Whatever Happened to Whitewater?

In a television interview four years ago, the late Ann Devroy, who covered the White House for The Washington Post, had this revealing insight into the mind of the modern reporter:

Whitewater is a classic example of a story that you start pulling strings on and trying to unravel bits and pieces of it to see what’s there. You can’t know what’s there until you cover it. And it’s one of the things about what the press does that people sometimes misunderstand. They believe that in covering something, you’re suggesting there is something big there at the end of what you’re covering, and in fact, you’re just reporting.

Just because we spend six years and write hundreds of thousands of words about convoluted financial transactions in Arkansas and then put them on the front page day after day doesn’t mean we think there’s something actually wrong. On the contrary, four-thousand-word investigative stories frequently mean only that a team of reporters has been at work on a preconceived notion for a couple of months, and the fruits of their labors, meaningful or not, must be inflicted on the readers. Often, but not always, there is a weaseling paragraph: “While there is no evidence of actual wrongdoing, the sequence of events uncovered by our investigative team raises the appearance of possible conflicts of interest.” Or, “offers a rare glimpse into the dark underside of…” Or, “raises disturbing questions about the appearance of possible improprieties.”

In translation: the reporters came up with dots of information, but without a narrative line to connect them, and they hope that their “appearances of possible conflicts,” “rare glimpses,” and “disturbing questions” will make more sense to other people than they do to them. Investigative reporters run the risk of becoming confidence men, forever promising to their editors that a payoff for their time and investment is just around the corner. And only the boldest editor is willing to junk a three- or four-month project that has come tantalizingly close to its goal. At best, investigative reporters do useful work and expose misdeeds in high places. At worst, as in the charge that the CIA introduced crack cocaine to Los Angeles neighborhoods or the CNN-Time fiasco over the alleged use of sarin gas to kill US defectors in Vietnam, they fall in love with a theory, twist facts and even quotations to fit it, and suppress all contrary evidence. And in the middle, you get the kind of reporting Ms. Devroy described, a work in progress that, just by its length and detail, implies that it is worth reading even though it actually proves nothing at all.

The Whitewater scandal, insofar as it relates to President and Mrs. Clinton, has been, as Devroy said, an example of the latter. The first accounts appeared to charge that Clinton, as governor of Arkansas, pressured state regulators not to close down a failing bank run by his business partner, James McDougal …

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