The New York Times
Eats Yellow Snow
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
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 Timess
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 counsels
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 Clintons 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. Abramsons 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. Abramsons 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-Chiefs 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 dont 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. Abramsons tenth-anniversary roundup
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
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 Gores 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.
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 didnt
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? Wouldnt that be a hell of a story?