’90s Redux

Is ‘The New York Times’ at War With Hillary?

Clinton loyalists say the paper of record harbors a vendetta against the political family. The Times says that’s pure paranoia.

09.02.15 5:13 AM ET

Does The New York Times harbor an institutional bias against the Clintons, prompting the country’s most influential newspaper to accentuate the negative and minimize the positive in portraying one of America’s more powerful political families?

Of course not, says Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet.

“If you look at this reasonably, there is no institutional animus toward the Clintons. I don’t buy it,” Baquet told The Daily Beast. “I say this with all due respect to the Clintons, but politicians as a rule like to deflect criticism by blaming the press.”

Yet it is a remarkably durable accusation, going back at least to the early 1990s, when Times investigative reporter Jeff Gerth—at the behest of then-Washington bureau chief Howell Raines—uncorked his much-debated 1992 “Whitewater” opus, an exhaustive account of ethically problematic real estate and business dealings that ultimately led, after many improbable twists and turns, to a criminal referral, an independent counsel, and President Bill Clinton’s impeachment.

Raines, who was named the Times’s editorial page editor as the Clinton administration began in 1993, subsequently unleashed a torrent of scorching commentaries against the president and his activist-wife over the next eight years.

The late Times columnist William Safire, a former Richard Nixon speechwriter who famously called the first lady “a congenital liar,” also figures prominently in the pro-Clinton narrative. It claims Safire held special sway with Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. and, after independent counsel Ken Starr indicated in February 1997 that he was quitting the Clinton investigation to become dean of Pepperdine University Law School in Malibu, browbeat Starr into staying on and continuing to pursue his quarry.

Monica Lewinsky soon became globally infamous.

Nearly two decades later, diehard Clinton loyalists are reviving the anti-Times charge with a vengeance now that Hillary Rodham Clinton is the frontrunner in the Democratic nomination race—and The Times is subjecting the candidate to withering (occasionally flawed) scrutiny for her email practices, the sticky foreign entanglements of the Clinton family foundation, and other supposed vulnerabilities.

Tuesday’s Times report about right-wing guerrilla videographer James O’Keefe allegedly catching two senior Clinton staffers accepting an illegal campaign donation from a foreigner will do nothing to disabuse the Clintonites of their enmity.

“Does anybody claim anything to the contrary?” demanded fierce Hillary Clinton defender James Carville, the longtime family friend and strategist who steered Bill Clinton to victory in 1992, referring to the Times’s perceived prejudice. “Is there a sane person who says, ‘No, they don’t’? It’s like people claiming there’s no climate change. You can find somebody, but it would be very hard to find somebody who doesn’t work there.”

In a highly unusual July 28 open letter to Baquet, more than 2,000 words long and posted on the campaign website, Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri went on the attack, complaining bitterly about the paper’s “apparent abandonment of standard journalistic practices” in covering an official government inquiry into the candidate’s use of a private email server while working as secretary of state.

As Public Editor Margaret Sullivan acknowledged in a searing recap of the fiasco, The Times’s handling of the above-the-fold, front-page blockbuster “was, to put it mildly, a mess”—initially suggesting that Clinton was the focus of a criminal referral to the Justice Department before changing the story, without alerting readers, to reflect that, no, she wasn’t being targeted and it was a “security,” not a criminal, inquiry concerning the State Department’s email management procedures.

“I think we made a mistake and they called us on it,” Baquet said about Palmieri’s letter. “I think we did what good news organizations do. We corrected it, we wrote an editor’s note, I publicly said it was a mistake to the public editor. I said it to Jen Palmieri, and I said it to everybody who asked. It’s a mistake.”

Defending the Times’s overall coverage of candidate Clinton as “fair,” Baquet added: “I think if you did an anthropological study of how we made the mistake, the mistake had nothing to do with the Clintons. The mistake had to do with some sloppiness on deadline.”

Yet some Clintonites remain deeply suspicious of The Times; the Clintons themselves don’t bother to conceal their resentment of the paper, both claiming inaccurately in their respective autobiographies, My Life (Bill) and Living History (Hillary) that The Times either completely ignored an official 1995 report backing their account of losing money in the Whitewater mess (Bill) or devoted only “a few paragraphs” to it (Hillary), while the paper actually published four different stories—one more than 1,700 words long.

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Clinton ally Joe Conason, editor of the liberal-leaning National Memo website and co-author of an e-book, The Hunting of Hillary, told The Daily Beast: “You have to think there’s some institutional imperative at work… Having screwed up something like Whitewater as badly as they did, they think, ‘We’re going to show what these people [the Clintons] are like—they’re full of conflicts, of self-serving deals, cutting corners, and now we have opportunities to show that and we’re going to get those stories, write them, and go after them.’”

