The Reporter Who Hyped Whitewater Now Backs Trump On 'Russiagate'
Down at Mar-a-Lago and anywhere else that former President Donald Trump is still venerated, he and his entourage are excited about a publication that has never before drawn his attention. The Columbia Journalism Review has just published a four-part, 24,000-word essay that purports to debunk the Trump-Russia "narrative" — and seeks to blame rising public disdain for the press, among other ills, on The New York Times and The Washington Post for their coverage of that scandal.
Its author is Jeff Gerth, a reporter who worked at the Times for three decades. His former colleagues are said to be seething with fury at him. They have ample reason, not out of feelings of personal betrayal, but because Gerth has betrayed basic journalistic standards. Unfortunately, this is not the first time.
Very few people will persevere through Gerth's prose (which the late press critic Alexander Cockburn once compared to "bicycling through wet sand."). Yet because Trump is running for president again — and because Vladimir Putin is sure to continue "active measures" on his behalf — what happened in the travesty and tragedy of 2016 remains relevant.
Gerth's account is fatally flawed by his omission of critical facts about Trump and Russia, not only in Pulitzer Prize-winning stories published by both newspapers, but in the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report on Russian meddling in the 2016 election as well as the voluminous detail of Russian interference chronicled in the Mueller Report, mendaciously maligned by then-Attorney General William Barr.
Like Trump, whom he interviewed twice and treats with kid gloves, Gerth falsely suggests that Special Counsel Robert Mueller somehow exculpated the former president. In fact, Mueller showed that Trump repeatedly obstructed justice to stymie the Russia investigation. And the special counsel indicated that Trump's "dangling" of pardons to key witnesses like Paul Manafort and Roger Stone — who ultimately were pardoned — had cut off crucial avenues of investigation and testimony. Mueller cited 10 instances of obstruction of justice he could not prosecute because of the policy not to indict a sitting president for criminal activity. Here, Gerth is perpetuating the coverup.
Beyond any specific problems in Gerth's deeply defective work, however, is the question of why the magazine made such an odd choice to fulfill this sensitive task. During his years at the Times, he gained notoriety for two major stories that looked impressive when first published — and then fell spectacularly flat.
In 1992, he wrote a front-page article on Bill and Hillary Clinton's investment in an ill-fated real estate deal known as "Whitewater," which spawned endless news coverage, congressional investigations and a special counsel probe mismanaged by Ken Starr that cost nearly $70 million. The erroneous headline on Gerth's story— "CLINTONS JOINED S & L OPERATOR IN AN OZARK REAL ESTATE VENTURE" — was only the first of many regrettable errors. Multiple investigations failed to confirm Gerth's insinuations of wrongdoing by the Clintons.
In 1999, Gerth and a fellow Times reporter published another bombshell, headlined "BREACH AT LOS ALAMOS: China Stole Nuclear Secrets For Bombs, U.S. Aides Say." The article pointed a finger of suspicion at a Taiwanese American scientist named Wen Ho Lee, who was subsequently indicted and imprisoned — until he was released for lack of sufficient evidence to convict him of espionage. He ultimately pled guilty to a minor offense and received an apology from President Clinton. (The Times felt obliged to publish a note critiquing its own handling of the story after Lee's prosecution fizzled.)
What brings those episodes to mind is that in both instances, Gerth appeared to be heavily influenced by partisan figures on the Right with agendas that obscured the truth. His chief Whitewater sources were Sheffield Nelson, an embittered Republican businessman who had run against Clinton for governor two years earlier, and Clinton's former Whitewater partner James McDougal, who was both dishonest and mentally ill. His principal source on Wen Ho Lee appears to have been an Energy Department security official named Notra Trulock III, a right-wing conspiracy theorist who was credibly accused by his colleagues of ethnic bias against Lee.
Gerth's skewed reporting on Whitewater and Wen Ho Lee came under harsh criticism from other journalists. But the assessment that may now sting the most appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review months after the Lee prosecution had fizzled.
Writing about the Times' "painful" self-scrutiny, Michael Hoyt, who became the magazine's editor, called the Lee story "hard to read... without thinking that readers were supposed to believe — from the way the facts were marshaled and supported by inferences and quotes — that Wen Ho Lee was a probable spy and that those in the government who doubted it were politically motivated." The paper's editors, wrote Hoyt, should have taken "a closer look" at Gerth's main source as well as the political motivations of congressional Republicans pushing it, and "should have investigated hints early on that the legal case against Lee was not all that impressive."
Gerth's latest misadventure, providing tilted alibis for Trump, follows a pattern of decades. It should surprise nobody, especially his now-infuriated former colleagues at the Times. Hailed by the right-wing media, he appears to believe that he is in a position to lecture his fellow journalists. They would do better taking instruction elsewhere.
To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
Reprinted with permission from Creators.