Monday, February 21, 2005

With the help of The Daily Howler archive, we highlight the true power on Presidents Day

It's Presidents Day and I wasn't planning on highlighting it or commenting on it (maybe in four years) but the Times provided us with a reason to note the occassion: the one and by no means only Jeff Gerth. "By no means only" because it takes a rabid village to keep the echo chamber going.

We'll highlight some of Bob Somerby's excellent analysis of the doodles of Jeff Gerth. Why only Somerby? I'm a wh*re for the Howler. Seriously, The Daily Howler is an important resource.
There are many articles at The Daily Howler on Gerth so what's noted here is by no means the only analysis of Gerth's rants and doodles (soon to be released in new 'trail mix flavor' by Frito Lay).

From September 27, 1999:

The analysts were enjoying a quiet Saturday, reviewing their Friday C-SPAN tapes, when a feisty caller from the sweet, sunny south caused them to snap to attention:
BRIAN LAMB: Brentwood, Tennessee on the liberal line for Gail Collins. Go ahead, please.
CALLER: Good morning, and I am a liberal. I'm not calling in as a conservative putting forward a conservative message. [Caller's emphasis]
Whoa, Nellie! The no-nonsense caller was tweaking a problem frequently encountered on Washington Journal—conservatives calling on the "liberal" line, saying you can't believe a word Clinton says. (For fun, we'll try to reprint an old study of this problem later on in the week.) Something in the caller's manner told our analysts she really meant business. And sure enough—the caller told Collins, the New York Times' new columnist, that she hasn't read the Times since 1992. Reason? The paper's Whitewater reporting:
CALLER: Jeff Gerth lied and lied and lied. His reporting was horrible. And let me tell you, if you actually went back and read his reporting on Whitewater, you would find out in talking with the people involved, he lied. He left out major portions of the story. And I won't go any further but—
At this point, Lamb asked the caller to back up her claim about Gerth. "Give us the proof that Jeff Gerth purposely lied to his readers," Lamb said. The caller cited Beverly Bassett Schaffer, the former Arkansas Securities Commissioner, who played a large role in Gerth's hugely influential New York Times Whitewater stories:
CALLER: She was interviewed for two full days by Jeff Gerth. She sent Jeff Gerth 30 pages of documents in regards to handling of the Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan and how she took efforts to close the bank . . . Jeff Gerth left out the entire two days of interviews with her, left out all the information regarding her background and what she did herself to close down the Madison Savings and Loan.
Though the caller never mentioned the book, she was describing a part of the Gerth reporting that was criticized in detail in Gene Lyons' Fools for Scandal. The 1996 book -- subtitled "How the media invented Whitewater"-- had largely focused on Gerth's reporting, and Gerth's treatment of Bassett Schaffer was a major point of Lyons' concern. In his appendices, Lyons reprinted the twenty pages of detailed information that Bassett Schaffer sent to Gerth during their original interviews; the material includes reams of plainly relevant info that was ignored in Gerth's reporting.

. . .
But Fools for Scandal attacked the press corps, and the press corps don't dance to that jive. Though the book was published and assiduously promoted by Harper's, it was largely ignored by the mainstream press; we have written before about the failure of both the Times, and the Washington press corps in general, to address its claims about the way Whitewater was reported. But just how completely was Fools for Scandal ignored? We hadn't begun to imagine until we saw Collins on C-SPAN. She started out with a general defense of Gerth (who won last year's Pulitzer Prize):
COLLINS: First of all, Jeff Gerth, everybody knows, I think, is a wonderful, marvelous reporter,

. . . [blah, blah, blah -- this is me editing Collins, if she has an informed comment to make here, we'd print it, but she's waxing and blathering]
. . . there followed an exchange in which Collins' professed ignorance brought our analysts right out of their chairs:
COLLINS: . . . On Whitewater, I must admit I don't think there's anything that anybody has ever produced on Whitewater that we don't know about by now from some place.
LAMB: Have you ever heard of this accusation before?
COLLINS: No. No. This one's new to me.
Imagine. Collins became a member of the Times editorial board in September 1995; she was on the Times editorial board at the time Fools for Scandal was published. But, defending Gerth on national TV, she said she had never heard of one of the central complaints made against Gerth in Lyons' book! Is there "anything that anybody has ever produced on Whitewater that we don't know about by now?" Apparently there is! Indeed, a member of the Times' board doesn't know about the principal criticism of her paper's own reporting.
You can't blame Collins for things she doesn't know, but we thought the exchange was remarkably revealing. We've told you before that the mainstream press corps routinely ignores and suppresses press criticism. And how concerned was the New York Times, when Lyons' book attacked their reporting? They were so concerned that, three years later, a political writer on the board has never heard of the Lyons critique. No one in politics could ever dream of getting away with insouciance so vast and revealing.
But the press corps, readers, controls the press, and maintains those active memory holes. Fools for Scandal was widely ignored. We wonder: how much effort is the Times board devoting to complaints about Gerth's latest work?

