Gerth blames NY Times editors for Whitewater “mistakes”

Former New York Times reporter Jeff Gerth has often been criticized for the reporting he did on Whitewater during the Clinton years -- reporting that prompted federal authorities to launch several fruitless investigations. Now, Gerth is finally offering up some clues about his past work. They can be found in the pages of the new Hillary Clinton book that Gerth co-authored, Her Way, a prepublication copy of which was obtained by Media Matters for America.

Former New York Times reporter Jeff Gerth has often been criticized for the reporting he did on Whitewater during the Clinton years -- reporting that prompted federal authorities to launch several fruitless investigations. Now, Gerth is finally offering up some clues about his past work. They can be found in the pages of the new Hillary Clinton book that Gerth co-authored, Her Way, a prepublication copy of which was obtained by Media Matters for America.

Be prepared to be disappointed, though. Gerth makes little effort to answer his critics in detail. He simply offers off some scapegoats and, when possible, buries his previous blunders.

In one key instance, Gerth actually points his finger at Times editors who have steadfastly defended his work in the past and blames them for nearly ruining his Whitewater exposé. Gerth claims that editors, without his knowledge, rewrote his first and best-known Whitewater article and saddled it with factual errors. The unsettling revelation, buried in a Her Way endnote, raises even more questions about Gerth, the Times, and their Whitewater misadventure.

Elsewhere, there's a lot of narrative improvements going on in Her Way, instances in which the book's depiction of Whitewater does not match the reporting Gerth was producing in the pages of The New York Times. In Her Way, Gerth papers over some of the most sensational aspects of his 1990s reporting, rewriting the Whitewater history and simply erasing chapters and events that can no longer withstand scrutiny. In fact, the entire premise of Gerth's early Whitewater reporting simply vanishes in Her Way.

But really, why fret about articles printed 15 years ago? Good question. It's important because Gerth's sloppy Whitewater work, picked up and amplified by Republican partisans, soon entangled the Clintons in an octopus-like investigation that stretched on for years, cost tens of millions of dollars, and even branched out into scrutinizing President Clinton's sex life. It's impossible to understand the Clinton presidency without understanding Whitewater, as well as the skewed media environment that spawned the phony scandal. The context also helps in terms of judging Gerth's current reporting on Hillary Clinton.

Whitewater's cost to the Clinton presidency was enormous. But that's politics, and there are mechanisms in place for public players to try to combat attacks like that. In terms of journalism, though, the much greater significance was the damage Gerth's reporting did to the profession and the way his dishonest work helped shepherd in a new era of Beltway reporting in the 1990s. During those years, iconic press institutions such as The New York Times adopted with disturbing ease loose new standards under which innuendo was enough to sustain reports of serious ethical wrongdoing and the omission of exculpatory facts was deemed to be acceptable, if not preferable.

It's no exaggeration to suggest Gerth ushered in the new era on March 8, 1992, with his first, and now infamous, story purporting to break the Whitewater scandal. At the time, Whitewater centered on allegations that the Clintons' (money-losing) Arkansas real estate investment with James McDougal in the late 1970s led to an elusive yet labyrinthine web of conflicts of interest once Clinton became governor and McDougal became the owner of Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan, which later failed and required a government bailout. According to the Times -- both its news team and its opinion writers -- Whitewater was terribly important, disturbing, and revealing.

And for years, Gerth's inaugural Whitewater article, which tried to lay out the premise of the scandal, was referred to in hushed tones among Beltway media elites, who dubbed it a landmark piece of investigative journalism. (It did prove to be a landmark, although not in the way Gerth's fans first assumed.)

Eventually some mainstream media players did dare to question the story, noting its incomprehensible nature, as well as its factual errors. 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).

Over the years, Gerth has adhered to the Times' standoffish, the-article-speaks-for-itself approach and said little publicly about his reporting. He has rarely allowed himself to be interviewed on the record at length about Whitewater.

