Jeff Gerth's turn in the campaign spotlight is almost over. The former New York Times reporter and co-author of Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton (Little, Brown & Co.) is quietly winding down his publicity push for the book.
But before shuffling off stage, the low-key author took a swipe at Media Matters for America. It occurred during his June 11 appearance on Bill O'Reilly's Fox News program. Borderline obsessive when it comes to all things Media Matters (i.e. "that despicable website"), O'Reilly asked Gerth about the criticism Media Matters had posted, both about his previous work investigating the Clintons during the 1990s and his reporting in Her Way. Gerth dismissed Media Matters, claiming he doesn't read the site and that "dozens of reporters" he and his co-author had spoken to in recent weeks agreed that Media Matters is "irrelevant" and that they "don't pay any attention" to it.
It's a claim that I'll show is almost certainly false. In fact, the put-down simply reinforced Gerth's bad habit of leveling sloppy, often sweeping allegations that he cannot back up.
But at least the O'Reilly Factor exchange livened up Gerth's usual somnambulant talking points about how Hillary Clinton is ambitious (not that there's anything wrong with that), and that she failed to file proper Senate paperwork for previous fellows on her staff (Zzzzz). Suffice it to say that Her Way has done little to alter the campaign landscape.
In fact, during the book's media blitz, while Gerth was out making the rounds trying to raise doubts about Clinton's integrity (i.e. she plays "fast and loose with the facts"), the senator actually opened one of her largest leads over her Democratic rivals, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
Having read the book, I'm not surprised by the public's shoulder-shrugging reaction. Most reviewers agree Her Way contains little fresh, newsworthy information. Gerth and the book also suffered on the credibility front, with serious questions raised about his work. Gerth proved to be ineffectual in answering the critiques.
It seems to me that Gerth just did not understand how dramatically the media game has changed since he last charged into battle against the Clintons, pre-bloggers and pre-Media Matters. Back in the 1990s, Gerth's biggest hurdle was simply getting his allegations past his Times editors. (See Gerth's failed pursuits of Whitewater, technology transfers to China, and Wen Ho Lee.) And then, once the allegations were in print, he could simply ignore the questions they inevitably raised, knowing that Times editors would protect him as they had done for years. This time, though, Gerth had no defense against the fact-checkers.
Personally, I was not offended by his attack. Media Matters (myself included) has been dissecting Gerth's work for several weeks now, highlighting its many deficiencies. It was only natural that Gerth would lash out on national television and try to disparage Media Matters. That he did it on The O'Reilly Factor was revealing for a reporter who claims to be both serious and objective.
What was telling about Gerth's attack on Media Matters was how he overreached and tried to claim that the group is universally seen as unserious by bigshot Beltway press players. In order to prove that, Gerth, as he has periodically done during his book tour, started making stuff up, which, if you pride yourself on being an investigative reporter, is not the smartest move.
I want to really dissect Gerth's put-down because I think it offers insight into how the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist operates, his dissembling, and his disregard for the facts. It also spotlights the unusually imprecise language Gerth has used to defend his book. It's an exaggerated and inaccurate type of language that a politician or an advocate would feel comfortable using, but not most journalists who are concerned with facts and clarity.
Here's what Gerth said on The O'Reilly Factor:
GERTH: Well, as far as fellow journalists are concerned, they consider Media Matters irrelevant. We've been interviewed by dozens of reporters about our book. And they all uniformly say they don't pay any attention to Media Matters.
Where to begin? First, how about the fact that if Gerth discussed Media Matters with "dozens of reporters," doesn't that pretty much undercut Gerth's own claim that Media Matters is irrelevant? Meaning, why would Gerth waste his time talking about Media Matters with so many fellow journalists (more than 24, according to his own count) if Media Matters were beside the point? If Gerth and all his reporter pals are in heated agreement that nobody gives a damn about Media Matters -- that it's not even worth discussing -- then why was Gerth talking about it so often?
I think the flood of conversations Gerth claims to have had about Media Matters would simply confirm that the organization has been front-of-mind for him in recent weeks.
