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16 April 1999

Our current howler (part IV): The scribes that did not bark

Synopsis: When Gene Lyons raised questions about Jeff Gerth’s work, the press corps pretty much just ignored it.

Intelligence Report Points To 2d China Nuclear Leak
Jeff Gerth and James Risen, The New York Times, 4/8/99

Fool for Scandal: How the New York Times Got Whitewater Wrong
Gene Lyons, Harper’s, 10/94

Fools for Scandal
Gene Lyons, Franklin Square Press, 1996

In the part of their article where they make their nugget statement, Gerth and Risen describe two White House assertions about Chinese nuclear spying:

GERTH: [Administration officials] have suggested that there is no evidence that Chinese nuclear spying continued into the Clinton Administration.

They have also said that President Clinton acted quickly in response to concerns about security breaches at the nuclear weapons laboratories by issuing a Presidential order in February 1998.

Then, they make the following assertion about the topic of their article:

GERTH: Accounts by Government officials about the neutron bomb case call both assertions into question.

But it is remarkable how little effort Gerth makes to argue either point. Gerth quotes no officials--none at all--who assert that the “boasted” 1995 data theft actually took place. And, as we pointed out yesterday, Gerth nowhere argues that Clinton dragged his heels when informed of possible security problems. Gerth nowhere disputes Sandy Berger’s statement that Clinton was first briefed on the matter sometime after July 1997. Gerth nowhere argues that Clinton’s response at that time was anything other than appropriate.

Indeed, even Berger’s response to the initial 1996 briefing is nowhere critiqued by Gerth. As we’ve shown, Gerth does report a dispute about what Berger was specifically told at the 1996 briefing. But Gerth nowhere argues, or quotes others asserting, that Berger reacted improperly to the briefing. No one is ever quoted saying that Berger’s reaction was inappropriate or wrong.

It’s remarkable that an article that says so little can somehow seem to say so much, but it’s hardly a new thing for Gerth. Indeed, starting with Gene Lyons’ 1994 Harper’s piece critiquing Gerth’s early Whitewater writing, questions have been floating around in the ether about Gerth’s insinuative writing. In his original Harper’s article, and then in Fools for Scandal, Lyons charged that Gerth and some writers at the Washington Post had essentially “invented” the Whitewater story, and he accused Gerth of an assortment of specific misdeeds--in particular, of “suppressing or ignoring hard evidence” that would have shown what was wrong with Gerth’s Whitewater case.

On face, Lyons’ detailed charges seemed quite strong, but they have received remarkably little investigation. When Harper’s conducted a forum in October 1994 to examine the alleged problems with Gerth’s work, Gerth and the Times declined to participate. And several outstanding journalists who did take part essentially chose not to discuss Gerth’s work. For example, Jeffrey Birnbaum, then of the Wall Street Journal, said, “I cannot comment about the New York Times because, basically, I don’t work for them.” Brian Duffy, then of U.S. News, offered this longer comment (substantial excerpts of the Harper’s forum are reprinted in Fools for Scandal):

DUFFY: The charges that have been raised in the Harper’s article--of fabrication, fraud--don’t get any more serious. They are terms that I am not happy throwing around or defending, especially when we don’t have the Times people here, as Jeff pointed out.

I would have been much more comfortable had the Harper’s piece singled out me and U.S. News’s reporting on the Whitewater affair, or Jeff, Stan or whoever, rather than single out Mr. Gerth...I don’t see what purpose is gained by making comments about an individual reporter’s work when all of us who endeavored to cover the Whitewater story were possibly guilty of some of the same types of things that Mr. Lyons raises in his article.

It is understandable that journalists may not want to evaluate charges that they have not researched themselves. But seven years have now passed since the original Gerth Whitewater article, and the press corps has never really attempted to examine Lyons’ serious charges. In choosing not to explore these charges, the press corps has acted out its fraternal disinclination to critique or examine other journalists’ work. The result? Five years after Lyons first raised detailed, troubling questions about Gerth’s journalistic techniques, the Times has published another page one story which plainly does not argue its stated claims, and which is so confusing in its presentation that it appeared under plainly misleading headlines. Gerth’s original Whitewater story ran under a similarly misleading head, as Lyons pointed out five years ago.

As Duffy said in 1994, the Lyons charges were extremely serious. It doesn’t speak well of the mainstream press that the charges have gone unexamined.

Visit our incomparable archives: Review our four-part series on the Gerth/Risen piece:

See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/13/99: Gerth’s major article on N-bomb theft left all our questions intact.

See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/14/99: Gerth doesn’t quote a single official who says the theft actually happened.

See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/15/99: Gerth nowhere asserts that Clinton, once informed, dragged his feet or failed to act.