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1 September 1999

Our current howler (part III): You talkin’ to me?

Synopsis: This press corps doesn’t do self-critique. Fools for Scandal—and Whitewater—proved it.

Fools for Scandal: How the Media Invented Whitewater
Gene Lyons, Franklin Square Press, 1996

A Conspiracy So Vast
Phil Gailey, The New York Times, 8/4/96

In his appearance before the House Judiciary Committee last November, Kenneth Starr announced that no Whitewater charges would ever be lodged against President Clinton. Thus ended the defining scandal of the Clinton era—a scandal that had begun with a lengthy story in the New York Times on March 8, 1992.

One would almost think that the political press would have wanted to look back at the Whitewater era—to provide some review of the six-year story that had dogged the Clinton White House. But in fact, Mike Espy's simultaneous acquittal on corruption charges produced far more analysis from the press. For three days, the Washington Post examined what the Espy case meant (the coverage included two page-one stories). By contrast, the end of Whitewater—the scandal story of the decade—got one highly-spun inside review. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/22/98, for our critique of that retrospective.)

But the press corps' failure to reexamine the Whitewater story was especially remarkable, in our view, given the way the original Whitewater reporting had been deconstructed in Gene Lyons' Fools for Scandal. Lyons, a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, first criticized the Whitewater reporting of the New York Times and the Post in a Harper's article in 1994. That article—and Lyons' 1996 book—provided devastating critiques of the original reporting on which most other Whitewater reporting was based. In painful analyses of page-one stories (which he reprinted in full), Lyons accused the Times and the Post of gimmicking up a journalistic "hoax." Lyons didn't mince his words. Try this for a nugget statement on Whitewater:

LYONS: Far from being the result of muckraking reporting by a vigorous and independent press, what "the Clinton scandals" amount to is possibly the most politically charged case of journalistic malpractice in recent American history.

When the Whitewater investigation came a cropper, you'd think that someone would have wanted to take a look back and see if ol' Lyons had maybe been right. But lack of curiosity in the press corps ran rampant—indeed, it was universal. We have never seen a mainstream pundit—not one—try to evaluate the things Lyons said.

But then, press reaction to Lyons' work always illustrated our basic point for this week—the mainstream press corps is little inclined to examine its own work and failings. When Harper's held a forum at the National Press Club to examine Lyons' 1994 piece, the New York Times, which Lyons had principally criticized, simply declined to attend. In 1996, the Times printed a review of Fools for Scandal which attacked the book in the strongest terms; but as Lyons (and a former Times editor) noted in subsequent letters, the review failed to cite any actual error in Lyons' work. ("Readers will have to...decide for themselves whether his charges have merit," the reviewer said, having failed to cite even one specific charge.) Extra!, a publications of the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, contacted Jeff Gerth, the Times' principal Whitewater reporter, to get his comment on Fools for Scandal. Gerth told Jim Naureckas, the FAIR reporter, that he hadn't even read Lyons' book. (Gerth did apparently read the 1994 Harper's article. He commented on it in a piece Howard Kurtz wrote about the National Press Club forum.)

It's hard to imagine that the Times would accept this approach from a public official—would sit by while an official accused of massive error simply ignored the charges. No paper would accept this from an office-holder—but it was perfectly OK from the Times. Lyons accused Gerth and the Times of serious error—of "inventing" a story that drove a six-year-long scandal. But how many times have you seen other journalists evaluate the claims Lyons made against Gerth? Never—and their curiosity wasn't even aroused when Starr dropped the Whitewater probe.

Why is it that Lyons' charges received so little attention? After all, Lyons wasn't some crazy guy with a web site somewhere—he had the backing of a major, respected entity, Harper's. But it's as we told you yesterday, readers: Journalists don't criticize other journalists. Press critique is simply not part of our current, ongoing press culture. There is no plainer illustration of that fact than the ho-hum response that Lyons received. His major book made serious charges—and to this day, the press corps has made no effort to sift through what Lyons said.

Tomorrow we'll look at the most visible scribe who does walk a full-time press-critique beat—Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post, host of CNN's Reliable Sources. At Reliable Sources, we're told each week, they "turn a critical lens on the media."

But one final note before that. In the past four weeks, there has been major back-pedaling on the case of Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee, who was strung up by the New York Times in its China spy stories this spring. Even TV pundits have been saying that the evidence against Lee may not be strong. And who was the lead writer for most of the Times stories about alleged Chinese nuclear spying? It was, of course, that same Jeff Gerth who did the Whitewater reporting. In our view, Gerth's writing on China displayed the misdirection and spin that Lyons scored in his Whitewater critique. We're not surprised that many are reconsidering the stampede Gerth's China stories caused. But why did such insinuative writing turn up again on page one of the Times? Because no one in the press corps said "Boo" the last time that it appeared there.

Nope—in the present climate, there's no penalty at all for the kind of writing Lyons critiqued in Fools for Scandal. Journalists don't criticize other journalists. We'd all be better off if they did.


Visit our incomparable archives: Gerth's report this spring on the Chinese N-bomb left most of our questions intact. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/13/99, 4/14/99, 4/15/99, and 4/16/99. Concerning Lee, Gerth reported a "suspicious hug." See THE DAILY HOWLER, "To hug a thief," 5/26/99.