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The New York Times
Eats Yellow Snow


Jerome Doolittle

The final grade, a sixty-four million dollar zero, is in on the Whitewater investigation. The New York Times had a roundup story on the whole mess this past Sunday with color photographs and a time-line chart under the headline, “Ah, Whitewater: Looking Back.”

The Times did not give itself a grade in the story, but perhaps we can infer one from the text itself. Let us therefore subject it to a close reading.

“Exactly 10 years ago this month, The New York Times reported that Bill and Hillary Clinton were business partners with the owner of a failing savings and loan association in Arkansas real estate venture called Whitewater. Last week, with a 2,000-page, five-volume report, the $64 million independent counsel investigation into the collective matters known as Whitewater ended with a heavy thud.”

From the countless possibilities available, reporter Jill Abramson chose to open with the vital role her paper played in the lift-off phase of this doomed flight. Was her choice just another instance of the Times’s customary immodesty? Then why does her very next sentence end with that heavy thud? It would be pleasant to think that Ms. Abramson was seeing just how close to an apology she could get without her editors noticing.

The next long paragraph concerns the scope and duration and now-apparent irrelevance of the independent counsel’s investigation. However, as she hurries to explain:

“That is not to say it was all sound and fury, signifying nothing. In 1998, the Whitewater inquiry morphed into the Monica Lewinsky investigation, and that White House sex-and-lies imbroglio produced the second impeachment trial of a sitting president.”

The surface meaning here is that what started as a loud and angry but essentially trivial investigation had eventually turned into one that, as it involved the serious business of sex, could be manipulated into an impeachment trial. The House of Representatives, after all, was dominated by moralists of the rabid right.

(The various charges of impeachment voted by the House, it is useful to remind ourselves, had nothing to do with Whitewater. They arose instead out of President Clinton’s denial that he had a sexual relationship with a more than consenting adult female.* When this nonsense was dumped on the floor of the Senate for judgment, that body acquitted the President on all counts.)

On a less obvious level, though, Ms. Abramson’s use of literary allusion conceals a subversive message, as the full quote from Shakespeare reveals: “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” And who, after all, was telling the Whitewater tale?

But Ms. Abramson’s insult slid right past her editors. Although surely they were familiar with Macbeth, Act V, Sc.5, it would not have occurred to a Times editor that he or she might be an idiot.

Nor is the gracious admission of error a hallmark of the Times, which operates on the George Herbert Walker Bush theory when it comes to apologies. After one of the former Commander-in-Chief’s ships shot down Iran Air flight 655 on July 3, 1988, with 290 civilians aboard, he announced, “I will never apologize for the United States of America! I don’t care what the facts are!” Then he gave a medal to the captain.

The Times gives its medals on the editorial page, and they awarded one to themselves the same day that Ms. Abramson’s tenth-anniversary roundup ran:

“The Whitewater issue was first raised by The New York Times during the 1992 presidential campaign. The issue involved serious questions, and the investigation that followed led to plea agreements or convictions for more than a dozen people, most of them with political or business ties to the Clintons. This page urged the Clintons to cooperate so often that it became the editorial equivalent of shouting oneself hoarse. But their refusal to provide full and frank answers . . . turned the case into a cottage industry of obfuscation. In time the inquiry grew to embrace charges of tampering with regulators and other questionable behavior. Eventually it came across the matter of Monica Lewinsky . . .”

The “plea agreements or convictions” had nothing to do with the Clintons’ alleged and unproven offenses in the Whitewater “matter,” which had long since proven to be a dry hole.

But Kenneth Starr and his investigators kept hoovering for dirt anyway, with the help of bottom-feeders like Richard Mellon Scaife, Ted Olsen, David Hale, David Bossie, Christopher Ruddie, Linda Tripp, Lucianne Goldberg, David Brock, Larry Nichols, Matt Drudge, Ann Coulter, Susan Carpenter-McMillan, John Whitehead--

And The New York Times itself, which does not just cover the news. Its choice of what to cover determines what the new is, most importantly for the network newsreaders.

Some stories stink at birth. Prime examples are the Tonkin Gulf Incident, the Gary Condit hysteria, Filegate, the savaging of Wen Ho Lee, the campaign issue of Al Gore’s supposed slipperiness with the truth.

To the experienced, intelligent and detached reader it was plain from the very first day that each of these stories was counterfeit currency. Sometimes no charges had actually been brought, or accounts differed. Sources seemed to be unreliable or self-interested or hesitant or vague or uncertain. The facts as reported were psychologically or politically implausible; they did not, perhaps, comport with the known character and past behavior of the accused.

The skeptical, sensible reader dismisses such stories out of hand. He knows better than to eat yellow snow.

Times reporter Jeff Gerth didn’t. When he learned ten years ago that the Clintons had lost $40,000 in a 1978 real estate development gone bad, he mistook yellow for gold.

Our prudent reader glanced at those early stories by Gerth and yawned, knowing that nobody really on the take could have served six terms as governor of Arkansas without winding up rich. And yet the Clintons didn’t even own a house of their own until they bought the one in Chappaqua.

But even the most gullible of newsmen can luck into a real story once in a while. What if Gerth and his editors had been right after all? Suppose they had discovered that a future American president really did use political connections to advance his own financial interests? Wouldn’t that be a hell of a story?

Apparently the Times doesn’t think so, or Mr. Gerth and dozens of other Timesmen would even now be swarming over Midland, Arlington, and Houston, Texas, like so many coprophagous Christopher Ruddies and David Brocks.

*Since Ms. Lewinsky, too, was denying it at the time, the President was only doing what had been previously regarded as the gentlemanly thing. Remember, you read it here first.

March, 2002


Copyright © 2004 by Jerome Doolittle