Van Natta falsehood exposed: Anonymous sources far outnumber named sources in Her Way


Her Way co-author Don Van Natta Jr. claimed that, in writing the book, he and Jeff Gerth "were able to interview 500 people, many of them on the record -- most of them on the record." In fact, a Media Matters review counted 101 distinct named interviewees in the book's endnotes. Of the 873 citations to interviews, 309 were to interviews of named sources, while 564 were to interviews of anonymous sources.

In an interview on the June 14 edition of National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation, Don Van Natta Jr., who co-authored Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton (Little, Brown & Co.) with Jeff Gerth, claimed that, in writing the book, he and Gerth "were able to interview 500 people, many of them on the record -- most of them on the record." But contrary to Van Natta's statement that "most" of "500 people" he and Gerth interviewed for Her Way were "on the record," a Media Matters for America review of the book's endnotes found that of the 873 citations to interviews, 309 were citations to interviews of named sources, while 564 were citations to interviews of anonymous sources. Further undermining Van Natta's claim that "most" of the "500 people" were interviewed "on the record," Media Matters counted 101 distinct named interviewees in the endnotes. Moreover, in 11 of these 101 cases, the authors used the interview notes of other reporters, namely, freelance writer Dale Van Atta and New York Times reporters Stephen Engelberg and Steve Labaton.

From the June 14 edition of NPR's Talk of the Nation:

NEAL CONAN (co-host): And in that regard, Don Van Natta, let me ask you: This is -- this is not an authorized biography. You were not given cooperation by Senator Clinton.

VAN NATTA: No, Neal, we weren't. We sought cooperation from the very beginning. Before we even signed our book contract at the end of 2005, I phoned Howard Wolfson, a top aide to Senator Clinton, and told him about the project, and he sighed audibly in the phone, it was as if somebody had punched him in the gut, and said he'd get back to me. And that was the last time I ever spoke with him.

Loraine Voles, another communications person who works for Senator Clinton, met with Jeff and me over lunch, and she said that Senator Clinton had heartburn about our project, and that was in the very beginning stages. But Senator Clinton just didn't cooperate with us, she had her people urge others not to cooperate with us -- some of her friends and allies, as well as even other senators. Harry Reid, for instance, would not grant us an interview at the urging of one of Senator Clinton's top people.

So she tried to throw up some roadblocks, but despite that, Jeff and I were able to interview 500 people, many of them on the record -- most of them on the record -- And we also looked at thousands of previously undisclosed documents. And I really think we've put together a terrific portrait of the senator.

Van Natta does not define "on the record," but the context of the NPR interview and references in other interviews to "on the record" appear to indicate that Van Natta is referring to interviews of sources who allowed their names to be used. For example, on the June 12 edition of CNN's Paula Zahn Now, his two references to "on the record" interviews are to interviews in which the sources are named in the book:

VAN NATTA: They did, but in the mid-'70s, when they were in Arkansas, before they exchanged their marriage vows, they exchanged their political vows. And they decided they were going to go out and remake the Democratic Party and make Bill Clinton president. They did that.

We heard that from Leon Panetta. He heard it from Bill Clinton. The actual "20-year project" is a quote from Bill Clinton to Leon Panetta. And he told us about that on the record. Panetta heard it in 1996 on Air Force One.

Now, in '93, after Bill Clinton's elected president and Hillary is heading up the health care reform effort, again, there is another idea. Let's have Bill Clinton be president for two terms and Hillary will be president for two terms. That shouldn't surprise us, and there's nothing wrong with it. But in Hillary's own book, her autobiography of 2003, she doesn't indicate any impulses of ambition at all.

ZAHN: Yeah. Very quickly in closing: Taylor Branch, a famous author who happens to be a very good friend of Bill Clinton's, says that your notion of this project is nuts, that he is close to the president, the president has never admitted to anything like that. He thinks you're pretty much making this up.

GERTH: Well, we had two people who told us this story on the record [named in the book as Anne Crittenden and John Henry]. They heard it from Taylor Branch in Aspen, Colorado, at a barbecue dinner at a rodeo. And I called Taylor Branch and he didn't remember the dinner. Now he says he remembers not saying this particular conversation. And I'll add he is a respected historian, but he's also admitted that when it comes to Bill Clinton, he can't be objective.

On Hardball, Van Natta specifically referred to his interview with Panetta as "on the record," while not applying that characterization to a "second source," who was identified in the book only as a "former Clinton administration official [interviewed] in 2006."

From the June 12 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:

VAN NATTA: Well, Leon Panetta, who was White House chief of staff in 1996, heard Bill Clinton say it. The words "20-year project" came out of Bill Clinton's mouth in a conversation with Leon Panetta on Air Force One. We have Leon Panetta on the record saying it. We have a second source who heard Bill Clinton say it during the '90s while he was president.

