Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Dealing with an Age-Old Editing Problem

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Dealing with an Age-Old Editing Problem

Article excerpt

The Whitewater feeding frenzy in the media continues to be a field day for press critics, and for good reason.

The New York Times blockbuster of March 18 is a classic example of why good editors are paid good money to do right by their reporters and to keep investigative journalism in proper perspective.

The Times' front-page headline said: "Top Arkansas lawyer helped Hillary Clinton turn big profit. Commodity trend in '70s earned $100,000."

What followed were eight columns and large photo inside, raising many investment activities in the commodities market 16 years ago. There were few answers. The jury is still out on the worth of the story, its breathless quality and length. But it dropped like a stone, receiving negligible attention elsewhere in the press. This is a rarity for a major effort by the most news-savvy newspaper in the world.

Why then did the Times editors handle the story as they did? Could the answer -- at least a subliminal one -- lie in the agate line printed above the headline, which said, "The following article is based on reporting by Dean Baquet, Jeff Gerth and Stephen Labaton and was written by Mr. Gerth."

Editors had invested several days of three reporters' time in one angle of a very hot story. Whether the reporters came up with a solid piece of the Whitewater yarn or mostly suggestions -of serious wrongdoing, how do you spike their effort and still keep faith with them?

That is one side of this casebook investigative story.

Joseph Lelyveld, Times managing editor, enters a vigorous defense. "We still think it is a good story. It raised lots of serious questions. What was Mrs. Clinton doing trading in commodities three weeks before her husband became attorney general? For instance, was it her money or a friend's which made that big profit? Our reporting raised lots of real questions."

Lelyveld said, "I was not surprised that others did not pick up the story. Remember, we broke the original Whitewater story in '92, and the press didn't follow that one either."

He said, "The Times did receive many angry letters complaining that we were piling on at a time when the Clintons were under seige, going after something that happened 16 years ago."

Lelyveld said, "I did regret some aspects of the story's presentation, its tone, its play too high above the fold and its length. …

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