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27 September 1999

Our current howler: Heard no evil

Synopsis: The New York Times’ newest columnist--an editorial board member--hasn't heard of Fools for Scandal.

Commentary by Gail Collins, Brian Lamb
Washington Journal, C-SPAN, 9/25/99

Quayle Set To Quit Race for President
David Broder, The Washington Post, 9/27/99

Quayle: President in His Own Mirror
David Von Drehle, The Washington Post, 4/14/99

The analysts were enjoying a quiet Saturday, reviewing their Friday C-SPAN tapes, when a feisty caller from the sweet, sunny south caused them to snap to attention:

BRIAN LAMB: Brentwood, Tennessee on the liberal line for Gail Collins. Go ahead, please.

CALLER: Good morning, and I am a liberal. I'm not calling in as a conservative putting forward a conservative message. [Caller's emphasis]

Whoa, Nellie! The no-nonsense caller was tweaking a problem frequently encountered on Washington Journal—conservatives calling on the "liberal" line, saying you can't believe a word Clinton says. (For fun, we'll try to reprint an old study of this problem later on in the week.) Something in the caller's manner told our analysts she really meant business. And sure enough—the caller told Collins, the New York Times' new columnist, that she hasn't read the Times since 1992. Reason? The paper's Whitewater reporting:

CALLER: Jeff Gerth lied and lied and lied. His reporting was horrible. And let me tell you, if you actually went back and read his reporting on Whitewater, you would find out in talking with the people involved, he lied. He left out major portions of the story. And I won't go any further but—

At this point, Lamb asked the caller to back up her claim about Gerth. "Give us the proof that Jeff Gerth purposely lied to his readers," Lamb said. The caller cited Beverly Bassett Schaffer, the former Arkansas Securities Commissioner, who played a large role in Gerth's hugely influential New York Times Whitewater stories:

CALLER: She was interviewed for two full days by Jeff Gerth. She sent Jeff Gerth 30 pages of documents in regards to handling of the Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan and how she took efforts to close the bank...Jeff Gerth left out the entire two days of interviews with her, left out all the information regarding her background and what she did herself to close down the Madison Savings and Loan.

Though the caller never mentioned the book, she was describing a part of the Gerth reporting that was criticized in detail in Gene Lyons' Fools for Scandal. The 1996 book—subtitled "How the media invented Whitewater"—had largely focused on Gerth's reporting, and Gerth's treatment of Bassett Schaffer was a major point of Lyons' concern. In his appendices, Lyons reprinted the twenty pages of detailed information that Bassett Schaffer sent to Gerth during their original interviews; the material includes reams of plainly relevant info that was ignored in Gerth's reporting. This isn't the place to go back through Lyon's detailed arguments about Gerth's treatment of Bassett Schaffer. But Gerth's account of how Clinton appointed Bassett Schaffer to her post was one of the most troubling parts of the Gerth reporting—an example of writing so insinuative and misleading that it is difficult to believe it could have happened by mistake.

But Fools for Scandal attacked the press corps, and the press corps don't dance to that jive. Though the book was published and assiduously promoted by Harper's, it was largely ignored by the mainstream press; we have written before about the failure of both the Times, and the Washington press corps in general, to address its claims about the way Whitewater was reported. But just how completely was Fools for Scandal ignored? We hadn't begun to imagine until we saw Collins on C-SPAN. She started out with a general defense of Gerth (who won last year's Pulitzer Prize):

COLLINS: First of all, Jeff Gerth, everybody knows, I think, is a wonderful, marvelous reporter, and he's incredibly, incredibly diligent. I can't speak to the specifics of that particular woman, but when he works on a project, particularly one like that, he interviews trillions of people at great length.

Fair enough as a general defense of Gerth, although his recent reporting on China espionage topics is now the subject of considerable debate. But did Collins mean, in the remark above, she couldn't speak to specifics about Bassett Schaffer? It became clear that Lamb wasn't familiar with the matter:

LAMB: Is this, though, the power of the journalist, that Jeff Gerth may have decided in his mind that the woman wasn't important and so she was left out and therefore we don't know that she has 30 pages of documentation on her lack of involvement or whatever?

But Bassett Schaffer was a central player in Gerth's Whitewater reporting, the most important reporting of the Clinton era. She wasn't "left out" by Gerth at all. We were, to be honest, a bit surprised that Lamb was unfamiliar with the matter. But there followed an exchange in which Collins' professed ignorance brought our analysts right out of their chairs:

COLLINS: Well, that's certainly, you know—the process of reporting is a process of weeding. On Whitewater, I must admit I don't think there's anything that anybody has ever produced on Whitewater that we don't know about by now from some place.

LAMB: Have you ever heard of this accusation before?

COLLINS: No. No. This one's new to me.

Imagine. Collins became a member of the Times editorial board in September 1995; she was on the Times editorial board at the time Fools for Scandal was published. But, defending Gerth on national TV, she said she had never heard of one of the central complaints made against Gerth in Lyons' book! Is there "anything that anybody has ever produced on Whitewater that we don't know about by now?" Apparently there is! Indeed, a member of the Times' board doesn't know about the principal criticism of her paper's own reporting.

You can't blame Collins for things she doesn't know, but we thought the exchange was remarkably revealing. We've told you before that the mainstream press corps routinely ignores and suppresses press criticism. And how concerned was the New York Times, when Lyons' book attacked their reporting? They were so concerned that, three years later, a political writer on the board has never heard of the Lyons critique. No one in politics could ever dream of getting away with insouciance so vast and revealing.

But the press corps, readers, controls the press, and maintains those active memory holes. Fools for Scandal was widely ignored. We wonder: how much effort is the Times board devoting to complaints about Gerth's latest work?


Also heard no evil: We don't disagree with anything David Broder said this morning about Dan Quayle's withdrawal from the White House race. But we couldn't suppress a dark, mordant chuckle when we read the third paragraph of his page one lead story:

BRODER: The ridicule Quayle suffered in the press for his verbal gaffes during the four years after the elder Bush made him the surprise choice for a running mate convinced many Republican activists who shared his conservative views on economic and social policy that he was unelectable.

But the ridicule certainly didn't end with his four-year term in office. Indeed, consider the way the Post treated Quayle's announcement for president this spring. We quote from a page one news story:

VON DREHLE (paragraph 1): Dan Quayle doesn't see himself as others see him.

(2) That's the key, according to his close friends and advisers...

(3) Dan Quayle, the human punch line, scorned on scores of Internet sites, shoo-in for the late-night talk show Hall of Fame-enshrined somewhere between Joey Buttafuoco and Kato Kaelin. The man who said:
     "I didn't live in this century."
     And, at an AIDS clinic during the early days of the drug AZT: "Are they taking DDT?"
     And, "What a waste it is to lose one's mind." (He was trying for, "A mind is a terrible thing to waste.")

(4) That is not the way he sees himself. The Dan Quayle running for president is another character altogether...

"Quayle became a favorite target of newspaper cartoons and late-night TV comics," Broder writes. Broder engages in wishful thinking. Quayle was also a target of the Post's news reporting, at least on this April morning. Here's how the Indianapolis Star-News saw the problem: "It seems today's hip reporters just cannot bring themselves to write about Quayle without a sneer in their choice of words," the paper said. Unfortunately, Broder's own Post—not Leno or Letterman—proved the Star-News correct back in April.