From December 10, 2001:

Which brings us up to Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the NYT's major domo, appearing on Washington Journal this past Friday, November 30. Again, a caller asked about Jeff Gerth's NYT Whitewater stories, which Lyons critiqued in such detail. The caller raised the very same point that was placed before Collins two years earlier:
CALLER: Since the Whitewater story was fabricated by you guys at the New York Times, Jeff Gerth and the lady in Arkansas -- completely ignored her documents proving that she did ask Madison Guaranty to close two years earlier than the government asked them to do -- do you think you owe the American people an apology? . . . Not only that phony scandal but the rest of the phony scandals. The NYT was the leader of the pack at that time.
Clearly, the caller referred to Beverly Bassett Schaffer, as anyone who has studied Gerth's Whitewater reporting would of course know quite well. We waited for Sulzberger’s answer. After all, The Boss now had a perfect chance to lay this whole house of canards to rest. He could finally reply to the ugly charge -- the claim that the NYT had been involved in a hoax in its Whitewater reporting. The slander has stood since 1996. Here’s what the incensed owner said:
SULZBERGER: You know, it almost sounds quaint, doesn't it, now? I apologize for that to you, whoever you are, calling in, I don't mean to dismiss your concern but in the midst of the new world and these new challenges we face, it just sounds quaint. I'll tell you what. I'd be a lot smarter to let Howell Raines answer that question if the caller is allowed to restate it because he's more in touch with that news story by far than I am. I don't think we made it up, let me get that on the table. I don't think we made it up . . .
Wow! The caller, of course, was not allowed to "restate the question" later on in the show, and the topic didn't come up when Raines made his subsequent appearance.
So let's see. It’s now been almost ten years since Gerth created the definitive scandal story of the past decade. It's been more than five years since Lyons published the book which accused the NYT of a hoax. And a surprising fact is still clear -- no one at the NYT has bothered to speak to Lyons' analysis. The Times has never responded to the Lyons challenge, and -- when Timesmen are asked about the Gerth stories -- they don't deign to speak to Lyons’ serious charges. They simply feign ignorance instead.
Our question: Is there any other sector in this society that has such complete and total immunity? Can any other sector on earth get away with this kind of conduct? No newspaper has ever asked the NYT to discuss the problems with the Gerth articles, and total slackers like Collins and Sulzberger get away with strategic ignorance every time they get asked about it. And by the way, it’s very good internal politics. Collins, feigning ignorance beautifully back in 1999, got her pat on the back from the board. She's now in control of the editorial page, replacing Raines -- who almost surely would have known nothin' about nothin' if the question had come up on his watch.
As we've long told you, here's the dirty little secret, they key to it all -- the press corps controls the press. For that reason, mainstream press organs are completely immune to the normal inquiry directed at all other sectors. No one else can duck and dodge the way the New York Times has done. The result of this breakdown in public accountability? The hapless work that rules the press corps. Howard Fineman's, for example. More on Tuesday.

From May 19, 2003:

Why do we hear so much about Jayson Blair? Because his disturbed inventions were basically trivial, and because his story feeds conservative spin-points. But the legion of scribes who are flogging Blair know not to mention Jeff Gerth, who wrote the NYT's Whitewater stories and then bungled the paper's Wen Ho Lee work. Jeff Gerth’s strange work did mountains of harm—but insider pundits know not to notice. The rest of the press corps bought into Gerth’s hoaxing, and therefore know that re-fighting 90's battles will be of less benefit to the country than detached analysis explaining how we can avoid future unproductive quarrels.

From September 1, 1999:

Why is it that Lyons' charges received so little attention? After all, Lyons wasn't some crazy guy with a web site somewhere -- he had the backing of a major, respected entity, Harper's. But it's as we told you yesterday, readers: Journalists don't criticize other journalists. Press critique is simply not part of our current, ongoing press culture. There is no plainer illustration of that fact than the ho-hum response that Lyons received. His major book made serious charges—and to this day, the press corps has made no effort to sift through what Lyons said.
Tomorrow we'll look at the most visible scribe who does walk a full-time press-critique beat --Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post, host of CNN's Reliable Sources. At Reliable Sources, we're told each week, they "turn a critical lens on the media."
But one final note before that. In the past four weeks, there has been major back-pedaling on the case of Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee, who was strung up by the New York Times in its China spy stories this spring. Even TV pundits have been saying that the evidence against Lee may not be strong. And who was the lead writer for most of the Times stories about alleged Chinese nuclear spying? It was, of course, that same Jeff Gerth who did the Whitewater reporting. In our view, Gerth's writing on China displayed the misdirection and spin that Lyons scored in his Whitewater critique. We're not surprised that many are reconsidering the stampede Gerth's China stories caused. But why did such insinuative writing turn up again on page one of the Times? Because no one in the press corps said "Boo" the last time that it appeared there.
Nope -- in the present climate, there's no penalty at all for the kind of writing Lyons critiqued in Fools for Scandal. Journalists don't criticize other journalists. We'd all be better off if they did.

