murder.

But now, as Mrs. Clinton is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, Mr. Scaife’s checkbook is staying in his pocket.

Christopher Ruddy, who once worked full-time for Mr. Scaife investigating the Clintons and now runs a conservative online publication he co-owns with Mr. Scaife, said, “Both of us have had a rethinking.”

How nice. Let's all sing kumbaaya, shall we? And let's not examine the new Swiftboat hitmen who have emerged to take their places. That would be uncivil, I'm sure --- and all that rich, delicious, GOP nastiness would be denied them.

And let's not forget how all the kewl kidz made fun of Clinton as if she were some sort of paranoid freak for saying there was a vast right wing conspiracy. The press, for reasons that remain obscure, decided it was good fun to pretend that wasn't happening and to report all this drivel in the first place. And that is the problem.

How odd it is that that fail to mention their own complicity in that ongoing effort. It's been well over a decade now; you'd think they could have found a paragraph or two to explain why they reported these hoaxes and smear jobs with all the incredulity of a three year old sitting on a mall Santa's lap.

The New York Times still has failed to answer for its deplorable coverage over the course of eight long years. Here's a case in point from a few years back --- Joe Conasan on NY Times editor Joseph Lelyvend's embarrassing defense of his paper's rpeposterous coverage in his review of Sidney Blumenthal's book "The Clinton Wars:

Thanks to Joseph Lelyveld's long, sloppy, rather mean-spirited review of Sidney Blumenthal's "The Clinton Wars" in the current New York Review of Books, the Whitewater mystery is finally resolved, at least in part. That mystery was never much about Whitewater itself -- a mundane, money-losing land deal. What always defied understanding was why the editors of the New York Times tolerated their paper's persistent hyping of the phony "scandal."

The answer, as Lelyveld reveals inadvertently, was a remarkable degree of carelessness at the very top. Although he has defended the paper's coverage publicly for several years -- and continues to do so as if he knows what he's talking about -- the former Times executive editor clearly never mastered the basic facts.

They never wanted to. They were breathlessly creating a "narrative", not doing journalism and they evidently don't understand that even today. Because of that of that they missed the real story, which they belatedly and perfunctorily report today as if its old news. Here's Blumenthal responding to Lelyveld's error ridden review:

Lelyveld writes now that Gerth's article "had multiple sources." But a single source had given Gerth the tip on the story and arranged for him to meet Jim McDougal, who was at the time suffering from manic depression, drug addiction, alcoholism, and bankruptcy. That source was Sheffield Nelson, an embittered partisan Republican rival of Bill Clinton, who had run against him for governor in 1990. Nelson's pertinence to Madison Guaranty was that he'd contributed to breaking it. As I write in my book: "McDougal and Nelson had been business partners in a deal to buy Campobello Island, FDR's famous summer place, and turn it into resort lots. More than any other scheme, that failed one had helped pull the Madison bank under. But the Campobello deal went unmentioned in Gerth's account."

At first, Gerth's Times article had little impact. As I write, "McDougal retracted his charges, saying Clinton had done nothing illegal or unethical. A forensic accountant scratched through the confused records and issued a report showing no wrongdoing by the Clintons, while they lost about $65,000." However, a Republican activist, L. Jean Lewis, who worked as an investigator at the Resolution Trust Corporation, the federal agency dealing with failed savings and loans associations, read the article and became the prime mover in turning its allegations into a criminal referral.

Then, many months later, during the presidential campaign in October 1992, Bush White House legal counsel C. Boyden Gray asked the chief executive of the RTC to look into this referral. The US Attorney in Arkansas, Charles Banks (a Republican appointee), looked into it, and on October 7, 1992, the following telex, which I cite in The Clinton Wars, was sent to Washington: "It is the opinion of Little Rock FBI and the United States Attorney...that there is indeed insufficient evidence to suggest the Clintons had knowledge of the check-kiting activity conducted by McDougal.... It was also the opinion of [Banks that] the alleged involvement of the Clintons in wrong-doing was implausible...." When Attorney General William Barr nonetheless tried to revive Lewis's referral, Banks rebuked his boss: "I must opine that after such a lapse of time the insistence of urgency in this case appears to suggest an intentional or unintentional attempt to intervene into the political process of the upcoming presidential election."

