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.
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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?
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This leads to a larger and even more disturbing question: How much of the Times' coverage of the various Clinton scandals, from Whitewater on down, can be trusted? The answer: not very much.
It's time to unmask. Two years ago I wrote a book called "Fools For Scandal: How The Media Invented Whitewater," based on a lengthy article I had originally written for Harper's magazine
The chief antagonists in the book, it's fair to say, are the aforementioned Labaton and Gerth.
"From its dimmest origins in Times reporter Jeff Gerth's March 8, 1992, article about the Clintons' ill-fated land deal," I wrote in the book, "the Whitewater 'scandal' has worked as follows: Tipped off by an interested party, a reporter, editorial writer, columnist or Republican politician conceives a theory of what must have happened in a given set of circumstances -- most often circumstances altered by ignorance or suppression of inconvenient
facts. The theory gets stated as a rhetorical question: Did the Clintons do X, Y, or Z? Next, it is an insinuation: it sure looks as if they must have done it. Then, a conclusion: of course they did it, the cunning rascals. Eventually, theory metamorphoses into pseudo-fact: they did it. All without anything remotely resembling proof having been offered. When evidence to the contrary comes along, it's shoved aside, minimized or suppressed, a
whole new theory is created, and the entire press pack goes whooping off down yet another trail. If they were rabbit dogs, you'd have them gelded as house pets.
"To the practiced eye, the Times coverage of Whitewater has
followed this pattern with almost comic regularity."
One example each of the Gerth and Labaton method should suffice.
The implied misdeed in Gerth's original 1992 Whitewater story was that
Gov. Clinton had schemed with his handpicked state securities
commissioner, a woman named Beverly Bassett Schaffer, to keep his crooked business partner James McDougal's Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan from being shut down by regulators despite its insolvency, thus resulting in millions of dollars in losses to taxpayers. "In interviews," Gerth wrote in the Times, "Mrs. Schaffer, now a Fayetteville lawyer, said she did not remember the Federal examination of
Madison ... 'I never gave anybody special treatment,' she said."
About as guilty-sounding a non-denial denial as one could hope to
find, wouldn't you say? The trouble is, Gerth's characterization of Bassett Schaffer's faulty memory couldn't have been more misleading. Far from forgetting, Bassett Schaffer had in fact written Gerth a series of highly detailed memos, 20 pages in all, informing him of the following facts: The state of Arkansas had no plenary authority to shut the S&L down without the permission of the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation, which it never got. Second, on Dec. 10, 1987, more than a year after joining with federal regulators in ousting McDougal from control of the Madison Guaranty, Bassett Schaffer had sent a registered letter to the Federal Home Loan Bank Board and the FSLIC strenuously urging that the
institution be closed immediately. Fifteen months later, the Bush
administration finally got around to shutting Madison Guaranty down.
Bassett Schaffer not only hadn't dragged her feet, she had goaded
reluctant federal regulators to take action. Testimony at subsequent Senate Whitewater hearings would ultimately show that of all 746 institutions that
went belly up during the S&L crisis of the 1980s, not a single one
anywhere in the United States was shut down by state regulators alone -- a fact the New York Times has never, to my knowledge, reported.
Stunned by Gerth's selective account, Bassett Schaffer considered filing a libel suit against the Times, but eventually decided it was a no-win situation. Meanwhile she had amassed considerable legal fees and given up her own law practice to deal with Whitewater full time. She has never been charged with wrongdoing of any kind.
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Stephen Labaton's most remarkable Whitewater moment took place
during the Senate testimony of L. Jean Lewis, an
investigator for the Resolution Trust Corporation who charged that the Clinton administration had attempted to cover up the Whitewater affair. During the Senate Whitewater hearings in November 1995, Democrats produced evidence that Lewis had used her government office at least part of the time to design and market a line of "Presidential BITCH" T-shirts and mugs mocking Hillary Rodham Clinton, a fact Labaton saw fit to keep from Times readers.
But it wasn't until Democrats produced a letter written by a
Republican U.S. Attorney casting doubt upon Lewis' competence and motives that she really lost it. Rather than answer questions from Senator Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., Lewis collapsed at the witness table and had to be assisted from the Senate chamber, never to return. Thousands of viewers watching the hearings live on C-SPAN witnessed this amazing spectacle, but Labaton's story in the next day's Times contained not one word about the incident. Not then, nor since. But a Times editorial a few days after Lewis' appearance referred to her, apparently without irony, as the Senate Whitewater hearings' "star witness."
Interestingly, the Washington Post's "Clinton scandals" ace correspondent, Susan
Schmidt, also failed to report Lewis' dramatic swoon -- much as Schmidt saw fit earlier this week to leave out exculpatory information from her "exclusive" story about a former Secret Service agent who said he'd seen Monica
Lewinsky enter the Oval Office alone in the fall of 1995 carrying a stack of documents. Omitted from Schmidt's story was what the Secret Service agent, Lewis Fox, had earlier told the Observer-Reporter of Waynesboro, Pa., that the constant bustle around the president's office, not to mention the Oval Office's open windows, made the notion of a sexual relationship there all
but impossible to imagine. Fox's lawyer has since told reporters his client had no evidence Clinton and Lewinsky were ever alone.
Like several putative "witnesses" who've
surfaced in the Washington Post and elsewhere over recent weeks, Fox had seen no evidence of impropriety between the president and the intern. Absent Schmidt's tactical
omission, there would seem no "story" at all.
These examples of reporting by omission are not odd, occasional lapses. They are merely among the more dramatic of scores of half truths and murky narratives that have filled scandal-related stories authored by Gerth, Labaton and Schmidt. Exactly what's gone
wrong in the newsrooms of these august publications in recent years that allows such practices is hard to say. Could it be that the Times and the Post have become overly reliant on leaks from the special prosecutor's office, and for the sake of a "good story" have not taken the time to evaluate them?
