Jeff Gerth can't handle the truth
What happens to an investigative reporter best known for his role "breaking" three "scandals," each of which fell apart upon government investigation?
If he's Jeff Gerth, and the Clintons are the subjects of one of those stories, he gets to share a million-dollar book deal to recycle his own flawed reporting and rehash ages-old anecdotes.
And what did Jeff Gerth produce in exchange for his newfound riches? In Her Way*, Gerth and his co-author, Don Van Natta, compiled a laundry list of previously reported anecdotes -- some true, some almost certainly false, some "preposterous" -- and repackaged them for sale for $29.99.
This morning's Washington Post devoted a full page to recounting highlights from the forthcoming Her Way and A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton, by Carl Bernstein.
Like the compilation CDs offered for sale during late-night cable reruns of Back to the Future II that feature artists like Milli Vanilli and Rick Astley, the contents of Her Way and A Woman in Charge weren't that interesting when they were new. Years later, they seem comically irrelevant. We listened to that?!?
It probably shouldn't be surprising that new books about the most investigated, and perhaps the most written-about couple in the history of American politics (at least on a per-year basis) would fail to uncover meaningful new information about their past. Still, it is a striking reminder of just how thoroughly this ground has been covered before to see renowned investigative journalists like Carl Bernstein and Jeff Gerth reduced to breathlessly reporting "scoops" like these:
- Bill Clinton wanted to be president!
- Hillary Clinton wants to be president!
- Bill Clinton caused pain in his marriage!
But don't take our word for it. The early reviews are in, and they are bored.
Time Washington bureau chief Jay Carney wrote today:
[T]he revelations contained in the books are not of the bombshell variety. The idea that Bill and Hillary had a long-term "plan" for them both to serve as president is, even if true, not very exceptional. ... Telling me that a front-running candidate for president of the United States has actually been thinking about running for president for several decades is liking [sic] telling me flowers bloom in the spring. Yawn.
Politico reporter Ben Smith (who previously covered the Clintons as a reporter for the New York Daily News) wrote:
The most striking thing about today's Washington Post get of two, embargoed, much-anticipated investigative books about Hillary Clinton is what's not there: a single, memorable new fact that changes the way the public will view Clinton. [...] Instead, the books seem to flesh out a number of known anecdotes about the Clintons, from the newsflash that Bill cheated on his wife a lot, to the suggestion -- first suggested in Human Events in 2005 and chattered about intermittently since -- that Hillary didn't read the full National Intelligence Estimate before the Iraq war. [...] Also: The secret plan to make Bill president!
The Hotline's Marc Ambinder wrote:
Revelations are said to be:
Ooh -- HRC is ambitious. And ruthless. Ambitious people can be ruthless.
Ooh -- HRC fought to keep her family's private life private.
Ooh -- Bill Clinton had extramarital affairs.
Ooh -- the Clintons were worried about Whitewater.
But the only thing that really matters, politically, are new relevations about Clinton's marriage -- or revelations of recent misconduct by Pres. Clinton. There aren't any.
Other knowledge about Hillary Clinton is overdetermined, in sociological lingo. And there just aren't too many stories left to tell about Hillary Clinton, arguably the most scrutinized American political figure of the past 15 years.
It's hard to imagine we'll be talking about these books in August.
But while several journalists have noted the apparent lack of news in the two books, many have also praised Gerth as an accomplished investigative reporter. The Hotline's Ambinder, for example, wrote:
Don't get us wrong: the books themselves we will buy and plow through, and given the pedigree of the authors: Carl Bernstein, Don Van Natta, Jeff Gerth -- they are certain to be well-reported and worth the money.
The American Prospect's Garance Franke-Ruta wrote that she was surprised by the tone of Her Way because of the authors' pedigree:
The Clinton campaign's attempt to "yawn" off the book doesn't give you much sense of its actual flavor, which is too bad, because its opening tone is surprisingly nasty. And yes, I know it's the Clintons we're talking about, so that nastiness should never come as a shock, but these are Timesmen, of whom I would expect better, even in their private efforts.
In the Washington Post, Peter Baker and John Solomon made only passing mention of Gerth's background:
Unlike many harsh books about Clinton written by ideological enemies, the two new volumes come from long-established writers backed by major publishing houses and could be harder to dismiss. Bernstein won national fame with partner Bob Woodward at The Post for breaking open the Watergate scandal, while Gerth and Van Natta have spent years as investigative reporters for the New York Times.
And that's all Solomon and Baker wrote about Gerth's career. They gave readers not even a hint about Gerth's history of shoddy reporting, or that Gerth wrote countless Whitewater articles for the Times, or that his Whitewater reporting has been roundly criticized by fellow journalists, independent observers, and Clinton allies.
Yesterday, Media Matters posted a brief overview of criticism of the three stories for which Gerth is best known.
