Joe Conason's Journal

The once and current New York Times editor struggles to defend his own scandal: His paper's outrageous Whitewater coverage.


Salon Staff
June 18, 2003 9:18PM (UTC)

Lelyveld in Whitewater firefight The latest firefight in the Blumenthal wars can be observed on the letters page of the New York Review of Books, where the former Clinton aide responds to Joseph Lelyveld's review -- and Lelyveld answers. Today the Times editor takes additional withering fire from my coauthor Gene Lyons, whose Arkansas Democrat-Gazette column dismantles much of Lelyveld's defense of his paper's Whitewater journalism.

Much of the argument revolves around whether the Times adequately reported the findings of the Resolution Trust Corporation's report on Whitewater, which cleared the Clintons of wrongdoing in 1995. This may seem a minor point -- but since that report should have brought Whitewater to a conclusion four years before the independent counsel confessed there was no case, it isn't.

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Blumenthal rightly emphasizes -- both in "The Clinton Wars" and in his letter to the New York Review -- that after studying more than 200,000 documents and interviewing 45 witnesses, the RTC concluded: "On this record, there is no basis to charge the Clintons with any kind of primary liability for fraud or intentional misconduct. This investigation has revealed no evidence to support any such claims. Nor would the record support any claim of secondary or derivative liability for the possible misdeeds of others ..."

"Although the Wall Street Journal reported on this conclusion," Blumenthal says in his NYRB letter, "The New York Times did not -- except that two weeks later, a few lines buried in a 'News of the Week in Review' summary mentioned that the RTC had decided not to sue the Clintons, omitting any mention of its conclusion that the Clintons were not responsible for [Jim] McDougal's illegal actions and that, in regards to them, 'no further resources need be expended on the Whitewater part of the investigation.'"

Lelyveld mentions a small mistake in the hardcover edition of our book "The Hunting of the President," which was corrected in the paperback. When he says we claim the Times "failed to report" on the RTC report, that is a distortion. Actually, we criticized the way the nation's newspaper of record handled a major government report clearing the president and first lady of wrongdoing. After years of tendentious reporting that suggested their guilt, why wasn't such an exculpatory official document covered prominently and excerpted at length?

Lelyveld correctly points out that the Times ran stories referring to the RTC report on July 16 and Dec. 24, 1995, and on March 1, 1996. The latter two, he asserts, "focused on the conclusions that there were no grounds for lawsuits against the Clintons or Mrs. Clinton's law firm." Yet none of those stories directly quoted the RTC finding of "no evidence to support any such claims" of fraud or intentional misconduct by the Clintons. (The Dec. 24 article was a 628-word summary, placed deep inside the Sunday paper on Christmas Eve -- and curiously delayed for four days after the report's release by the RTC.)

Lelyveld offers various additional arguments on behalf of the Times. He repeats a tendentious claim about Beverly Bassett Schaffer, a former Arkansas official victimized by bad Times reporting, which Lyons corrects (not for the first time).

What really reveals the Times editor's mindset, however, is his ringing endorsement of "Blood Sport," James B. Stewart's 1996 Whitewater book. (He probably doesn't know about Stewart's sensational insinuation that Hillary Clinton committed a Whitewater felony, an error caused by his misreading of a simple loan document.) Why would Lelyveld so cherish the Stewart version? Possibly because "Blood Sport" was published before the RTC, the Office of Independent Counsel and every other investigation established that Whitewater was a pseudo-scandal. It's much easier to defend the Times if one never has to acknowledge the embarrassing end of this affair.
[12:45 p.m. PST, June 18, 2003]

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