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A couple of weeks ago, New York Times reporter Tim Weiner took delivery on hundreds of pages of previously secret documents. He crashed on the project, staying up nights sifting through the documents and taking down the most salacious tidbits. By Wednesday of last week, Weiner had nearly completed the story, which would require just a little polishing before it would appear a few days later on the front page of the Sunday Times. Alas, his editor called at 10:30 that night after the customary fax exchange of front pages with the Washington Post.
“Ah, that fateful call,” says Weiner. “They said, ‘I hate to tell you this, but the Post has your story.’ I was a little upset. I care truly, madly, and deeply about being first, but then there are a million people who don’t get both papers, so I got back to work.”
It’s worth mentioning that Weiner got scooped on a 25-year-old story: Watergate. The Post’s George Lardner Jr. and Walter Pincus beat him with a Thursday takeout on recently released tapes from the Nixon presidency. Weiner recovered to produce a matching story on Friday, but the score was clear: The Post beat the Times on Watergate, again.
Coming in first wasn’t a simple matter for the Postthe scoop came partly on the back of a historian in Wisconsin. In 1992, while the Post was basking in self-congratulation on the 20th anniversary of Watergate, University of Wisconsin professor Stanley Kutler filed a lawsuit demanding the release of the tapes. Congress had ordered the release of Nixon’s secretly recorded tapes in 1974, but Nixon’s personal lawyer, Jack Miller, fought long and hard to keep them in the sock. The embargo ended with an April 1996 settlement between Kutler and the Nixon estate mandating that the “abuse of power” recordingthe National Archives’ labelbe the first batch of 3,700 hours of tape dragged into the light of day and made available for listening at the National Archives.
“The Post was nowhere in sight back then,” says Kutler of the suit, which was also backed by the advocacy group Public Citizen. Once he got the access he fought for, he got to work on a book called Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes (Simon and Schuster).
The Post didn’t stay lost for long. After Kutler had retained professional transcribers to type up the tapes, “[The Post] approached the transcribers and asked to see the materials, and they, behaving properly, turned them down. After that, the Post approached me and wanted to buy me out. They said they would pay for the transcripts and run five stories that would run a total of 20,000 words. They wanted to do their own story. But I was concentrating on my book and told them no.”
After getting stiffed by Kutler, the Post waited until his transcribing team was done and hired it to do the same thingquickly. The results were published in a joint project that popped out in the Post and Newsweek last week. Kutler’s book shipped this week, but it has lost some crackle since the Post published some of the naughtiest bits. The Times’ Weiner had received early galleys of the book and was working up the story when the Post ran him over. (Weiner’s story gave Kutler his due; it was also more powerfully focused and executed, which may or may not be one of the benefits of coming in second.)
The Post story made no mention of how the tapes entered the public domain, although Lardner has published stories about Kutler’s suit in the past. Kutler sounds sufficiently pissed when asked about being big-footed by the Post, which still has some mighty proprietary feelings over the story that turned it into a national newspaper.
“They didn’t bother to fight for the tapes. They didn’t cover the press conference about their release. And they couldn’t get my cooperation, so they turned it into a race,” Kutler says.
The Post’s Pincus, who oversees joint projects between the Post and Newsweek, among other duties, says that it wasn’t the Post that fired the starter’s gun.
“We had conversations with him, and he said he would be happy to work with us but wanted to wait until his book came out in February . I wanted to run them in October because of the campaign stuff. I thought they would have a lot of relevance,” Pincus says. The tapes chronicle a spate of campaign finance shenanigans overseen by Nixon.
Pincus says the Post’s intention of publishing in October was clear from the start and points out that it was Kutler who moved up his publication date. But Pincus doesn’t deny that he liked being in front of the Times, which, after all, had galleys of Kutler’s book in hand.
“Being first is very important to the Post and to me personally,” says Pincus. “I happen to be very competitive. [But] we timed this story to connect it to the current campaign finance stories.”
It’s a measure of the power of Watergatea story that launched an entire era of journaliststhat Beltway diarists are still keeping score. Nixon lawyer Miller is a little mystified by the tapes’ appeal to reporters. “I’m not surprised that the Post was so interested in it, because it was their story, but I find it hard to think the public would be very excited, because it is basically a rehash of a story that has been told over and over.”
Regardless of how much dust has settled, it’s hard not to get sucked in. The unalloyed Nixon and cohort depicted in Kutler’s book sound like characters in a libretto written by Hunter Thompson. Check thateven Thompson couldn’t go far enough over the top to capture Nixon’s casually envenomed delivery. “Bob, please get me the names of the Jews, you know, the big Jewish contributors of the Democrats….Could we please investigate some of the cocksuckers?” he says to Haldeman at one point.