But we needn't look to the past to see examples of Gerth's flawed reporting.
Indeed, a copy of Her Way obtained by Media Matters nicely illustrates the approach Gerth has taken to reporting about the Clintons. In the second footnote to Chapter 12, Gerth and Van Natta write in defense of the minimal coverage Gerth and The New York Times gave to a Resolution Trust Corp. report that exonerated the Clintons:
In their autobiographies, Bill and Hillary are especially critical of the New York Times and its reporter who broke the Whitewater story, Jeff Gerth. Both Bill and Hillary's books also falsely describe the Times's coverage of the Pillsbury, Madison report. In his book, Bill observes that the newspaper "didn't run a word" about the law firm's report, while Hillary, in her book, says the Times "ran a few paragraphs on the report." (See Clinton, My Life, 692, and Clinton, Living History, 328.) The newspaper's coverage was neither nonexistent nor a few paragraphs. The first Times article on the report was a 1,792-word article on July 16, 1995, when the report was still in draft form. Six months later, when the final report - essentially a duplicate of the draft report -- was released, a shorter piece, thirteen paragraphs was published. Two months later, the Times published two more pieces about an addendum to the report, one at 419 words and one at 1,168 words. The four articles: Jeff Gerth and Stephen Engelberg, "Documents Show Clintons Got Vast Benefit from Their Partner in Whitewater Deal," New York Times, July 16, 1995, 18; Stephen Labaton, "Savings and Loan Bailout Agency Will not Sue the Clintons," New York Times, December 24, 1995, 12; Irvin Molosky, "Banking Agency Will Not Sue First Lady's Former Law Firm," New York Times, February 29, 1996, 18; and Neil Lewis, "Agency Won't Sue Hillary Clinton's Former Law Firm," New York Times, March 1, 1996, 25.
This footnote can only be described as disingenuous. In defending Gerth and the Times from the criticism that they downplayed the Pillsbury report for the RTC, Gerth and Van Natta tout four articles the newspaper ran that mentioned the report. It is telling that Gerth and Van Natta focus on the length of those articles rather than the content, for the actual articles fatally undermine the defense of the Times.
Remember: the Pillsbury Madison Sutro report for the Resolution Trust Corporation exonerated the Clintons. As Gerth and Van Natta write in Her Way, the report found "no reason to sue various parties, including the Clintons, for losses stemming from the collapse of Madison." Madison's failure was one of the keys to the whole Whitewater "scandal." Gerth's original Whitewater article, published on March 8, 1992, led with a suggestion that the Clintons had something to do with the S&L's struggles: "Bill Clinton and his wife were business partners with the owner of a failing savings and loan association that was subject to state regulation early in his tenure as Governor of Arkansas, records show."
So the Pillsbury report's conclusion that there was no reason to sue the Clintons for Madison's failure should have helped bring the faux-scandal to a close. But it didn't; as Gerth and Van Natta note in Her Way, "the decision not to sue them did little to remove the cloud of suspicion hanging over the president and First Lady."
That's where Gerth and the Times come in. Gerth and Van Natta defend the paper's treatment of the Pillsbury report by noting: "The first Times article on the report was a 1,792-word article on July 16, 1995, when the report was still in draft form." That article, as Gerth and Van Natta note, was headlined "Documents Show Clintons Got Vast Benefit from Their Partner in Whitewater Deal." That certainly doesn't sound like an article that gives proper due to the fact that the report exonerated the Clintons, does it?
In fact, the article twisted the Pillsbury report into a figurative, if not literal, indictment of the Clintons. The article, which listed Jeff Gerth as the lead reporter, began:
From the moment questions about the Whitewater real estate venture began arising nearly three years ago, the main defense by President Clinton and his wife, Hillary, has been that they lost money on the ill-fated deal and were personally liable for its extensive bank loans.
But newly available documents -- including the first completed independent review of Whitewater, prepared for a Federal agency by a law firm -- cast both positions in a new light.
The review shows that the Clintons' partner in the deal, the owner of an Arkansas savings and loan association whose failure cost the Federal Government $60 million, shielded them, to an extent far greater than previously reported, from paying their half of Whitewater's losses.
From 1980 to 1986, that partner, James B. McDougal, advanced the Whitewater venture the $100,000 it needed to avoid a messy default on its bank loans, while the Clintons, half-owners of the corporation, contributed nothing, the report says.
It wasn't until the 23rd paragraph, more than 900 words into the article, that the first piece of exculpatory information was revealed:
The report said investigators could not determine "how much, if anything, the Clintons knew about the McDougals' advances to Whitewater." It explicitly supports the Clinton's oft-repeated assertion that they were "passive investors" in Whitewater and had little role in its financial management until 1988.