From May 27, 2003:

One editor who did report the "Pillsbury" finding was Alan Murray of the Wall Street Journal. In his piece, Kurtz quoted Murray saying that "simple fairness" required him to do it.
But by the time of Campaign 2000, Murray had backslid quite hard. In September 2000, Independent Counsel Robert Ray issued the OIC's final report. No charges would be brought against the Clintons in any matter, Ray said. On
the September 22 Washington Week, a panel of pundits discussed Ray’s report. And on that program, Murray offered a scolding account of What Bill Clinton Shouldn't Have Done. He chatted with Time's Michael Duffy:
DUFFY: What this means is, obviously, for Hillary Clinton, who's running in the Senate race in New York, she doesn't have to worry about Whitewater anymore, if she ever did. But it's also a reminder of just what a bad law the independent counsel statute was . . .
MURRAY: Michael, it seems pretty clear it wasn't a good idea for the governor of Arkansas, now the president of the United States, to get into a land deal with a guy who ran a regulated business --
DUFFY: Right.
MURRAY: -- a savings and loan. But I'm struck by the fact that most of what we know about this was in that very first article in The New York Times back in 1992. Why did it take this long for the government to conclude that it didn’t have a case here? "Right," Duffy said, applauding Murray for an iconically inaccurate statement.
Indeed, one doesn't know whether to laugh or cry at Murray's remarkable rendering. When Gene Lyons published Fools for Scandal in 1996, it became abundantly clear that those New York Times articles were built on howling errors -- and it became almost as clear that the Jeff Gerth pieces had been prepared in bad faith. But four full years after Fools for Scandal, Murray was still praising the articles; repeating their errors; and saying that the bogus pieces told us everything we know about Whitewater! What was wrong with Murray’s summation? Duh. Despite what those NYT articles said, Clinton wasn't governor when he entered that land deal, and Jim McDougal, Clinton's partner, wasn't running a savings and loan (or any other regulated business). But so what? Eight years later, Murray was still repeating Gerth's iconic errors, and was praising the NYT for its brilliance! Remember -- to the press corps, the press corps is always right. Major pundits will never discuss the harm that their colleagues have done.

As always, those excerpts. If the comments speak to you or your interests, click on the links. Somerby's writing does speak to me personally which is why I've spent two hours reading links that weren't on Gerth. (There is commentary/analysis on people other than Gerth in those entries and often times there are links to other Howlers. It's very tempting for me to get caught up in the links and read, nod and often laugh along. I think The Daily Howler's a great site and makes a huge contribution to press criticism and to democracy.)

Why Gerth? This morning's paper features an article by him, a huge article in fact. (In terms of length.) "Big Oil Steps Aside in Battle Over Artic" reads the headline. Does it? I honestly don't know. Why the Times has continued to employ Gerth is a mystery.

But there are reporters who I won't waste my time on. That's why I don't watch TV coverage.
(Truly, I don't. There was some jest -- not a full blown joke, I'm not that humorous -- that I made last week that has a member asking if I'd seen The Daily Show that night. The Daily Show hadn't aired by the time the post went up. But I don't have cable, gave up on it in late 2002 or early 2003. If I do see something on TV, it's when someone calls and says, "You have to watch this! You won't believe what a fool ___ is making of his/herself!" and it's broadcast television.) Jeff Gerth is a reporter I will not waste my time on.

He could have a story informing me of the complete, unvarnished truth of some confusing period in our history (recent or past) and I'd avoid it unless a friend or community member badgered me into reading it because I just don't trust him.

Anyone can make a mistake (and Lord knows I frequently do) but his refusal (and the paper's) to address the mistakes (or own up to them) makes his work questionable to me and I have better things to do than try to sift through what I expect will be sloppy reporting (expect it because of the past reporting by Gerth).

So today, on Presidents Day, we note the true power: the press. Jeff Gerth, who leaped on Whitewater and stayed on it with careless disregard for truth and facts (my opinion). I don't blame Gerth for Clinton's second term (Bill Clinton has to answer for that) but I don't need to wonder what the second term might have been like had the press not hyped up accusations with bad reporting. Speculation (for me) is unnecessary when, thanks to Gerth and those who amplified his "reporting," we were caught in a maze of fun house mirrors for both terms of the Clinton administration. (And I do think Bill Clinton tried in the first term -- and actually achieved -- some things worthy of note.)

So think of today as Mainstream Media Day (of course, everyday is mainstream media day)
since they have tremondous power. It's a shame so few of them elect to use it wisely.