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The Media's Controversial Ride Over Whitewater Rapids

Journalists, the cliche runs, write the first draft of history. If that is indeed the case, future generations will look to reports about the Whitewater affair and scratch their heads.

To most Americans today, the story is as twisted as the roiling White River for which the Clintons' failed investment is named, in part because the coverage itself has been so confusing.

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But the reporting has revealed, perhaps more than any other current event, many of the difficulties inherent in journalism's "search for truth": remaining impartial, sorting through documentation, determining the trustworthiness of sources, and framing the story in a coherent and fair manner.

Those difficulties are heightened in Whitewater because of high-stakes partisanship and complex financial dealings. Add to that a sharpened appetite for scandal, and gleaning "the truth" may be impossible. Still, the coverage raises questions about the current state of journalism.

The latest entry into the debate is Gene Lyons, a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. In his new book, "Fools for Scandal" (Franklin Square Press), Mr. Lyons charges that some of the nation's most prominent reporters engaged in "journalistic malpractice" in a single-minded pursuit of scandal. He claims they omitted or ignored exculpatory facts, put others in misleading contexts, and fed a partisan fury determined to keep the controversy alive.

Lyons attacks with the same zeal that New York Times columnist William Safire displays when he goes after public officials whose veracity he doubts. The result has been indignation in the media and a counterattack on Lyons's credibility.

The columnist acknowledges making some mistakes, but stands firmly by his overall analysis of the coverage. He is also somewhat dismayed by press reaction. "It's the worst case of 'They can dish it out, but can't take it,' I've ever seen," he says.

Whitewater, as most people know by now, is the name of a failed real estate investment the Clintons made with Jim and Susan McDougal in 1978.

Since the story first broke in the national press in 1992, it has developed along two radically different lines. In each, many of the "facts" are not disputed, but people's motivation and the context surrounding events are hotly debated.

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In one version, the Clintons appear to be selfish, manipulative, and short on ethics. In the other, the president and his wife are the victims of a fraudulent land deal and a national press so bent on scandal, it looked past the truth.

Lyons, very clearly, falls into the "Clintons as victims" camp. From his perspective, they were cheated by their flamboyant and unstable partner Jim McDougal, who, when in need of money, sold the Clintons' Whitewater investment, apparently without their knowledge, for pennies on the dollar. Mr. McDougal then turned around and told his version of the story to Jeff Gerth of The New York Times.

Setting the stage

Mr. Gerth is one of the country's leading investigative reporters. He met McDougal when he went to Arkansas in 1992 to write about the financial affairs of the little-known governor who had suddenly appeared on the national scene.

His story set the stage for future Whitewater coverage, and Gerth continues to stand by it. He notes that the "two seminal questions" it raised - that the Clintons were business partners with the owner of a failed S&L regulated by the state, and that Hillary Clinton did work for the company - have never been disputed.

"The piece did not say there were quid quo pros, that this was illegal, or bribery," says Gerth. "The questions were framed as an association piece ... how people comport themselves."

He is adamant the facts in his story stand up to scrutiny.

But Lyons contends that the context in which many of those facts are written is often misleading, and information that was available to Gerth, which would have cast a less sinister pall on events, was omitted or ignored.

As an example, he points to this sentence from the original 1992 story:

"After federal regulators found that McDougal's savings institution, Madison Guaranty, was insolvent, meaning it faced possible closure by the state, Clinton appointed a new state securities commissioner, who had been a lawyer in a firm that represented the savings and loan."

Lyons contends the sentence clearly implies that Clinton appointed the commissioner, Beverly Bassett Shaffer, for the "purpose of protecting McDougal." That implication, he says, is incorrect and Gerth knew it.

Before the article was written, Ms. Bassett Shaffer had provided Gerth with a lengthy memo that documented the steps she and federal regulators had taken to reform the S&L - which at the time had not yet been declared insolvent. They included ousting McDougal from Madison for "self-dealing and insider abuse."

"Jeff Gerth had that information available to him. The question is, why didn't he use it?" asks Lyons, noting that McDougal, Gerth's acknowledged source for much of the original story, was convicted on bank fraud charges earlier this year.

Gerth declined to comment on Lyons's criticism. For Bassett Shaffer, who was never accused of any wrongdoing and has been supported by federal regulators, Gerth's defense of the "facts" without recognition of the context, is a "narrow and shaky defense."

She says the innuendo in his articles, and those of other reporters who followed his lead, ruined her reputation.

"I just think it's incumbent on journalists to be more careful," says Bassett Shaffer. "It just takes that one time, and a life spent building a reputation for integrity is gone. And there's nowhere to go to get it back."

Others have also criticized what Richard Parker calls the "Joe Friday - just the facts, ma'am," style of contemporary investigative reporting. Mr. Parker, a senior fellow at the Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, notes that that is very different from the muckraking investigative journalism of the turn of the century, when reporters like Upton Sinclair were driven by a strong moral vantage point and made no pretensions about being neutral and objective.

"Facts need to be read in the light of motivation," Parker says. "It frustrates people when they're given data without context. It would be as if a neutral Virgil led Dante through the Inferno without explaining why people were there."

Bassett Shaffer also criticizes the press for what she calls a "carelessness ... a tendency to just repeat what has already been in print" without checking its veracity.

Lyons maintains the reporting on Whitewater is full of such instances. In a March 18, 1994 article, Gerth wrote that the State of Arkansas had given Tyson Foods a $9-million loan after a Tyson lawyer, who was also a friend of Mrs. Clinton's, helped her make almost $100,000 trading commodities. The loan never existed. Gerth says he misread a chart on deadline and greatly regrets the error. It was corrected a month later.

Meanwhile, many in the national press had written columns and editorials questioning Mrs. Clinton's integrity and ethics based on that report.

President Clinton's lawyer, Robert Bennett, came upon another example in James Stewart's book "Blood Sport" (Simon and Schuster). In the story about last-minute negotiations to avoid a sexual harassment suit brought by Paula Jones, Mr. Stewart states as fact that Clinton "got to the point where [he] agreed to read a statement that apologized but didn't concede Jones's version of events."

Mr. Bennett claims that never happened and is dismayed that Stewart didn't call him to check the contention. "I told him, it leads me to question other things in the book as well," Bennett says.

Stewart, who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former editor at The Wall Street Journal, says he based his statement on published reports about the failed settlement talks.

A Nexus search found two stories. One in The Washington Post quotes only Ms. Jones's lawyer saying the proposed settlement language had Clinton "conceding he may have met the woman" and that he "regretted untrue assertions" about her. It does not quote the president's lawyer. The other article, in The New York Times, does quote Bennett stating very clearly: "I was not prepared to have the President apologize for something he did not do."

Scrutiny is 'healthy'

Mistakes are not uncommon in journalism, and Stewart clearly did extensive research for his book. And while he is offended by many of Lyons's criticisms, Stewart also believes the scrutiny around the Whitewater coverage is "a healthy thing."

New York University's Edwin Diamond says the "truth" about Whitewater does lie somewhere within all of the conflicting reports and interpretations. The challenge is to sort through them all and find it. "Was Jeff Gerth had? Was Lyons sloppy? There's right and wrong mixed up in all of it," he says.

Lyons and others contend that it is incumbent on the press to be more cautious and responsible. As for the historians, they'll have their work cut out for them.

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