Now comes the Whitewater endnote in Her Way, and it's a doozy. It appears on Page 109 as the book details Gerth's first report, which was published just days before the Super Tuesday primaries during the 1992 campaign. The endnote is connected to this Her Way passage: “The [Times] article pointed out that the Clintons had been 'under little financial risk' because McDougal had been making most of the payments for a supposedly fifty-fifty joint venture.”

First of all, Gerth ignores the embarrassing fact that the article also reported the Clintons “appear to have invested little money” in Whitewater, which was categorically false. (They invested more than $200,000; they lost about $42,000.) But we'll let that slide. To the endnote, which reads in full:

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.

Let's dissect this. First, why the passing reference to the fact that editors wrote the article's headline? That's because the headline was wildly misleading. The Clintons did not, as the Times stated, join a savings and loan operator in a real estate venture. In 1978, when the Clintons teamed up with McDougal for the Whitewater investment, McDougal was not a savings and loan operator. He became one years later. (The headline simply mirrored Gerth's disjointed reporting, in which he stressed, in the very first sentence, that the Clintons were business partners with a savings and loan operator.) Yet the implied connection -- the Times-fueled perception -- that Gov. Clinton was using regulatory powers to benefit a banking buddy became a key element in propelling the story nationally and sparking congressional investigations.

But the big news from the endnote is that 15 years after the Times' inaugural Whitewater report was published, Gerth now concedes that much to his “dismay,” the article was riddled with “a number of mistakes” caused by editors who had “rewritten” his article. Only Gerth's quick fix-it action, we're told, saved the article for subsequent editions of the Times. Unfortunately, Gerth does not detail which mistakes editors inserted into his story and which were corrected.

And what are readers to make of the fact that even after Gerth says he fixed the article, it still contained substantial errors, such as the allegations that the Clintons had invested little money in Whitewater?

More questions: If mistakes were fixed in the article, then why weren't corrections published? For instance, if you look up the March 8, 1992, Whitewater story in the Nexis database, no accompanying correction is included. I asked New York Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis about this. Her email response:

We are unable to address a question about the editing of an article 15 years ago, but if Jeff Gerth found and corrected errors between editions, the editors at the time apparently judged that they were minor ones.

Question for the Times: If the corrections were “minor,” then why would Gerth place a red flag in Her Way to let readers know that Times editors inserted mistakes into his article?

Question for Gerth: If you now concede that mistakes appeared in the original Whitewater story, then why were you bragging to the Columbia Journalism Review back in 2001 that the Times had never run a correction regarding the Whitewater story because “there's nothing to correct”?

It seems to me that both Gerth and the Times have taken the art of CYA to new heights here, and that's why I agree with my Media Matters colleague Eric Alterman, who recently suggested that the newspaper's public editor really needs to address the Times' role in all of this. I realize most ombudsmen prefer to address newsroom issues that occur during their tenure and don't often critique work from the archives. But with Gerth's work back in the headlines in the form of Her Way, which the Times' Sunday magazine recently excerpted, and with Hillary Clinton running for president, it seems obvious that the issue of Gerth's Clinton reporting is not going to go away. The paper, in order to maintain its credibility with readers, needs to address the thorny issue of Gerth's work at the Times in a serious and independent way.

Note to New York Times editors: If, over the years, you chose to defend Gerth's reporting out of some sort of fraternal newsroom bond, I think the endnote from Her Way, in which Gerth squarely points the finger of blame at you, now means that all bets are off.

Where did Beverly Bassett Schaffer go?

When Gerth's not busy blaming his former colleagues in Her Way, he's quietly erasing entire chapters of the Whitewater saga that he so proudly presented during the 1990s.

For instance, in 1992 and 1993, much of Gerth's prosecutorial Whitewater reporting centered on the suggestion that under Gov. Clinton in the mid-1980s, Arkansas regulators looked the other way rather than step in to shut down McDougal's struggling savings and loan. (It was up to vigilant federal regulators to do that.) Adding to the apparent conflict of interest, the state's chief savings and loan enforcer, Beverly Bassett Schaffer, was a Clinton appointee who had done volunteer work on his campaign. That Bassett Schaffer went easy on McDougal while Madison ran up multimillion dollar losses (and had to be bailed out at taxpayer expense) was an absolute centerpiece to the Times' early Whitewater reporting.