Second, assuming (for now) that Gerth did actually discuss Media Matters with "dozens of reporters" in conjunction with Her Way, my question would be: Who brought up that topic? Was it Gerth? And if so, why was he so anxious to talk about the progressive media watchdog? Or was it reporters who broached the topic and asked Gerth about criticism Media Matters had posted about his work? Certainly the latter seems the more plausible, since any good reporter would want an interview subject to respond to pointed, public criticism of his or her work. In this case, it would be questions Media Matters had raised.
But the same problem surfaces: If "dozens of reporters" agreed that Media Matters was "irrelevant," then why would they raise the topic themselves?
It seems the answer is either A) Gerth really did talk to dozens of reporters about Media Matters, proving that it is relevant; or it's B) Gerth didn't actually have those two dozen-plus interviews with reporters in the first place. And after searching Nexis, Google, and TVEyes, I'm inclined to believe the latter.
Remember, Gerth told O'Reilly that he and his colleague had dozens of conversations with reporters about the new book. That claim instantly struck me as odd. I could understand if the author had referenced the "dozens" of reviews of Her Way that had been published in newspapers nationwide -- but "dozens" of reporters interviewing the Her Way authors? That's just not how most book tours play out in today's media landscape; reporters, and certainly print journalists, don't interview authors much anymore.
And note that Gerth didn't say he'd had casual or off-the-record conversations with dozens of reporters. Gerth stressed he had "been interviewed by dozens of reporters" about Her Way, and in the course of the interviews, these reporters insisted they pay no attention to Media Matters.
But first, where are these "dozens" of interviews? Hunting through Nexis, and searching for interviews conducted prior to Gerth's interview on the Factor, I could find only three media interviews Gerth or his co-author have done regarding Her Way: one on NBC (Meet the Press), one on ABC (Good Morning America), and one in The Politico. And in none of them did the topic of Media Matters come up.
To my surprise, at the time of the O'Reilly interview, neither Gerth nor his co-author, Don Van Natta Jr., had been interviewed by National Public Radio, PBS, CNN, CBS, or MSNBC, among others. And I could not find a single substantive interview published in a major newspaper or magazine with the authors.
By comparison, Carl Bernstein, who just published his own book on Clinton, (A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton; Random House), has already been interviewed on NPR (Morning Edition), PBS (The Charlie Rose Show), CNN (Anderson Cooper 360, The Situation Room, Paula Zahn Now), CBS (The Early Show), NBC (Today), and MSNBC (Hardball with Chris Matthews). I also found recent interviews with him published in the Toronto Star, the Los Angeles Times, and the Sunday Times of London.
Yet uncovering the "dozens" of Her Way interviews reporters have done with Gerth and his co-author proved much more challenging.
That certainly does not mean Gerth and Van Natta hadn't done more than three by June 11. I'm sure they had. While the Nexis database captures virtually all of the major media outlets, it's not completely comprehensive. Searching for Gerth on Google and on TVEyes.com, though, I could not find any additional interviews he'd done about Her Way.
Still, after searching Nexis, Google, and TVEyes, I could identify only three interviews Gerth and his co-author had done about Her Way prior to the June 11 broadcast of The O'Reilly Factor. That's 21 short of the "dozens" Gerth claimed.
I understand that most current affairs authors such as Gerth also do scores of local radio interviews to promote new books. And those types of interviews are rarely captured on transcripts and therefore often go undetected by online search engines. But had Gerth done more than 24 radio interviews prior to his O'Reilly appearance? And to be precise, do conversations with local radio talk show hosts qualify as interviews "with reporters," the type Gerth had told O'Reilly about? I certainly would not label most radio talk show hosts "reporters." To me, Gerth's clear implication on Fox News was that he'd been interviewed by "dozens" of reporters from magazines, newspapers, and television media outlets. I just cannot find any proof of that.
And more importantly, even if Gerth did interviews with dozens of radio talk show hosts, according to his declaration, they all claimed Media Matters is irrelevant. That seems unlikely to say the least, since I could not find proof of any reporters who had made that claim while interviewing the authors.
Gerth could help clear up the confusion by simply detailing the 24-plus reporters who interviewed him and his co-author in recent weeks and who told him they "don't pay any attention" to Media Matters. Actually, I'd be happy with a list of just 21 reporters, or 17, or 13, or 6, or 2. Or even just one. Is that asking too much?
I doubt I'll get a response from Gerth. After all, he says Media Matters is irrelevant. Months from now though, when people look back at the life of Her Way, I think the consensus will be just the opposite.