Oh, When I Look Back Now...

by digby

That summer seemed to last forever... Those were the best days of my life

So, our old pal ex-New York Times reporter Jeff Gerth is reliving his glory days, this time turning a nice profit at Clinton scandal mongering. Good for him. He was always under-compensated for the good work he did for the GOP Noise Machine and he deserves a little 'o that Wingnut Welfare cash too. It's only right.

I haven't read the book, so I won't comment on the substance. I have read Gerth's work before, however, and let's just say that after his "investigations" of Whitewater and Wen Ho Lee, he has a teensy tiny credibility problem. Much like his fellow NY Times reporter Judy Miller, he seems to be just a tad gullible when it comes to his wingnut sources. It would appear from early reports about the book that he hasn't learned his lesson.

But everyone should know all this, particularly the DC press corps and political establishment. More than a decade ago, Gene Lyons wrote the definitive work on Jeff Gerth and the NY Times'infantile willingness to believe even the most cracked stories about the Clintons, with his series of articles for Harper's that were later turned into the book "Fools for Scandal: How the Media Invented Whitewater"

Here's just a little taste. (Be sure to read the entire article if you haven't already --- and get the book if you want to know the genesis of the bloggers' critique of the mainstream media. Lyons was ahead of all of us.)

The same faults that mar Jeff Gerth's reporting on Whitewater--misleading innuendo and ignorance or suppression of exculpatory facts--also showed up in the Times accounts of Hillary Rodham Clinton's commodity trades with Springdale attorney Jim Blair and her husband's dealings with Tyson Foods. "During Mr. Clinton's tenure in Arkansas," Gerth wrote near the top of his March 18, 1994, front-page account, "Tyson benefited from a variety of state actions, including $9 million in government loans, the placement of company executives on important state boards and favorable decisions on environmental issues." The alleged $9 million in loans was the implied quid pro quo for old pal Blair's generous tips to Hillary in the 1970s that helped her turn $ 1,000 into nearly $ 100,000.

Following Gerth's report, the incriminating $9 million figure appeared virtually everywhere. The Times itself weighed in with a March 31 editorial called "Arkansas Secrets," attacking the "seedy appearances" of Bill and Hillary Clinton's "extraordinary indifference to...the normal divisions between government and personal interests." The same editorial went on to deride what it called "the Arkansas Defense": that "you cannot apply the standards of the outside world to Arkansas, where a thousand or so insiders run things in a loosey-goosey way that may look unethical or even illegal to outsiders." Nor have Times editorial writers been the only ones to scold the Clintons for succumbing to the lax moral climate of the president's native state. The Baltimore Sun, Spiro Agnew's hometown paper, opined that the First Lady's adventures in the cow trade "certainly don't smell right, especially considering that Jim Blair represented a giant, influential agribusiness firm in Arkansas that later received what seemed to be favors from Gov. Clinton."

Newsweek's Joe Klein wrote of the President's "multiple-personality disorder," involving a moderate Clinton, a liberal Clinton, and "the likely suspect in the Whitewater inquiry, a pragmatic power politician who did whatever necessary to get and keep office in Arkansas...granting low-interest loans to not-very-needy business interests, who in turn contributed generously to his political campaigns. This Clinton snuggled up close to the Arkansas oligarchs, the bond daddies and chicken pluckers--and never quite escaped the orbit of the shadowy Stephens brothers, Witt and Jackson." (Witt Stephens has been dead for three years, and Jack Stephens is a Reagan Republican who has bankrolled nearly every Clinton opponent--except Sheffield Nelson--since the early 1980s.)

There's just one problem with this chorus of self-righteous denunciation: the $9 million in loans that inspired it never existed. Especially attentive readers of the New York Times may have noticed an odd little item in the daily "Corrections" column on April 20, 1994:

An article on March 18 about Hillary Rodham Clinton's commodity trades misstated benefits that the Tyson Foods company received from the state of Arkansas. Tyson did not receive $9 million in loans from the state; the company did benefit from at least $ 7 million in state tax credits, according to a Tyson spokesman.

Gerth blames a chart misread on deadline.