Both Pincus and Weiner find plenty of reflections of today’s presidency in the fun-house mirror of the Nixon White House.
“I happen to believe that this is a way of getting at the reality of the White House. The White House as it is covered today is a PR operation. This story is [an opportunity] to educate people on how much more complex government decision-making is than what they seem to be getting today,” says Pincus, who was around to help write the first draft of Nixonian history as an editor at the New Republic in the early ’70s.
At 41, Weiner missed the story the first time around, but he is clearly drinking the Nixon Kool-Aid in deep gulps. “This is what the machine looks like with the lid off. Here are the gears grinding. We have eight and a half days (201 hours) of the uncut Nixon, the dude himself, live, the Bomb. You can almost hear them sweating as the noose draws tighter,” says Weiner, who kicks into a commanding Nixon impression that suggests he’s either very gifted or has spent a little too much time hunched over the tapes.
Who can blame die-hard newsies for harking back to a time when journalists seemed to be driving the public agenda? They’re still cranking out reams of campaign finance-abuse pieces, but all readers care about is the next episode of the nanny story.
Just Don’t Mention the Potted Plant Aide Fred Buzhardt to Nixon on the accuracy of reports about the number of meetings John Dean had with the president: “I think there are two stories that were read on this subject. One was written by Sy Hersh. It was very careless. He’s the man who said [Dean] saw you about 40 times….I think Woodward and Bernstein wrote it accurately.”
Picture Palliative Post scold Geneva Overholser struck another blow for mob rule when she inveighed against a Page One picture of a 15-year-old black mother sucking her thumb and holding a baby that ran on top of Kate Boo’s welfare reform story on Sunday, Oct. 19. Under a profoundly dishonest headline”Readers Deprived of a Reward”Overholser suggested that photographer Juana Arias’ dead-on depiction of a kid with a kid was too toxic for the breakfast tables of Post readers and, hence, scared readers off the story. “To modulate its power by playing it inside, smaller, would not have been censorship. It would have been editingmaking a choice faithful to the story.” My, what a lovely crock of shit that is. After getting banged around by complaints from both inside and outside the Post for trafficking in stereotypes on the one hand and teen pregnancy pandering on the other, Overholser wrote “the truth lies somewhere in the middle.” Ah, now there’s a way to go. Daily papers all over the country are dropping over the horizon because they constantly suggest that truth is the hole in the middle of the doughnut, a mystical place where no one’s feelings ever get hurt by hard facts and cold realities.
Touch ‘n’ Go Investigative honcho Brian Duffy, whom the Post triumphantly recruited less than a year ago, lasted all of ten months as an editor on the national desk before heading off to join the Wall Street Journal. (He will step into the very big heels of Jill Abramson, who was wooed away by the Times.) Duffy did some great work at the Post but apparently tired of the withering gaze of assistant managing editor for national news Karen Deyoung, who wanted him to quit messing around with all that silly breakout reporting and get down to some nutritious editing. Deyoung had apparently learned it was time to shop for a new hot dog after reporters on the national desk quit briefing Duffy because they knew he was going to work for the other guys.
Changing Lanes? Is Martin Peretz going to surpass his own personal best in turnover time of the editor’s chair at the New Republic? Charles Lane is rumored to be floundering as editor, and his tenure may not even match Michael Kelly’s short stay in Martyworld.
The Big Toilet Of all the alliances between major media and business, sports offers the most synergy. The Post’s noncoverage of Jack Kent Cooke Stadium’s myriad shortcomings may be a new low in homerism. Never mind the brass-band treatment the Post gave JKCthe place is a couple of dents and some rust away from being a full-blown junker. Sight lines that require a high-power rifle and obstructions that have longtime fans contemplating chainsaws are only part of the (untold) story. All the construction money is sandwiched in the middle for suites and club seats that the Skins can’t seem to sellthe rest of the joint is just so much freshly minted metal. I had the pleasure of sitting in the top row not so long ago and couldn’t help noticing that the place is topped off with some lovely chain-link fence. Add in endless walkways nicely topped with corrugated metal, and you can bet it will be just a matter of time before the stadium looks as embattled as the team’s roster. It’s great that Cooke had the wherewithal to build his own place of business without pickpocketing the taxpayers, but pretending it’s a nice place to see a game is just so much fantasy football.
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