Having gotten that out of his system, Gerth immediately returned to insinuating wrongdoing:
But it includes some newly available documents showing that the chaotic finances of Whitewater did occasionally require the earlier attention of the Clintons. Taken together, those documents suggest that the couple could have had reason to suspect that the venture was failing to pay its bills.
Buried at the end of the article -- nearly 1,600 words in -- Gerth finally got around to acknowledging that "The report offers no evidence that Mr. [James] McDougal benefited from his relationship with Mr. Clinton."
By contrast, The Wall Street Journal had reported on the Pillsbury draft three weeks earlier -- and had emphasized that the report cleared the Clintons. The Journal article, headlined "Clintons Are Vindicated in New Report On Collapse of Madison Guaranty S&L," began:
A long-awaited report on the collapse of Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan corroborates most of President and Mrs. Clinton's assertions about their Whitewater real-estate investment.
The report to the Resolution Trust Corp. is noteworthy because White House aides were upset when the agency retained Jay Stephens, a Republican critic of the president, to prepare an analysis of civil liability stemming from Madison's collapse.
The Journal went on to note that the Pillsbury report "largely confirm[ed]" then-First Lady Hillary Clinton's accounts of her role in Whitewater, and that the report verified the Clintons' statements about their Whitewater losses.
So, the July 16, 1995, New York Times article actually supports the contention that Gerth and the Times downplayed the RTC's exoneration of the Clintons. In defense of Gerth and the Times, Gerth and Van Natta next point to Stephen Labaton's December 24, 1995, article, headlined "Savings and Loan Bailout Agency Will not Sue the Clintons."
This article came four days after the final RTC decision had been made public and was buried on page 12 of the Christmas Eve edition of the Times. Eight previous days that month, the Times had splashed Whitewater articles on its front page, including front-pagers on December 19, 21, 22, and 23. Simply put, the Times was pushing the "scandal," and pushing it hard: A search of the Lexis-Nexis database of Times articles yields 58 results mentioning "Clinton" and "Whitewater" in December 1995 alone. But when there was exculpatory news to report, the Times shoved it deep inside the paper on Christmas Eve, four days after the news happened. Oh, and the Times once again downplayed the extent to which the report vindicated the Clintons:
While the report was hailed by both the Clintons and Democrats in Congress as a complete exoneration of the First Family, it is not expected to have any effect on the significantly broader investigation of the President, Mrs. Clinton and Madison Guaranty being conducted by the Whitewater independent counsel, Kenneth W. Starr.
The report noted that its authors had been unable to interview a number of important witnesses, some of whom have been cooperating with the Whitewater independent counsel. It said its conclusions did not demonstrate that the transactions at issue "have been proved legitimate or that the evidence exonerates anyone; it simply means that no basis has been found to sue anyone, or in some instances that litigation would not be cost-effective."
Again, this is remarkably poor basis on which to defend the Times' coverage of the RTC report.
The other two articles Gerth and Van Natta point to also undermine their defense of the Times. The February 1996 article was fewer than 500 words and was placed on page 18; the March 1996 story ran on page 25. This last article finally included a somewhat detailed description of exculpatory conclusions. But given that it appeared roughly nine months after The Wall Street Journal reported that Pillsbury "vindicated" the Clintons, it is simply absurd to use the March 1996 article as evidence that the Times gave the exculpatory report adequate coverage.
To sum up: In Her Way, Gerth and Van Natta defend Gerth and the Times from criticism that they gave insufficient coverage to the RTC's exoneration of the Clintons. In order to do so, they point to an article that portrayed the report as undermining the Clintons, another report that was buried deep inside the Christmas Eve edition of the newspaper four days after the RTC decision was made public, another very brief article that ran months later, and a fourth article -- the first that actually included much in the way of exculpatory information -- that appeared nearly nine months after The Wall Street Journal had reported "Clintons Are Vindicated in New Report ..."
If Gerth and Van Natta had wanted to criticize Gerth and the Times' handling of the RTC report, they could hardly have found a better way to make their case than to point to the four articles they note in defense of Gerth and the Times.
But what is truly incredible about the defense by Gerth and Van Natta is that Media Matters pointed all of this out to Jeff Gerth in response to a question he asked while reporting his book.
Gerth emailed several questions for Media Matters President and CEO David Brock; the answers to some of those questions are referenced in the footnotes to Her Way. In his ninth question to Brock, Gerth offered a defense of his and the Times' coverage of the Pillsbury report that is substantively the same as the defense that appears in the footnotes to Her Way. In response, Brock explained why the four articles Gerth cited actually confirm, rather than rebut, the suggestion that Gerth and the Times didn't give the report adequate coverage. (Click here to view a PDF of Gerth's question and Brock's full response.)
Gerth and Van Natta omitted any mention of Brock's explanation, pretending instead that an article that portrayed the Pillsbury report as drawing conclusions damaging to the Clintons is a defense against charges that the paper downplayed exculpatory information.
If that seems like odd behavior for someone trying to defend himself from allegations that he has ignored evidence that doesn't fit his preconceived notions, it also must sound painfully familiar to anyone who remembers Gerth's treatment of Beverly Bassett Schaffer.
In his original March 8, 1992, Whitewater article, Gerth reported on Bill Clinton's appointment of Bassett Schaffer to be Arkansas Securities Commissioner:
After Federal regulators found that Mr. McDougal's savings institution, Madison Guaranty, was insolvent, meaning it faced possible closure by the state, Mr. Clinton appointed a new state securities commissioner, who had been a lawyer in a firm that represented the savings and loan. Mr. Clinton and the commissioner deny giving any preferential treatment. The new commissioner approved two novel proposals to help the savings and loan that were offered by Hillary Clinton, Governor Clinton's wife and a lawyer. She and her firm had been retained to represent the association.
As Arkansas journalist Gene Lyons explained in a 1994 Harper's article that grew into the 1996 book Fools for Scandal: How the Media Invented Whitewater, Gerth's portrayal of Bassett Schaffer's appointment was deeply misleading:
The clear implication is that in response to a Federal Home Loan Bank Board report dated January 20, 1984, suggesting that Madison might be insolvent, Clinton in January 1985 installed Bassett Schaffer as Arkansas securities commissioner for the purpose of protecting McDougal.
So how come he waited an entire year? In reality, the timing of Bassett Schaffer's appointment had nothing to do with the FHLBB report, which there's no reason to think Clinton knew about. (The Clintons had no financial stake in Madison Guaranty, although that, too, has been obscured.) The fact is that Bill Clinton had to find a new commissioner in January 1985 because the incumbent, Lee Thalhiemer, had resigned to reenter private practice. Appointed by Republican Governor Frank White and kept on by Clinton, Thalhiemer says he told Gerth this in an interview, and describes the Times version as "unmitigated horseshit."
According to Lyons and fellow journalist Joe Conason in their book The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton, Bassett Schaffer had provided Gerth with "twenty pages of memoranda" that he ignored prior to writing his article. According to Conason and Lyons:
Arkansas had no authority to close state-regulated S&Ls without the concurrence of the federal agencies who held the real power. "It may be important for you to know," Bassett Shaffer had written Gerth, "that state law grants the savings and loan supervisor no emergency acquisition authority similar to that of the FHLBB and FSLIC (the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation)." Subsequent Senate hearings would establish that not one of the 746 institutions that failed during the S&L crisis of the eighties was shut down by state officials anywhere in the country. Bassett Schaffer had been an active participant in a July 1986 decision to remove Jim and Susan McDougal from control of Madison Guaranty S&L after auditors discovered his insider trading and other abuses. She had also directed the Times reporter's attention to her certified letter dated December 10, 1987, all but begging federal regulators to shut down Madison and two much larger Arkansas S&Ls.
When the Times story appeared, Bassett Schaffer briefly considered filing a libel suit. "I provided you with a detailed account in writing of the facts," she wrote Gerth bitterly. "This information was ignored and, instead, you based your story on the word of a mentally ill man [McDougal] I have never met and documents which you admitted to me on the telephone on February 26, 1992, were incomplete." He never wrote back to her. "I subsequently had conversations with her in which I tried to explain the situation. I sought to come down and meet her," he said later. "I had hoped to explain what happened with the editing of the first piece. She never would agree to see me."
In an October 29, 1994, Washington Post article, Howard Kurtz quoted Gerth explaining his decision not to quote the memo Bassett Schaffer had given him: "I had 1,500 words. She was a tangential part of the story."
"Tangential"? The sixth paragraph of Gerth's article was about Bassett Schaffer. Paragraphs comprising nearly 20 percent of the article dealt directly with her. If that is a "tangential" part on the story, how in the world can Gerth pretend that the July 16, 1995 Times article made anything other than "tangential" mention of exculpatory conclusions drawn by the RTC?
In 1992, Gerth ignored a lengthy memorandum from Bassett Schaffer, then portrayed her appointment and actions as securities commissioner so misleadingly that her Republican-appointed predecessor described his account as "unmitigated horseshit."
In 2007, Gerth ignored Media Matters' lengthy explanation of the shortcomings of Gerth and the Times' coverage on the Pillsbury report, then offered a misleading defense of that coverage.
After 15 years, Jeff Gerth is still ignoring information that doesn't fit his story. Gerth apparently hasn't learned from his mistakes. Hopefully the news organizations that repeated his overheated reporting in the 1990s have learned from theirs, and will take his reporting about the Clintons with a shaker of salt.
Correction: This item originally, in several instances, referred erroneously to Gerth and Van Natta's book as "Her Story." Media Matters regrets the error.