In fact, it's no exaggeration to suggest that Attorney General Janet Reno was forced to appoint a special prosecutor to look into Whitewater based on the outcries heard following the Times' December 15, 1993, Whitewater reporting. In that article, Gerth and Stephen Engelberg used extraordinarily dark tones to lay out a quid-pro-quo scenario that bordered on a criminal conspiracy to keep Madison afloat. Bassett Schaffer starred in the lead role as the corrupt Clinton lapdog.

Yet reading Her Way, which details Whitewater at great length, there is no reference to Bassett Schaffer, and there is no reference to the allegation that the Arkansas regulator turned a blind eye to Madison's woes in order to help out Clinton's savings and loan chum. The entire premise of the Times' early Whitewater reporting has simply disappeared.

Why? Because Gerth's reporting on Bassett Schaffer was categorically false. Arkansas regulators had no authority to independently shut down failing, federally insured savings and loans. That task was up to the federal regulators, who, during the mid-1980s, were excruciatingly slow in acting against teetering savings and loans nationwide. More important, Bassett Schaffer, cast by the Times as a hack who did Clinton's bidding, had written urgent letters to federal regulators beseeching them to take action against McDougal's savings and loan, which they eventually did. (In 1997, McDougal was convicted of 18 counts of fraud and conspiracy stemming from bad loans made by Madison in the late 1980s. The charges were unrelated to Whitewater.)

What's absolutely extraordinary is that Bassett Schaffer detailed all the pertinent background information for Gerth in a 20-page memo prior to the publication of Gerth's accusatory articles. Gerth and the newspaper simply chose to ignore the inconvenient truth.

According to CNN's Camp, speaking at a National Press Club forum in 1994, “Had that memo been quoted in context, I venture to say, the [1992 Whitewater] story probably would not have made the front page of The New York Times because it basically undercut the story's entire premise.”

Camp and others who tried to follow up the Times' Whitewater reporting soon understood the extraordinary corners Gerth had cut during the course of his work and the lengths he went to avoid giving readers relevant context. For instance, Camp visited the Arkansas Securities Department and searched through records that he said “were very clear-cut on how Beverly Bassett Schaffer had handled this. That Madison Guaranty had gotten no favored treatment.” Gerth chose not to include those records in his reporting.

At the same National Press Club forum, Stan Crock, then a news editor at Business Week, was struck by how Times readers were left with the distinct impression that McDougal's savings and loan was left untouched by regulators who were otherwise frantically shutting down troubled savings and loans. Noted Crock:

It would have taken one phone call to demolish Jeff Gerth's first story: a phone call to the Resolution Trust Corporation. And you would have asked one question: How many thrifts nationwide were closed down in 1984? ... The answer is nine. But you were left with the impression [from the Times article] that everything was being shut down all around this one thrift, and it was left standing because of preferential treatment. Why didn't anybody make that one phone call to the RTC?

Not only did Gerth not call the RTC, he also failed to quote the federal regulator who had oversight of Madison, Walter Faulk at the Federal Home Loan Bank Board. Faulk told Lyons for Fools for Scandal, “I never saw [Bassett Schaffer] take any action that was out of the ordinary. Nor, to be perfectly honest, could she have gotten away with anything if she did. To my knowledge, there is nothing that she or the governor of Arkansas did or could have done that would have delayed the action on this institution [Madison].”

Two logical calls -- one to the RTC and one to Faulk -- and Gerth's Whitewater exposé would have been obliterated. But the famed Times sleuth managed to not make either call, and Times editors never asked why. Apparently, they were too busy rewriting his article, inserting mistakes, and concocting a misleading headline based on Gerth's confusing reporting for a story that was never acknowledged to have been corrected, but did spark a federal investigation into the president and first lady.

Clark Hoyt, New York Times public editor, would you like to weigh in on this?