At the time, the entire establishment was reporting exotic Arkansas tales with all the breathless excitement of recently deflowered sorority girls on the morning after. From his perch outside the beltway, Lyons watched the naive city boys from the Times land in Little Rock en masse and get conned by a bunch of slick three card monty playing locals (with the help of some strategically placed Scaife cash.) PBS caught up with him in 1997, as Starr's investigation into Whitewater still raged and before the Monica soap opera:

Lyons: ... what has been shocking to me as a reporter and journalist is the performance of the national press in failing to examine, in fact almost making it verboten to examine the elaborate record that is there.

Why do you think that is? Ask [sic] the political reporters at the nation's leading newspapers just a bunch of ideologically driven nitwits?

Lyons: No . . . I should explain to people that my background is I started at this as an academic, I was an English professor . . . I never was in the daily newspaper business until I started writing a column, I never had any real consuming interest in politics and didn't write about it hardly at all until the local newspaper asked me to write a political column that would balance their coverage. The paper I work for is strongly Republican . . . . I, in my naiveté, imagined that the national political press operated with the same values I learned in academia, in monthly journalism and book writing and in the law.

And what I've found to my great surprise is . . . that the Washington political press is more obsessed with order and degree than any group of mammals I've ever encountered outside of high school guidance counselors and my horses. There is a firm pecking order. And the question I get asked again and again is: "If The New York Times says A and The Washington Post says B , who exactly are you, how do you dare contradict them? And I've found by and large the national press doesn't contradict them and beyond that they take extreme umbrage at anybody else having the nerve to contradict them.

I think what happened very early on is The New York Times and The Washington Post and several of the camp followers that run along behind them like Time and Newsweek committed themselves to a "prosecution-only" version of the story essentially because they'd taken the story from Republican operatives to start with who suppressed half the information in the story, basically all the exculpatory evidence . . . . I think they committed themselves to this version of the story and I can't understand for the life of me why they can't back out, but they don't seem to be able to or willing.....

I said this in my book: the reason the general public has grown weary and bored with this whole thing, I think is, twofold: the thoughtful, the politically obsessed people who do things like watch C-Span, would watch the hearings of Senator D'Amato's committee, they would listen to the testimony then they would pick up the newspaper the next morning and then be amazed by the digression between what they thought happened and what they read in the newspapers. I think that a lot of politically active people were amazed and embarrassed by that and other people have just gotten bored and confused, to think that after all these years you still can't read a comprehensive account in, say, five hundred words or less of exactly what the Clintons supposedly did wrong here and they've decided that its all politics.

But what drives that kind of reporting? Is it ideological or does it have something to do with the mechanics of the news business, of not wanting to be beaten on a story or to seem soft on a politician?

Lyons: Some of it is ideological but not in The New York Times or The Washington Post, I don't think. I think that's more a matter of careerism: people are committed to a certain version of the story and 'hey don't dare go back.' I don't know why. If I get something wrong in my column I'm willing to come back a few weeks later and say, "Gee, I was sure wrong about that." It seems to me you have to be if you want to retain any credibility.

(It sounds remarkably like the Bush administration, doesn't it?)

Gerth is still full of bluster and the Times has never accounted for its egregious coverage of the Clintons' Arkansas period. The Judith Miller reporting wasn't the first time the Republicans leaked information to the Times so they could use the Times' reputation for being "liberal" as well as the "paper of record" for rank partisan purposes. ("Even the liberal NY Times says ...") They've been doing it for years.

Here's a little retrospective of the Wen Ho Lee debacle from the Columbia Journalism Review in 2001:

No one at the Times is even remotely speaking of the Wen Ho Lee story as fundamentally wrong, or suggesting publicly that it represents some kind of systemic failure at the paper. But individual editors do seem somewhat chastened by the experience and willing to discuss some of the lessons there may be for future investigative stories. "I think that the danger of investigative journalism broadly is to have too prosecutorial a tone," says Abramson, "and in hindsight, going over those stories and rereading them as I did, many times, there are a few instances of that -- words, balancing paragraphs, that would have been better to be higher in the stories."

Times editors also point out that Notra Trulock, after leaving the Energy Department, became a spokesman for the conservative Free Congress Foundation, raising concerns that he may have had something of a political agenda. But they deny that Risen or Gerth was duped by Trulock or anyone else.