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Which brings us to the most recent masterpiece of pseudo-fact and insinuation, published by the paper that won't deliver news unless it's "fit to print." Written by Gerth, Labaton and Don Van Natta Jr., it was published Feb. 6. "Aide said to give evidence in Clinton inquiry," read the front-page headline. "Secretary reported to turn over gifts president gave to intern," added the subhead.
The aide in question was President Clinton's private secretary, Betty Currie. According to the Times' anonymous "lawyers familiar with her account and his testimony," the president had a talk with Currie the day after giving his deposition in the Paula Jones case, a conversation the Times reporters portrayed as darkly ominous.
Currie herself hadn't spoken with reporters. Her point of view was
represented by a single sentence from her lawyer buried midway through the article. "Any implication or suggestion that Mrs. Currie was aware of any legal or ethical impropriety by anyone," stated attorney Lawrence Wechlser, "is entirely inaccurate."
Implications and suggestions, however, are Gerth's and
Labaton's bread and butter. In their land of double hearsay, we have "lawyers familiar with the
inquiry" saying what Currie said the president said. More than that, these knowledgeable talkative attorneys (note: The only lawyers allowed in the grand jury room are those working for Starr's office) also apparently were mind-readers. To them, "Mrs. Currie appeared to be a reluctant, but truthful witness who felt torn by her devotion to her boss and an obligation to tell what she knew to Mr. Starr, whom the White House has characterized as a right-wing zealot."
Anybody even remotely familiar with the ability of aggressive
prosecutors to prevent witnesses from telling a grand jury about
exculpatory information they don't want jurors to hear can easily imagine other reasons for Currie's discomfort. Armed with extensive FBI interview reports and unencumbered by defense counsel, prosecutors in grand jury proceedings can turn a witness
almost inside out. Many Arkansans have told local reporters of bruising encounters of precisely that kind with Starr's investigators.
According to Gerth and Labaton's characteristically convoluted
lead sentence, Currie "told investigators that Mr. Clinton summoned her to the White House hours after he testified in the Paula Jones lawsuit and led her through an account of his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky that mirrored that testimony." How many hours after he testified? Some 43 paragraphs into the lengthy article we learn that the discussion actually took place the following day. So what's the difference? The insinuation of Clinton panic is the difference.
More insinuation: "The President asserted that he had never been
alone with Ms. Lewinsky and that he had resisted her sexual advances, the lawyers said. They paraphrased Mrs. Currie as saying that the President had portrayed his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky through such questions as 'We were never alone, right?'" Well, we all know what that means, don't we? Ignore the fact that, assuming the remarks were accurate, they could with equal probability suggest guiltless incredulity on Clinton's part.
To a veteran exegete of the Gerth-Labaton oevre, sometimes it's what's not said that's most significant in parsing the text. Betty Currie, we are told, "has also turned over gifts to investigators that she received from Ms. Lewinsky, including a hat pin, a brooch, and a dress." The insinuation, of course, is that Currie retrieved the gifts on the president's orders. However, nowhere in the story does it say that Clinton asked Currie to retrieve the gifts. Hence it's reasonable to suppose that he didn't.
What Gerth and Labaton don't say about Lewinsky's New York job
search is also significant. "In October," they wrote, "Ms. Currie asked a deputy White House chief of staff, John Podesta, to help Ms. Lewinsky find a job in New York, where Ms. Lewinsky's mother lives." Notice how nobody says Clinton asked Currie to do that. Did it ever occur to these investigative reporters that Currie, feeling maternally protective, might have tried to help the ingratiating Lewinsky on her own initiative?
No. Rather, as has happened in the past with Clinton scandal stories, careless insinuation has metamorphosed rapidly into "fact." Witness the following paragraph from the
profile of Currie in the next day's Times by reporter Rachel L. Swarns: "Painfully and sometimes unwillingly, she has told prosecutors that Mr. Clinton was sometimes alone with Ms. Lewinsky, that the President engaged her in a series of leading questions about his relationship with the young woman, and that she retrieved a series of gifts from Ms. Lewinsky." No sources cited, no "alleged" qualifiers; just pure and simple fact.
By Sunday, Currie's purported plight had roused the wrath
of Maureen Dowd, the Times' venomously anti-Clinton columnist. Currie, Dowd stated flat out, "refused to go with the cover story. She did something shocking in Bill Clinton's Washington. She told the truth. In a
town so befogged in circumlocutions and deceptions and evasions and memory lapses and stonewalls and smoke screens and conspiracy theories and diversionary tactics, Mrs. Currie's straightforwardness was thrilling." Unless Dowd happened to be in the grand jury room when Betty Currie was testifying, it is difficult to explain how Dowd would know all this -- and be in a position to offer a rapturous review of Currie's performance.
To be fair, the Times' coverage of the Lewinsky controversy
hasn't been quite as monolithically misleading as its Whitewater reporting. William Glaberson wrote a fine piece on Starr's bullying tactics in darkest Arkansas, which appeared in last week's Times. On the op-ed page, Frank Rich and Anthony Lewis have mercifully been much more skeptical of the insinuations contained in the Times' news pages.
Still, something has gone very wrong at the New York Times, and to an extent, at the Washington Post. With comparisons to Watergate much in the air these days, it is sadly
ironic to read in recent memoirs by Ben Bradlee, Katherine Graham and Walter Cronkite of the intense pressure reporters and editors felt to be absolutely accurate when it came
to stories suggesting high crimes and misdemeanors by the President of the United States. Such standards now seem to be a distant memory.