Then, prophetically, he added: "You and I know in investigations of this type, the first steps, such as issuance of grand jury subpoenas for records, will lead to media and public inquiries [about] matters that are subject to absolute privacy. Even media questions about such an investigation in today's modern political climate all too often publicly purport to 'legitimize what can't be proven.'" He suggested that participating in such an investigation "amounts to prosecutorial misconduct and violates the most basic fundamental rule of Department of Justice policy."

In another telex the Little Rock FBI office added that there was "absolutely no factual basis to suggest criminal activity on the part of any of the individuals listed as witnesses in the referral"—that is, the Clintons.

Although the Los Angeles Times reported these memos and telexes on August 9, 1995, the Nexis database reveals no mention in The New York Times. Was Lelyveld ever made aware of these documents at the time?

The NY Times treated this story like it was The Pentagon Papers. They legitimized its obfuscatory style of reporting and the confusion that resulted led to the naming of an independent counsel and finally to the partisan impeachment of a popular and successful president. Yet, it was obvious to observers that they were being led around by a cabal of rightwing hit men from very early on. They simply refused to see the story for what it was and instead validated their erroneous reporting with a continuous narrative stream of unproven implications that fed the toxic political environment --- and that fed them in return.

I know this is all boring, arcane history now, but it's important to note that we are seeing similar stuff happening already with respect to various "deals" that are being reported in the press about Harry Reid and John Edwards. So far they are thin, nonsensical "exposes" written by one man, John Soloman, formerly of the AP and now of the Washington Post. Soloman is known to be a lazy reporter who happily takes "tips" from the wingnut noise machine and faithfully regurgitates them. He holds a very important position at the paper that was second only to the Times in its eagerness to swallow Ken Starr's spin whole.

We are also seeing some similar reporting begin to emerge on Obama, much of it generated by hometown political rivals, just as we saw in the Clinton years. Today the LA Times implies that Obama is exaggerating his activist past. A couple of weeks ago we saw a truly egregiously misleading report on a deal he made to buy some land from a supporter.

These are patented Whitewater-style "smell test" stories. They are based on complicated details that make the casual reader's eyes glaze over and about which the subject has to issue long confusing explanations in return. They feature colorful and unsavory political characters in some way. They often happened in the past and they tend to be written in such a way as to say that even if they aren't illegal they "look bad." The underlying theme is hypocrisy because the subjects are portrayed as making a dishonest buck while pretending to represent the average working man. Oh, and they always feature a Democrat. Republicans are not subject to such scrutiny because a craven, opportunistic Republican isn't "news." (Neat trick huh?)

No single story will bring down a candidate because they have no substance to them. It's the combined effect they are looking for to build a sense overall sleaziness. "Where there's smoke there's fire" right?

The major media has never copped to their role in the tabloid sideshow that politics in the 90's became. They have never copped to their part in elevating Bush to the status of demigod and running beside him like a bunch of eunuchs waving palm fronds during the lead-up to the war. Even today we see them pooh-poohing the significance of a federal trial that exposes them for whores to Republican power.

But it happened and it will happen again. They have learned nothing and feel they have nothing to answer for. Clinton's spokesman is right when he says “I think that history demonstrates that whoever the nominee is is going to engender opposition from the right, and we will certainly be prepared" but it is only part of the story. All Democrats will also engender reporting from a press corps that persists in seeing politics through the lens of the rightwing narrative that was set forth by Scaife and his various hitmen back in the 1990's.

Update: Pach at FDL has more.

Update II: And then there's this.