Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Sid in Salon


This saga was much more damaging to journalism than anything that Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass did --- the New York Times' and the Washington Post's persistent pursuit of the empty, politically manipulated story of Whitewater. The fact that these leading papers adhered to this hoax over the years by suppressing contradictory, relevant and exculpatory facts that disproved their premises, including the Pillsbury report and many other facts -- that's the real journalism scandal of the past decade or more. And the top editors at these newspapers arrogantly confused all efforts at correcting the facts with assaults on the integrity of their institutions. They couldn't think their way through the Watergate syndrome -- they'd lost their ability to reason. This was Watergate turned on its head -- they became part of the dirty tricks. When the Clinton administration objected to these groundless probes, these journalists simply got their backs up and redoubled their efforts.

The review of my book by [former New York Times executive editor] Joe Lelyveld that recently ran in the New York Review of Books was a defense of the Times' Whitewater coverage -- which he was responsible for. And in the course of the review, he repeated a number of the mistakes and errors made by the press during Whitewater. He used the review to justify one of recent history's most egregious cases of journalistic irresponsibility.

After their Wen Ho Lee debacle, the Times attempted to set the record straight. They did the same with Jayson Blair. It's long past time for the Times and Post to review their Whitewater coverage, and to learn from the experience, in order to avoid being used politically in the future.

There are many reporters and editors who share these sentiments within the Times and Post. But now we've moved from journalism to history. If journalism is a first draft of history, well, it was extremely rough. But now it's time for history to set the record straight on Whitewater.