As one with firsthand experience of The
New York Times' arrogant condescension, I've enjoyed watching
its editors get a comeuppance. Back when the newspaper invented the Whitewater hoax, executive editor
Joe Lelyveld accused me of "wild and shoddy journalism" for deconstructing its coverage. Declining to appear
at a Harper's magazine forum at the National Press Club, he maligned my work in a privately-circulated letter
to Times subscribers alarmed by its revelations. Typical.
In the end, my reporting held up. Badly-written
Times dispatches filled with semi-facts and half-truths did not.
Reporting a $200,000 real estate deal ain't brain surgery. Correct the errors, fill in the blanks, and Whitewater's
"scandalous" aspects disappeared. But Times editors chose to help GOP partisans hogtie a president rather
than write a correction. Had Lelyveld paid attention, he might have been spared the Wen Ho Lee fiasco,
among others. Alas for years, the newspaper's unvarying response to outside criticism has been :
"We're the New York Times and you're not."
Well, former Times reporters Jayson Blair,
Rick Bragg and, some say, columnist Maureen Dowd have
certainly taken care of that.
But enough is enough. Blair's plagiarism
and fabrications were embarrassing, but trivial in effect. Bragg's use
an unacknowleged stringer to conduct interviews was reckless and arrogant, but The Times uses reporting by
unacknowledged "stringers" all the time. The difference is that editors make the assignments and the newspaper
pays them. Bragg's assistant was off the books.
But if we're going to talk about phony New
York Times bylines, let's turn the wayback machine to 1996.
Specifically May 4, when the Associated Press filed a story accurately pointing out that Kenneth Starr's
prosecutors rested their case against Gov. Jim Guy Tucker and Jim and Susan McDougal "without showing how
Clinton benefited from a $300,000 loan as another witness had claimed." That witness was David Hale,
the noted embezzler.
The AP even quoted prosecutor Ray Jahn acknowledging
that an FBI agent's failure to link the $300,000 loan
to Clinton damaged Hale's credibility, but not his case. Indeed, Jahn's closing argument portrayed Clinton as an
innocent victim of Jim McDougal's schemes, as The Times and the rest failed to report.
But the AP dispatch got turned inside-out
at the New York Times. When it appeared in the nation's newspaper
of record, the article claimed that "jurors heard an FBI agent testify that nearly $50,000 from a $300,000 loan
was used to cover Whitewater expenses." Jahn's explanation of why the agent's testimony didn't hurt his case
vanished, replaced by a detailed summary of testimony that hadn't been given.
The article's byline was also misleading.
Contacted by former Des Moines Register editorial page editor Gil
Cranberg, the AP stood by its story. It had no idea where the "information" in the make-believe Times rewrite
came from. (Probably OIC leaks.) Needless to say, the mighty Times refused comment. A stickler for accuracy
and proper sourcing, Cranberg wrote it up for Harvard University's Nieman Reports.
In short, the famous "$50,000 benefit to
Whitewater" cited in many articles, columns and TV news shows over
the next few years was as fictive as anything invented by Jayson Blair. The byline was more misleading than Rick
Bragg's, putting the AP's imprimatur on erroneous information neither reported nor written by its reporters.
(If anybody wants to argue, I have the the agent's testimony on a floppy disk.)
Imagine the uproar on the right if somebody
made up "FBI testimony" hurtful to President Bush, then hid behind
a bogus byline. The offender would be hunted down and driven from journalism--and properly so.
Under what I called "the Clinton rules,"
however, things were different, and it was mainly the New York Times and
Washington Post that made them so. Read Sid Blumenthal's engrossing book "The Clinton Wars" to find out why.
Did Times columnist Maureen Dowd alter a
statement by President Bush to make him appear more callow and
boastful? Clearly, she did. Under the "Clinton rules," however, such trickery was commonplace. This column once
exposed a 1995 "Nightline" broadcast that deleted 39 words from a statement by Hillary Clinton, then accused her
of covering up the very information it cut. Last week, Chris Vlasto, the show's producer, was quoted questioning
Blumenthal's ethics in the Washington Post.
Also criticizing Blumenthal was Michael
Isikoff, the Newsweek sex sleuth whose book "Uncovering Clinton"
reveals in a footnote on page 365 that, having examined her employment records, he knew Paula Jones's claims
of job discrimination against President Clinton were false on the day she filed her lawsuit--precisely the grounds
on which it was eventually dismissed. Yet he kept that knowledge to himself and spent years attacking those who
doubted her of a "cultural double standard" and an "elitist attitude."
Would that be the elitist prejudice in favor of reporting the truth?
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