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American Journalism Review
Whitewater's Lessons for Journalists  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Books
From AJR,   May 1996

Whitewater's Lessons for Journalists   

Blood Sport: The President and
His Adversaries

By James B. Stewart
Simon & Schuster

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     



Blood Sport: The President and
His Adversaries
By James B. Stewart
Simon & Schuster
480 pages; $25

It was an anxious Susan Thomases who awaited the New York Times' first major Whitewater story back in March 1992. As a confidante and spokesperson for Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, Thomases had dealt with meticulous reporter Jeff Gerth and knew a front page story was coming. But she found herself relieved when it appeared, for an odd reason.

"Thomases was at a..retreat when she got a call," James Stewart writes. "Gerth's story was read to her in its entirety. Thomases was thrilled. She thought it was incomprehensible."

For many of us, "incomprehensible" just might summarize the entire Whitewater proceedings, so Stewart's new explanatory book is welcome.

A Pulitzer Prize winner who has worked for the Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker and SmartMoney, Stewart comes to his thorny subject with the thoroughness of an investigator and the clarity of ace rewrite. (He does persist in one dated and annoying habit, repeatedly referring to Hillary Clinton and other women by their first names, while men are called by their surnames.)

Stewart frames the surprisingly readable book around the suicide of White House lawyer Vincent Foster, by Stewart's measure a decent man overwhelmed by the dark forces of Washington.

Foster was handling, among other things, matters relating to the Clintons' investment in Whitewater, "second-growth scrub forest in the middle of nowhere" that their friends Jim and Susan McDougal wanted to develop as a resort.

As Stewart reconstructs it, the Clintons' role seems casual and ordinary, two young investors hoping for a quick profit on a tip from pals. The whole tale seems characterized more by small-state buddyism and bungling than by corruption or treasury-looting. As Arkansas' Golden Couple, the Clintons seemed to sniff at mere financial exigencies, feeling entitled to be taken care of while they were busy ascending the political ladder.

They certainly don't come away with clean hands. Stewart documents a "pattern of evasions, half-truths and misstatements" that multiplied when investigators closed in. But in the end it all seems to amount to a moral misdemeanor, enough to fuel endless investigations but resulting in few significant public trust implications.

"Blood Sport" is valuable on another level, too, as a book with a subtext about journalism. Once again this case exposes the media's failure to make sense of complex issues.

"This story isn't as arcane and confusing as those involved would have us believe," Stewart writes.

Then why does it seem that way? Based on Stewart's evidence, several reasons emerge:

l The tendency of investigative reporters to prefer digging to writing. Gerth, whose tenacity and care seem exemplary, wasn't known as a great storyteller. "He was an investigator first, a writer second," Stewart observes. "Some Gerth submissions left editors stunned, not even knowing where to begin."

l The practice of presenting running stories piece by piece, with few connections and rare overviews.

l The impact of competition and the reluctance to give strong play to a rival's scoop, meaning that readers can't rely on one medium for comprehensive, orderly coverage.

l The hovering presence of armies of backstage manipulators, in this case swarms of lawyers, politicos and various Clinton cronies, falling all over one another to obscure the trail and spin the story. This case isn't so much about Keystone cops as Keystone counselors.

The key press player is Gerth, portrayed as a steady truth-seeker advancing, Lt. Columbo-like, toward the story's center. Other major journalists include the Los Angeles Times' William Rempel and Douglas Frantz (the latter now with the New York Times), Susan Schmidt and Michael Isikoff of the Washington Post (the latter now with Newsweek), and Ira Silverman, then with NBC.

New to some readers may be the prominence of advocacy journalists, especially David Bossie and his anti-Clinton group called Citizens United. Bossie "maintained a virtual library of original documents and other Whitewater materials"; he "had contact with nearly every reporter working on the story, keeping them up to date with his WW fax bulletins — 3,000 copies a day at his peak."

Complete this book, and you will understand much more about Whitewater and about the press. Early on, one Clinton campaign official offered advice that could have rescued the Clintons — and could have served as a proud epitaph for most reporters.

"They're tenacious. They love details," he said of Gerth and others. "You don't fuck around. Get back to them and get it right."

Had that occurred four years ago, Whitewater would be history — the kind nobody writes about.

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