For his part, Trulock denies having any agenda beyond shoring up what he saw as lax security in government labs. He says he voted twice for Bill Clinton, and that he took his current job because it was the only one he could find in the wake of the Wen Ho Lee episode. He was out of work for three months, he says, and on April 5 filed for personal bankruptcy.[Trulock also had a long history of inflammatory posts on Free Republic. He was a wingnut of the highest order. --- digby]

The centrality of Trulock's role in the Wen Ho Lee saga underscores, for some Times editors, a subtle and humbling lesson for all reporters -- that one need not be gullible to be misled. "Trulock," says Keller, "was putting the direst possible face on what he knew in order to get the attention of the people who he thought were not paying proper attention. His point of view resonated in the echo chamber of Washington to such an extent that it influenced the vetting process that the reporters went through. Jeff Gerth and Jim Risen published stories that had multiple, multiple sources and the sources were all confirming that yes, Trulock had given this briefing and, yes, this document said such and such and it all tended to reinforce it. But what wasn't really clear from the reporting at the time was how much of the confirmation was in fact an echo of Trulock's own briefings." Those briefings, numbering about sixty, occurred on the Hill, at agencies, and throughout Washington. Their contents, Keller says, "would pop up in intelligence reports and in congressional reports and White House briefings. You could find endless numbers of sources who had heard the same information, but a lot of it was Trulock confirming Notra Trulock." Engelberg draws a similar lesson. "What we learned from this -- and it's something we already knew, but one needs to be reminded again and again -- is that what you hear in Washington, what you think you're hearing, what you think you're seeing, is not ever the whole story. Washington is full of people whose knowledge is derivative.

"To me," says Engelberg, "this points up the great fallacy. There is a belief in our business that if you can get two or three sources to say the same thing or if you can find a document on which this is written, then you have something you can write because if you have two sources it must be true. Of course the answer is two people who don't know anything agreeing on the same story is not nearly as good as one person who knows something. So you get at the question of not only who is talking and how many, but what is the basis of their knowledge?"

That was 2001, folks. Sound familiar?

It seems to take a long time for the NY Times to understand they have a problem. Unfortunately for the United States, the Republican Party hitmen figured out how to punk them a long time ago. (And I'm sure they will be back at it as soon as they catch their breath and hide all their ill gotten gains from looting the treasury.)

I do think it's important to stress that, as far as I know, neither Don Van Atta or James Risen are in the same category as Jeff Gerth and Judith Miller. They have both done other good work. But it's a problem when reporters share by-lines with reporters who have credibility problems and Gerth has a massive credibility problem. It's a shame that Van Natta is going to get singed by them. (Of course, he may be in total agreement with Gerth that the NY Times Whitewater coverage was perfectly fine. I don't honestly know one way or the other.)

The Clinton stuff does not seem to have the resonance it once did. I saw Bay Buchanan hawking her new Hillary smear job on CNN yesterday and Blitzer pretty much rolled his eyes. (When he asked if she was qualified to say Clinton has a "narcissistic personality disorder," Buchanan relied "I have a PHD in life." Me too!) I'm sure it will please the neanderthal base to have their favorite whipping girl back, but only Chris Matthews and the NY Times among the mainstrem media seem to be as obsessed with Clinton gossip as they used to be.

But, I have to ask: why haven't one of these marquee writers from New York come up with a tell all Giuliani book? If they love the tabloid garbage so much, here's a guy with ties to the mob, a marriage to his second cousin, an ugly divorce and video of him in a dress being nuzzled by Donald Trump. I know it isn't a riveting as regurgitated gossip about Hillary Clinton from the 1980's but at least it's fresh. I really would be interested in knowing what makes Giuliani tick. He seems like a thug to me --- someone please explain why the most important city in the world elected this neanderthal mayor?

Do you suppose if we paid a right wing hit man big bucks to hand it off to a NY Times reporter over breakfast at the St Regis, they might jump on it just out of habit?

* Be sure to check out The Howler for additional coverage on Gerth if you're interested in this story. "The analysts" did a very thorough job of it, as always.

I'm very reliably informed that Van Natta is a Clinton slammer from way back.