Letters

"The Gray Lady ... has become a tramp." Readers vent their frustration with the New York Times, wonder about the state of journalism, and discuss Howell Raines' disdain for Bill Clinton.


Salon Staff
December 31, 2004 2:00AM (UTC)

[Read "The Worst of Times," by Andrew O'Hehir.]

I would like to point out that there would have never been the problems of reporting on weapons of mass destruction had the Times in 1992, in articles written by Jeff Gerth, not gotten the alleged Whitewater scandal totally wrong and started this country down the slippery slope of kowtowing to the right wing's political agenda. What should never have been a story was in part given credibility because it appeared in the Times. Had Howell Raines been on the ball back then, the problems with WMD reporting probably would not have occurred. Unfortunately, the authors of these two books decided not to write about that case.

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-- Alan Snipes

If anything, O'Hehir is far too kind to Howell Raines. Judith Miller is not the only bad reporter that Raines protected. Jeff Gerth, whose bogus Whitewater and Wen Ho Lee scandal-mongerings were dissected brilliantly by other journalists, is still employed by the Gray Lady. Why? Because his bogus stories were directed against Bill Clinton, whom Raines hated with what other Timesmen considered a bizarre and unfathomable passion.

Raines gave the NYT's noble imprimatur to the worst reporting imaginable -- and in doing so paved the way for Fox News by making such vile and badly sourced "reportage" seem respectable. Jayson Blair's mistake was that he attacked the wrong people and he had the wrong skin tone. If he'd only had the foresight to claim that Hillary Clinton led that mythical gang of hackers, he'd probably be an assistant editor at the Times by now.

-- Tamara Baker

Andrew O'Hehir writes: "Raines was right, at least personally, about the PATRIOT Act and the Iraq war (although the paper editorially waffled on both). My personal, heretical view is that Raines was also right in his low opinion of Bill Clinton, but let's leave that argument for another time."

No, let's not. The Times' pushing of Judith Miller's atrocious reporting on WMD finds a direct corollary in its relentless pursuit of alleged Clinton malfeasance. This reached a crescendo with Jeff Gerth's disgraceful "Whitewater" investigation. In that case the shamelessly self-promoting Gerth relied on sources just as obviously biased and as unreliable as Miller's Chalabi stooges. In Gerth's case, Richard Mellon Scaife played the Chalabi role; where Chalabi wanted the ouster of Saddam, Scaife wanted the head of the president of the United States, our own country in case anyone's forgotten. Gerth and the editorial board of the Times (the same folks who would later bring us the Wen Ho Lee debacle) did as much as anybody to provoke and incite the media into giving credence to the rantings of folks with less credibility than the Swift Boat loonies. When "Whitewater" was revealed to be nothing more than a real estate deal gone bad, the Times continued to hector Clinton on the grounds of "the appearance of wrongdoing." Clinton may have been an ass, but hey, next to Ken Starr and his $70 million witch hunt he looks positively saintly.

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The Times offered no mea culpa for its disgraceful "Whitewater" reportage and almost certainly never will. But just as almost half of the American public still seems to believe that Saddam had WMD, thanks in no small part to the Times, so too I'm sure that the same half of Americans believe that Clinton (and his wife) were "guilty of something" in the Whitewater affair. While it is true that the lies given credence by the Times in the latter case did not lead to war and untold suffering in Iraq, it must be said that the Times' willful tarring of the Clintons damaged this country materially and, more importantly, psychologically.

It seemed obvious at the time and seems even more so now that while "Raines seized on Miller's WMD stories as a way to establish that his liberal views weren't driving his editorship," the same can just as accurately be said of Lelyveld and Gerth's less-than-distinguished coverage of the Clinton years and Wen Ho Lee. It is this pattern of distorted coverage in an effort to counteract the right's mantra of "liberal media bias" that, more than individual failures, should give us all pause when coming from the "paper of record."

-- Peter Gates

Kudos to to Andrew O'Hehir for his fascinating review of the two recent books examining the Jayson Blair and fake WMD scandals.

I agree with O'Hehir that the fundamental question about the future of the New York Times is " whether it can recover a sense of true impartiality and independence, or whether its editors and managers have become so snuggly with power, so seduced by the corroded political discourse of our time, that they define 'impartiality' as a point of perpetual, semi-neutral waffledom, halfway across the infinitesimal distance between Joe Lieberman and John McCain."

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I've sadly concluded it's the latter. Which is why I cancelled my subscription after almost 20 years. I wasn't just in a snit about Jayson Blair or Judith Miller's fake WMD. No, it was the relentless accumulation of bad journalism -- the trumped-up charges against the nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, the over-the-top, panting coverage of Whitewater and later the Monica Lewinsky scandals, the starkly biased standards of coverage for George W. Bush versus Al Gore and later John Kerry, the narrow scope of acceptable ideas on the Op-Ed page, and more.

In the past, I might have been stuck with the Times. I live in Minneapolis, where the NYT pretty much was the monopoly franchise for national and international news. But thanks to the Internet, I can now read a huge variety of news and international reporting and views. Which made the flawed, narrow Times coverage increasing hard to ignore ... or put up with. The Gray Lady, for all her moments of brief, shining glory, has become a tramp. So why pay hundreds of dollars a year to read this ... junk?

In short, I finally stopped trusting what O'Hehir called "the most prestigious brand name in journalism." And apparently, I'm not the only one.

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When I called the Times to cancel my subscription, the operator asked why. I mentioned the fake WMD stories and a few other things. She said, "Well, I'll just put down 'Lied about the war,'" leading me to wonder if "Lied about the war" had become a new checkoff box on the cancellation forms, along with wet newspapers and poor delivery service.

-- Lynnell Mickelsen

"Of course, you or I didn't know that when Colin Powell gave his fateful audiovisual presentation to the United Nations in February 2003, he was pretty much pulling it out of his butt." Excuse me? Many of us did. Head over to the Guardian archives and see how other countries -- even our allies -- reported Powell's claims with skepticism and followed up with articles that challenged his evidence.

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There was a reason so many of us took to the streets that month. It was not simply a knee-jerk reaction against violence. We knew our government was misleading us, that it was taking advantage of the sudden impotence of the country's mainstream press to do so, and we wanted to show the world that we weren't buying it.

I have no idea why your reviewer would gloss over such evidence in an article condemning the NYT for doing the same thing.

-- Lisa Nosal

The problems at the Times are not a reflection of the misdeeds of individual reporters or editors or even of a particular paper so much as an unsurprising consequence of the nature of journalism itself. Journalists, even honest ones, can't be expected to get at the fundamental failings of their own profession. Just like doctors or lawyers or accountants undertaking the analogous exercise, self-policing journalists inevitably focus on the famous few bad apples and not even the worst bad apples at that. They expect others to share their own parochial interest in the violation of guild rules about sourcing or plagiarism, but they don't hold their own kind to nonprofessional standards that can't be routinely gamed. The fact that bears repeating is that all the papers do a rotten job of conveying relevant truth to the public because that's not their real job at all.

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-- Jim Harrison


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