Covering a Nonstory, and Getting It Wrong

In their ritual review of the Zeitgeist at year’s end, many journalists fretted that Americans seem almost wholly uninterested in political news. Readers are bored with public affairs, unless they are the affairs of public figures. Such ennui casts doubt upon the role of a free press in a democratic society, and ought to raise questions about its underlying causes.

An important failure that requires painful introspection is Whitewater, the Presidential “scandal” that drones on endlessly without reaching any conclusion. Toward the end of 1997, judgments on press performance in this dismal matter were delivered by two distinguished editors. The clear verdict was guilty on many counts of inaccuracy, incomprehensibility and incompetence.

The most specific indictment was handed down by Gilbert Cranberg, the former editor of the Des Moines Register ‘s editorial page who now teaches at the University of Iowa’s School of Journalism. Writing in the winter issue of the Nieman Reports , a quarterly put out by the Nieman Fellowship program at Harvard University, Mr. Cranberg examines one of Whitewater’s most often repeated canards in close detail. Like most criticism of the scandal coverage, his precise, pithy essay-entitled “Getting It Wrong on Whitewater”-will probably go unnoticed by those who need to read it most.

Mr. Cranberg offers a lucid dissection of one of the central allegations against the Clintons. In essence, he says, The New York Times , The Washington Post and other media have reported as fact that the Clintons benefited from a fraudulent $300,000 Government-guaranteed loan that the felon David Hale made to James and Susan McDougal in 1986. The widely repeated charge is that “nearly $50,000″ of the proceeds from that crooked loan-which Mr. Hale claims he made under pressure from then-Governor Clinton-were used to prop up the failing Whitewater Development Corporation, thus bailing out the Clintons, who were partners with the McDougals in Whitewater.

In calculating that mythical $50,000, as Mr. Cranberg explains, an initial chunk of $24,455 is attributed to a check that was deposited to the Whitewater account on April 9, 1985. But the illicit loan from Mr. Hale was not made until April 3, 1986-almost exactly a year later. In fact, he notes, the April 1985 deposit came from a different loan made by another Arkansas bank-a loan that had been largely repaid months before the Hale transaction. “So how,” Mr. Cranberg wonders, “can anyone say [that] the $24,455 was covered by tainted dollars … ?” The director of Drake University’s School of Accounting wondered, too, calling any connection between the Hale money and Whitewater “tenuous” and “a stretch,” according to the Cranberg essay. Now bear with him because it gets better, or actually worse. The second half of that legendary $50,000 was used by James McDougal to buy an 810-acre property far away from the Whitewater property, which he put in the name of Whitewater for less than two months. Then he switched ownership of that tract to another company he and his wife owned, in which the Clintons had no interest. But Whitewater’s name (and thus the Clintons) remained on the mortgage for that land, leaving it liable for the $470,000 balance due.

“In other words,” writes Mr. Cranberg, “McDougal messed up Whitewater’s balance sheet by the deal, adding a huge liability to the corporation and thus its owners, including the Clintons.” Which means that the Hale loan was used secretly by their faithless partner (turned prosecution witness) not to benefit the Clintons but to screw them.

Mr. Cranberg goes on to trace the misreporting of this story by The Times and other print media, showing how an original Associated Press story was edited to make the Clintons seem guilty. That error, intentional or not, was then picked up and amplified by Times columnist William Safire, who insinuated that the Clintons were “accomplices in stealing $50,000 from the poor,” the intended beneficiaries of the Federal loan money abused by Mr. Hale.

In The New Yorker , Mr. Safire’s bad journalism was echoed by his admirer Michael Kelly two weeks later. Mr. Kelly wrote that “it has now been proved in a court of law that nearly $50,000 obtained by defrauding the United States Government went into a company that was co-owned by Bill and Hillary Clinton.”

With due respect to Mr. Kelly, no such thing was ever proved in a court of law or anywhere else-and indeed, now Mr. Cranberg has proved the opposite.

Mr. Cranberg is not the only experienced editor to find these gross mistakes “disturbing.” Harold Evans, now returning to the fine career he made in newspapering that he left for publishing several years ago, suggested in a recent lecture at the Freedom Forum that the press has done worse than misreport Whitewater; the major newspapers had, he said, “all but suppressed” the truth contained in the exhaustive, $4 million Pillsbury report, which “cleared the Clintons of all the allegations and innuendoes against them” back in 1995.

Perhaps readers have turned away from political coverage because they sense that much of what is presented as “investigative reporting” is worse than dull and irrelevant. It is, after six years of flogging Whitewater, probably false.