The New York Times: All the facts that are fit to omit

Gene Lyons, an Arkansas reporter who has covered the alleged Clinton scandals for the past six years, takes a very critical look at how the New York Times has handled the stories.

Published January 30, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Regardless of how the Clinton-Lewinsky saga ends, Jan. 29, 1998, should go down as one of the most extraordinary days in the history of American journalism.

It was the day the New York Times ran the following four-column headline: "Ex-intern said to describe Clinton advice on evasion." Raising as it did the specter of subornation of perjury and obstruction of justice by a sitting president of the United States, the Times surely must have had information in its possession that was as hard as it was explosive.

So what evidence had the Times amassed? According to the story by staff investigative reporters Stephen Labaton and Jeff Gerth, an anonymous source identified as "an associate of Miss Lewinsky" claimed that Monica Lewinsky said she'd had a private meeting with President Clinton in late December 1997. At that meeting, according to this anonymous associate, Lewinsky said that the president had urged her to lie to Paula Jones' lawyers about their sexual relationship. Supposedly, Clinton also suggested that Lewinsky could avoid testifying altogether by moving from Washington to New York City. Equally damning, Clinton might have concealed the surreptitious get-together with Lewinsky from his own lawyers, according to the newspaper.

In effect, the New York Times had accused the president of serious felonies on the basis of double hearsay from an anonymous source. Evidence that would not be admissible in any court, or indeed until quite recently even in upper-end tabloids such as the National Enquirer. If nothing else, fear of libel suits prevented it. But the president, of course, can hardly sue.

So who could this anonymous "associate" at the heart of the Times report be? Linda Tripp, Lewinsky's so-called friend who surreptitiously and possibly illegally taped her conversations with Lewinsky? Lucianne Goldberg, a one-time Nixon dirty trickster turned book agent and full-time Clinton-phobe? Lewinsky's mother, recently brought to the verge of a nervous breakdown in one of Kenneth Starr's grand jury-star chamber proceedings? Lewinsky's one-time high school teacher/lover in Portland, Ore.? The teacher's wife?

And what was the "associate's" motive, not to mention his or her credibility? In literary criticism, we'd call such a source an "unreliable narrator." Not so the ace investigators from the Newspaper of Record. Trust us, they imply, we're the New York Times.

But the more you look at Gerth and Labaton's story, the more questions it raises. For example, it's not at all clear that such a "private meeting" between the president and Lewinsky actually took place, and if it did, the nature of such a meeting and its duration were also left unilluminated. A full 32 paragraphs into their convoluted account, here's the best Gerth and Labaton could come up with: "A White House aide confirmed a late December visit by Ms. Lewinsky to the White House, after it was reported yesterday." So did Clinton see Lewinsky alone, or didn't he?

As to Clinton's hiding the alleged meeting from his lawyers, even
the most credulous readers had to be struck by the iffy, hedging manner in which the Times reported this possibility. "It was not clear," Gerth and Labaton wrote, "whether Robert Bennett, Mr. Clinton's
private lawyer in the Jones case, knew of the late December meeting ... Mr. Bennett did not return a telephone call today seeking comment."

Two weeks later, Bennett still hasn't answered the question. No
ethical and competent criminal defense lawyer would. To admit such a thing would be prejudicial to his client. To deny it would be the equivalent of showing his hole card in a game of seven-card draw. It wasn't even a real question, merely a way for the reporters to indulge themselves in a bit of front-page innuendo that has characterized so much of the reporting on the alleged Clinton-Lewinsky affair.

Then there's the decidedly odd business, as reported by the Times, of the president supposedly urging Lewinsky to avoid a subpoena from a federal court in Arkansas by moving to New York. You would expect veteran reporters from America's leading daily to know that the only way Clinton's alleged paramour could avoid a federal subpoena
would have been to flee the country. President Clinton, a Yale law graduate and one-time professor of constitutional law, would certainly know that. In their story, Labaton and Gerth mention, almost as a recondite technicality, that "under Federal rules, Ms. Lewinsky could not
escape ... simply by moving to New York. But a move from Washington to New York could have made it more difficult for Ms. Jones' lawyers to find her."

At worst, this "difficulty" might have delayed the serving of a
subpoena for as long as 24 hours. Unless, that is, Lewinsky had
planned to change her name and leave no forwarding address.
Given the amount of money and legal resources being lavished on Jones' legal team by conservative donors, even a 24-hour delay seems overly optimistic.

There is another possibility, one that Gerth and Labaton labored mightily hard to ignore: that ignorant of the law, either Lewinsky or her "associate" simply made that part up. And if that part's fabricated, what part of the New York Times story, if any, is true?

By Gene Lyons

Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bill Clinton Robert F. Bennett R-utah The New York Times