Fox's Howard Kurtz Vouches For Accuracy Of Flawed 1992 NYT Whitewater Story

Fox News host Howard Kurtz offered an erroneous defense of the flawed 1992 New York Times story that is widely credited for sparking the Whitewater investigations.

During the 1990s, Hillary and Bill Clinton were extensively investigated for their role in Whitewater -- a land deal gone awry in the 1970s and 1980s -- but all of the probes determined that no wrongdoing occurred on the part of the Clintons.

The impetus for national interest in Whitewater was a March 8, 1992, front page story in the Times authored by investigative reporter Jeff Gerth that scrutinized the Clinton's real estate dealings. Political opponents then seized on Whitewater to kick off years of investigations in a fruitless effort to pin wrongdoing on the Clintons.

On the March 15 edition of MediaBuzz, Kurtz reported that Gerth had contacted him to defend his “100 percent accurate” 1992 article, which had been criticized on the show the previous week by Daily Beast writer Michael Tomasky. According to Kurtz, “Gerth is right” to defend the article, which reported that “the Clintons bought land in Arkansas with the owner of a state-regulated [savings and loans company]”:

KURTZ: On last week's program, The Daily Beast's Michael Tomasky criticized the New York Times story back in 1992 that broke the Watergate scandal, excuse me, the Whitewater scandal, saying it had been documented to most people's satisfaction that many of the details in the story didn't hold up. Well the author, investigative reporter Jeff Gerth, got in touch to say the article, which said the Clintons bought land in Arkansas with the owner of a state-regulated S&L that failed, and Hillary Clinton and her firm represented the S&L, was 100 percent accurate and the Clintons never asked for a correction. Gerth is right. It's hardly his fault that Whitewater came to stand for so many spin-off allegations.

But Gerth and Kurtz are wrong. Jim McDougal, the Clinton's business partner, did not own a state-regulated savings and loans company when he bought land with the Clintons. (McDougal would later be convicted of fraud relating to business dealings he undertook as the operator of savings and loan association Madison Guaranty.)

As explained in the book The Hunting of the President, Gerth's Times article was erroneous because McDougal only became involved in the savings and loans business years after the land purchase with the Clintons when “the Whitewater project was virtually defunct”:

Unfortunately, its mistakes began with the headline: “Clintons Joined S&L Operator In An Ozark Real Estate Venture.” Actually, when the Whitewater partnership was formed in 1978, McDougal hadn't been involved in the banking or thrift business at all. He was a political science teacher at Ouachita Baptist University who had done well investing in real estate. McDougal didn't acquire a controlling share in the small institution he renamed Madison Guaranty until five years later, by which time the Whitewater project was virtually defunct." [The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton, page 34]

And Gerth's claim that his article was “100 percent accurate” is contradicted by none other than Jeff Gerth. As Media Matters' Eric Boehlert noted when it was published, Gerth's 2007 book Her Way acknowledged (in a footnote) that his editors injected “a number of mistakes” into the article and wrote the misleading headline that falsely insinuated that McDougal was an S&L operator at the time the Clintons made their investment. The footnote reads:

21. Jeff Gerth, “Clintons Joined S&L Operator in an Ozark Real Estate Venture,” New York Times, March 8, 1992, Al. Gerth, who returned to Washington late Friday night, did not see the edited version of the article until it was first published in the Times's bulldog edition late Saturday afternoon. To his dismay, that version had been rewritten by editors to include a number of mistakes. Gerth quickly corrected the mistakes for subsequent editions. He never saw the headline, which was written by editors in New York.

Boehlert also noted: “In 1994, CNN reporter John Camp, newly assigned to the Whitewater beat, said he counted no fewer than 19 factual errors or points of contention in Gerth's original article. Little Rock columnist Gene Lyons went one better and wrote an entire book detailing the inexhaustible ways the Times was messing up its Whitewater coverage: Fools for Scandal: How the Media Invented Whitewater (Franklin Square Press, 1996)."

Tom Fiedler, who is now the dean of Boston University's College of Communication, described in a 1996 column how Gerth's Whitewater story was “almost incomprehensible,” but “the fact that it appeared in so prestigious a paper as The New York Times insinuated that something must have been wrong. And that meant that every other baying hound in the pack had to give chase”:

Reporting on Whitewater and all its aspects is beginning to become a textbook example of ready-fire-aim journalism run amok. Ironically, about the only place in America that wasn't sucked in on all the alleged misdeeds has been Little Rock, where the local news media -- even the newspaper long dedicated to trashing the Clintons -- has pooh-poohed Whitewater as a non-story concocted by Arkansas Republicans that only the most gullible outsiders would swallow.

And we almost did.

The first reporter to fall for the tale was The New York Times' Jeff Gerth, an investigative reporter. He produced an almost incomprehensible report on the Clintons' Whitewater land investments in early 1992. But incomprehensible or not, the fact that it appeared in so prestigious a paper as The New York Times insinuated that something must have been wrong. And that meant that every other baying hound in the pack had to give chase.

The tale of the resulting journalistic feeding frenzy is artfully told in a new book titled Fools for Scandal, by Gene Lyons and the editors of Harper's Magazine. Lyons is a columnist for The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, a paper that, despite its title, has historically been anti-Clinton. He is also a former editor at Harper's and Newsweek, and has been widely published as a literary critic.

Lyons begins by showing how Gerth was duped by Clinton's GOP enemies and how Gerth's original stories were so error-filled, intentionally or otherwise, that one of the key figures, former Arkansas state securities director Lee Thalheimer, called them “unmitigated horseshit.”

Beverly Bassett Shaffer, Thalheimer's successor in that department and another figure upon whom Gerth heavily relied for his reporting, was so upset by the story -- although she was treated favorably -- that she considered filing a libel suit.

Nonetheless, with The Times' imprimatur, the parade of reporters from Washington, D.C., to Little Rock began, and most, like Gerth, ended up dining on the table scraps served up by Clinton's GOP enemies.


I know neither Gerth nor Lyons. But I have reason to worry about the former's work. The New York Times reporter ventured to Florida before the 1994 governor's race to report a story alleging dark dealings by Republican-candidate Jeb Bush with a Broward savings and loan.

Those same dealings had previously been examined by The Herald and found quite legitimate, thus producing no story. Yet when Gerth's again-incomprehensible version appeared in The Times, it became the basis for a long-running attack on Bush's integrity and furnished material for political ads insinuating near criminality.