Gerth and Raines reject Conason’s assertion that The Times “screwed up” the Whitewater story, and Raines calls his former Washington bureau staffer—a Pulitzer Prize-winner who left The Times in 2006 and currently works for ProPublica—“one of the best investigative reporters ever.”

Gerth, who also broke the story of Hillary Clinton’s $1,000 investment that miraculously grew to $100,000 by trading cattle futures, resulting in the first lady’s famous “Pink Press Conference”—emailed: “The stories I did more than two decades ago, on Whitewater and the commodity trades by Mrs. Clinton, speak for themselves and have stood the test of time.”

The same year that he wrote those stories about the Clintons, Gerth published critical exposes on Vice President Dan Quayle’s privileged draft record and the rewarding business deals of President George H.W. Bush’s family members.

But longtime Clinton sympathizer Gene Lyons—Conason’s co-author as well as a columnist for The Arkansas Times and the National Memo—emailed: “I think it’s abundantly clear that the NYT has some kind of institutional Jones against both Clintons, and pretty much has ever since they came on the national scene. A lot of people in Arkansas think it has to do with simple snobbery about Bill Clinton’s origins. Others speculate that Howell Raines saw him as a rival. I have no idea.”

Raines, who served briefly as executive editor and left The Times 12 years ago amid the Jayson Blair scandal, retorted: “I think it’s absolutely false and indeed paranoid to think that the institution is hard-wired against the Clintons and, frankly, to trace it back to me.”

The Alabama-born Raines, who while working in The Times’s Atlanta bureau wrote an admiring front-page trend story touting Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton as a progressive New South politician, also dismissed another popular Clintonite theory—that, as a fellow Southerner of the same generation, “I was jealous of his success. But I thought I’d had a pretty good career at that time.”

Another popular Clintonite theory—“peddled by [former Washington Post reporter and Clinton White House aide] Sidney Blumenthal in Washington and New York,” according to Raines—is that The Times has long been trying to redeem itself with Clinton scandal coverage after the institutionally traumatizing humiliation of being beaten by The Post on the Watergate scandal. Blumenthal declined to comment for this article.

Raines recalled that his first tough editorial concerning the Clinton presidency didn’t appear until several months into the first term, when President Clinton, deferring to then-Speaker of the House Tom Foley, broke an election-year promise to push campaign finance reform.

Lyons, meanwhile, added: “Given the NYT Washington Bureau’s general performance since 1992, when I started really paying attention, I’ve sometimes wondered if it hasn’t fallen into the hands of a succession of ambitious sociopaths.”

In the Clinton cosmology, current Times Washington bureau chief Carolyn Ryan—who didn’t respond to messages seeking comment—is, if not a sociopath, certainly ambitious.

Conason, in a recent column, attacked Ryan—“whose personal hostility to [Hillary] Clinton is widely known in the capital,” he claimed without offering evidence—for bragging to Public Editor Sullivan that the paper’s “extraordinary and world-beating [campaign] coverage,” as Ryan put it, had been featured on the conservative-leaning Drudge Report, among other sites.

“Is a blurb on Drudge the standard by which we are now to judge the New York Times?” Conason wrote. “Somewhere the paper’s late, great journalists are whirling in their graves at warp speed.”

Conason and others said certain unidentified Times reporters have privately expressed concern about the Washington bureau chief’s championing of aggressive, occasionally damaging reporting about the Democratic frontrunner, especially the recent stories about the candidate’s private email server, bylined by Michael Schmidt—another favorite target of the Clintonites—who co-authored the July 23 front-page story that erroneously suggested, before a series of embarrassing corrections and an agonizing bout of Times self-reflection, that Hillary Clinton was the focus of a criminal investigation.

A second Clinton ally, who declined to be quoted by name, described the paper as “a house divided” over Ryan’s leadership of the bureau. Carville, for one, told The Daily Beast: “I do not know the woman, but it is certainly true that Ms. Ryan internally is quite a polarizing figure, I think it’s safe to say.”

Baquet, a staunch defender of Ryan, fired back: “What I would say to my fellow Louisianan, James Carville, is that, being a pundit, he likes to opine about things when he doesn’t know anything about them. It’s not true. It’s ridiculous. Politicians are always looking for some subterranean reason why people want to go after their candidate.”

Baquet makes no apologies for The Times’s exhaustive and sometimes critical coverage of candidate Clinton, including this August 31 Page A15 report on her freshly released emails from the State Department.

“The Clintons have been in the public spotlight for a long, long, long time, and there’s bound to have been some investigative reporting that they don’t like during that period,” he said.

“If you look at the campaign, now she is the Democratic frontrunner in a small field of Democrats—and the Republicans have a ginormous field. And if you look at the way coverage works, she is going to get more attention… She also has a long, long, complex record to be scrutinized.”

Clinton’s public career as first lady, New York senator, 2008 presidential candidate and secretary of state, Baquet said, “begs for a tremendous amount of scrutiny and questioning.”