Similarly, Gerth referred separately to their "on-the-record interview" with Panetta and "an additional source." From the June 4 edition of ABC's Good Morning America:

GERTH: That's not the source of the 20-year project. The source of the 20-year project is Leon Panetta, who was President Clinton's chief of staff in the mid-1990s. He heard this in a conversation with President Clinton in 1996 on Air Force One. The words "the 20-year project" and the description of it come from President Clinton himself, as recounted by Leon Panetta in an on-the-record interview, which has not been refuted. And by the way, we even have an additional source, all of which is spelled out in the book.

In a June 4 Huffington Post item, Van Natta again referred to the authors' interview with Panetta: "Despite a recent denial by Senator Clinton's aides of her early political ambition, this on-the-record description has not been disputed."

Media Matters reviewed the endnotes featured in the 27 chapters of Gerth and Van Natta's book (as well as the prologue and the epilogue). In the instances in which an endnote was plural (e.g., "Author interviews with Senate aides in 2006"), Media Matters counted two sources for that particular endnote. In the instances in which an endnote suggested more than two sources (e.g., "Author interview with several senior Senate aides and political analysts in 2006 and 2007"), Media Matters counted three sources. For this reason, the actual number of interviews conducted by Gerth and Van Natta remains unknown.

Using this methodology, Media Matters identified a total of 873 citations to interviews, with many duplicate citations (the authors' interview with Lee Telega, for example, was cited six times in the endnotes of Chapter 16; that would count as six toward the 873 total). However, of these 873 interview-related citations, 564 citations were to interviews with unnamed or anonymous sources (e.g., "Author interview with former Senate aide in 2006"), while 309 of the citations named the interviewee (e.g., "Author interview with Senator John McCain in 2007"). These 309 citations included a total of 101 named individuals:

Courtney Lee Adams
Mike Andrews (interviewed by Dale Van Atta in 1999)
Deborah Attenburg
Charles Babcock
Medea Benjamin
Bob Bennett
Allen W. Bird II
Allen W. Bird III
Jim Blair (by Stephen Engelberg in 1994)
Brooksley Born
Taylor Branch
David Brock
Michael Brower
Matt Butler
James Carville
Andrew Cobb
Randy Coleman
Michael Cook (by Stephen Engelberg in 1994)
Greg Craig
Marla Crider
Anne Crittenden
Erica Dart
Christina Desser
Mark Dicamillo
Vera Ekechukwu
Harriet Wilson Ellis
Rahm Emanuel
Joseph Farah
Peggy Cronin Fisk
Robert Fiske
Ron Fournier
Jock Gill (interviewed by Dale Van Atta in 1999)
Joseph Giroir (interviewed by Steve Labaton in 1996)
Bob Graham
Yale Gutnick
Lucy Hackney
Eloise Harper
Patrick Healy
John Henry
Susan A. Henry
Roger Hickey
Jim Hutter
David Ifshin
Steve Joiner (for Rose Law Firm)
Rev. Donald Jones (interviewed by Dale Van Atta in 1999)
C. Paul Johnson
Vernon Jordan
Mickey Kantor
Brenda Kawski
Sen. John Kerry (D-MA)
Bill Kisliuk
Steve Langdon
Neel Lattimore
Frank Luk
Loretta Lynch
Robert MacCrate
Jim McDougal
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)
Richard Massey
Rachel Meranus
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), via e-mail through her press secretary Melissa Schwartz
Dick Morris
Roy Neel
Mark Oleszek
Costas Panagapoulos
Leon Panetta
Anthony Paonita
Peter Paul
Jan Piercy (interviewed by Dale Van Atta in 1999)
Nancy Pietrafesa
Kenneth Pollack
Wade Rathke
Robert Reich (by Dale Van Atta in 1999)
William Rempel
Dr. William Rom
Chris Ruddy
Jodi Sakol
Frank Salvato
David Sandalow
Alan Schecter (interviewed by Dale Van Atta in 1999)
Pat Schuback
Donna Shalala (by Dale Van Atta in 1999)
Kathleen Shiels
Evelyn Shriver
Adam Sieminski
Professor Lawrence Smart
Kenneth Starr
Joan Swirsky
Lee Telega
Eugene Thomas
Susan Thomases
James Varey
Melanne Verveer (by Dale Van Atta in 1999)
David Victor
Chris Wallace
Kelly Waldron
Doreen Weisenhaus
Lee Williams
Frank Wolak
Jim Wooten
Betsey Wright (email)

Posted In
Jeff Gerth, Don Van Natta Jr.
Hardball, Paula Zahn Now
Gerth and Van Natta's "Her Way"
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