27 September 1999
Our current howler: Heard no evil
Synopsis: The New York Times newest columnist--an editorial board member--hasn't heard of Fools for Scandal.
Commentary by Gail Collins, Brian Lamb
Washington Journal, C-SPAN, 9/25/99
Quayle Set To Quit Race for President
David Broder, The Washington Post, 9/27/99
Quayle: President in His Own Mirror
David Von Drehle, The Washington Post, 4/14/99
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
Whoa, Nellie! The no-nonsense caller was tweaking a problem
frequently encountered on Washington Journalconservatives
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 enoughthe 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
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
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 booksubtitled
"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. This isn't the place to go back through Lyon's detailed
arguments about Gerth's treatment of Bassett Schaffer. But Gerth's
account of how Clinton appointed Bassett Schaffer to her post
was one of the most troubling parts of the Gerth reportingan
example of writing so insinuative and misleading that it is difficult
to believe it could have happened by mistake.
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, and he's incredibly, incredibly
diligent. I can't speak to the specifics of that particular woman,
but when he works on a project, particularly one like that, he
interviews trillions of people at great length.
Fair enough as a general defense of Gerth, although his recent
reporting on China espionage topics is now the subject of considerable
debate. But did Collins mean, in the remark above, she couldn't
speak to specifics about Bassett Schaffer? It became clear that
Lamb wasn't familiar with the matter:
LAMB: Is this, though, the power of the journalist, that Jeff
Gerth may have decided in his mind that the woman wasn't important
and so she was left out and therefore we don't know that she has
30 pages of documentation on her lack of involvement or whatever?
But Bassett Schaffer was a central player in Gerth's Whitewater
reporting, the most important reporting of the Clinton era. She
wasn't "left out" by Gerth at all. We were, to be honest,
a bit surprised that Lamb was unfamiliar with the matter. But
there followed an exchange in which Collins' professed
ignorance brought our analysts right out of their chairs:
COLLINS: Well, that's certainly, you knowthe process of reporting
is a process of weeding. 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?
Also heard no evil: We don't disagree with anything
David Broder said this morning about Dan Quayle's withdrawal from
the White House race. But we couldn't suppress a dark, mordant
chuckle when we read the third paragraph of his page one lead
BRODER: The ridicule Quayle suffered in the press for his verbal
gaffes during the four years after the elder Bush made him the
surprise choice for a running mate convinced many Republican activists
who shared his conservative views on economic and social policy
that he was unelectable.
But the ridicule certainly didn't end with his four-year term
in office. Indeed, consider the way the Post treated Quayle's
announcement for president this spring. We quote from a page one
VON DREHLE (paragraph 1): Dan Quayle doesn't see himself as
others see him.
(2) That's the key, according to his close friends and advisers...
(3) Dan Quayle, the human punch line, scorned on scores of
Internet sites, shoo-in for the late-night talk show Hall of Fame-enshrined
somewhere between Joey Buttafuoco and Kato Kaelin. The man who
"I didn't live in this century."
And, at an AIDS clinic during the early days of the drug
AZT: "Are they taking DDT?"
And, "What a waste it is to lose one's mind." (He
was trying for, "A mind is a terrible thing to waste.")
(4) That is not the way he sees himself. The Dan Quayle
running for president is another character altogether...
"Quayle became a favorite target of newspaper cartoons
and late-night TV comics," Broder writes. Broder engages
in wishful thinking. Quayle was also a target of the Post's news
reporting, at least on this April morning. Here's how the Indianapolis
Star-News saw the problem: "It seems today's hip reporters
just cannot bring themselves to write about Quayle without a sneer
in their choice of words," the paper said. Unfortunately,
Broder's own Postnot Leno or Lettermanproved the Star-News correct
back in April.