When Lloyd Grove of The Daily Beast showed up in my email yesterday, asking me to talk about the New York Times and the Clintons, I should have known what to expect. I’m sure Grove did his best (and I appreciate the link to our new e-book, The Hunting of Hillary), but his post left much to be desired.
Grove’s fundamental mistake is to skew the discussion of alleged Times bias against the Clintons as Pulitzer-winning Times editors and staffers versus “diehard Clinton loyalists” and “allies.” Evidently, anyone who criticizes media coverage of Bill and Hillary Clinton falls in that latter category — and so he condescends to describe me as such. Whatever my views about the Clintons, however, my concern is fairness and accuracy, not loyalty to any politician. Are James Fallows, Rachel Maddow, Jay Rosen, and Margaret Sullivan, the paper’s public editor — all of whom have lamented evidence of Times bias against Hlllary Clinton — also “loyalists”? I don’t think so.
In my 2008 columns on the Democratic presidential primary for Salon and The New York Observer, Hillary Clinton suffered much tougher treatment than Barack Obama. It isn’t hard to look them up. I also assigned tough stories about her campaign, notably a major exposé of Mark Penn’s anti-union consulting. None of that was the work of a “Clinton loyalist.” Now I edit The National Memo, and Hillary Clinton has received no special dispensation here, either.
As for the question of bias in today’s Times, I sent Grove an email listing specific examples that he naturally ignored:
When Gene Lyons and I wrote The Hunting of the President in 2000, we showed how Times reporting on Whitewater had been slanted and woefully inaccurate from the beginning. Our viewpoint about that “scandal” was thoroughly vindicated. But unlike some other prominent journalists who were once obsessed with Whitewater, the Times editors never acknowledged its central role in that fiasco.
Over the years since, the paper’s coverage of the Clintons has veered back and forth, sometimes wildly — and particularly whenever Hillary Clinton is or appears to be a presidential candidate. Anybody looking for a Times bias can cite several glaring examples: the inaccurate front-page story about the Clinton Foundation’s supposedly shaky financing; the first inaccurate story about foundation donor Frank Giustra and Kazakhstan; the second highly misleading story about Giustra, Kazakhstan, and Uranium One; the peculiar “deal” that the paper did with Clinton Cash author Peter Schweizer; and the series of stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails, based on leaks from the Republicans on the House Select Committee on Benghazi — which culminated in the embarrassingly wrong “criminal referral” story.
Reviewing the Times’ role in promoting the Whitewater “scandal,” Grove is more misleading than revealing — and prefers assertions to basic facts. On the Pillsbury reports that exonerated the Clintons, for instance, he links to a tendentious article by Jeff Gerth and Stephen Engelberg claiming that James McDougal, the Clintons’ crooked and deranged Whitewater partner, somehow “protected” them from a financial loss. Actually, McDougal swindled the Clintons and secretly disposed of Whitewater assets for his own benefit.
Indeed, Times editors and reporters repeatedly sought to minimize the exculpatory findings of the Pillsbury report. They also failed to correct the false suggestion at the heart of Gerth’s original “exposé” — namely that Bill Clinton’s banking appointees somehow protected McDougal and his bankrupt Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan, when in truth Clinton’s state government did everything in its power to shut him down.
In an email to Grove, Gene Lyons pointed to this crucial problem, noting “the fact, which I think has NEVER been reported by the NYT, that [Arkansas] regulators removed McDougal from his own [Madison Guaranty] S & L and urged the Feds to shut it down long before they did.”
On the upside, I was amused by Gerth’s pompous assertion that his Whitewater reporting has withstood “the test of time.” (Equally comical is a quote from disgraced former Times editor Howell Raines praising Gerth as “one of the best investigative reporters ever.” Now there’s a reliable source!)
The test of time? A conservative estimate of the amount of taxpayer treasure wasted on “investigating” Whitewater – a money-losing venture that ended years before Bill Clinton ran for president – is around $100 million. Which doesn’t include the huge opportunity costs for the country, Congress, and the president, as well as the damage inflicted on many innocent people in Arkansas and elsewhere.
That enormous waste of time and money spent probing a defunct real estate deal is Gerth’s principal legacy to American journalism.
Interested readers can find a thorough accounting of media errors in covering Whitewater – and the troubling way that Republican lawyers and businessmen used both Gerth and the Times – in The Hunting of Hillary. It’s a funny story, if you appreciate dark humor. And it’s still available, free.
File photo: U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is joined onstage by her husband former President Bill Clinton after she delivered her “official launch speech” at a campaign kick off rally in Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island in New York City, June 13, 2015. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri