1 September 1999
Our current howler (part III): You talkin to me?
Synopsis: This press corps doesnt do self-critique. Fools for Scandaland Whitewaterproved 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 eraa 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 erato 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 Whitewaterthe
scandal story of the decadegot 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 articleand
Lyons' 1996 bookprovided 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 rampantindeed, it was universal. We have never seen
a mainstream punditnot onetry to evaluate the things Lyons said.
But then, press reaction to Lyons' work always illustrated
our basic point for this weekthe 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 officialwould sit by while an official accused
of massive error simply ignored the charges. No paper would accept
this from an office-holderbut it was perfectly OK from the Times.
Lyons accused Gerth and the Times of serious errorof "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? Neverand 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 somewherehe
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 chargesand 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 beatHoward 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.
Nopein 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.