The Times, John Dean and the elephant in the room

New York Times ombudsman — excuse me, “public editor” — Clark Hoyt published a piece today about a sorry recent incident in which the Times ran a front-page piece granting some exposure and credibility to Watergate revisionists. The piece described the efforts of a writer named Peter Klingman to discredit the work of historian Stanley Kutler, suggesting that Kutler had doctored his transcripts of the Watergate tapes in an effort to protect John Dean and blacken President Nixon’s name.

Hoyt’s piece is fine as far as it goes: it basically points out how weak the Times story was, and how unfair to Kutler. Hoyt concludes that “the Times blew the dispute out of proportion with front-page play, allowed an attack on a respected historian’s integrity without evidence to support it, and left readers to wonder if there was anything here that would change our understanding of the scandal that ended Nixon’s presidency.”

But Hoyt’s discussion conspicuously avoids the elephant in the room (and yes, it is an elephant). I don’t know Klingman’s exact motivations or political affiliations, but it doesn’t take much thought to realize why someone in 2009 might be interested in attacking John Dean and lightening Nixon’s burden of guilt. Dean’s testimony was central in the collapse of Nixon’s presidency. Dean served a prison sentence for his role in Watergate — time that Nixon should have served, too, but avoided by wangling a corrupt pardon for himself. But many conservatives are still itching to exact further punishment for Dean’s betrayal. In the past decade, Dean became an outspoken critic of the Bush administration. Discrediting him would be sweet revenge.

It is bizarre to watch Hoyt dig in at such length about so many of the scholarly and journalistic issues surrounding this story yet fail to discuss the politics.

Full disclosure: I worked closely with Dean back in 2002 on an ill-fated (but still, to me, worthwhile) e-book titled Unmasking Deep Throat. You can read Dean’s take on the Times controversy in this column from the Daily Beast.

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  1. Really interesting articles there – there were definitely pros and cons to the Times article. It was nice to see Kutler’s work gaining some publicity, recognizing all the work he did in encompassing the Watergate scandal. However, this seems to be another case where they presented a controversy as the news. Considering Dean only served 4 months in prison, I can certainly see why people think he deserved more. But why did the Times have to run a biased article on the front page of the Times? Could it be as simple as sensationalizing a story to boost readership?

  2. I have a slightly different take on the Hoyt article. He mentions the reporter Cohen by name and takes “The Times” to task. But the problem was not the article per se (although Cohen’s claim that she expected Klingman’s manuscript to be rejected sounds completely bogus) but, rather, it’s timing and placement on the front page. Who was the editor who placed it on the front page? Who assigned the story and printed it before finding out whether or not the manuscript it was based on would be accepted for publication? Patricia Cohen didn’t make those decisions. Call out the editor! The people behind the curtain must be held accountable. Project Mockingbird appears to be alive and well. Those in the media with an agenda have to be called to task.

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