Woodward’s Molten Meltdown

How to take a government handout and make it impenetrable.

Investigative journalism ain’t what it should be. Too often it coughs up the long newspaper story that the average intelligent reader, having read it carefully, puts down and says, “What the heck was that all about?” Bob Woodward produced such a story on Page 1 of the Oct. 17 Washington Post.

Woodward’s 2,834-word article was titled “A Lobbyist’s Lucrative Ties to Gore: Ex-Aide Raised Funds From Client, Helped Its Federal Business.” (Click here to read it.) The length, the placement, and the authorship all suggest that this is a big story–apparently an important new revelation of some sort about the campaign-finance scandal. But for anyone but the most ardent Thompson-committee groupie, the piece is a massive, unenlightening info-dump, containing paragraph after paragraph of brain-bending detail that’s barely placed within a conceptual framework.

The story tracks the wheeling and dealing of Peter Knight, an influential corporate lobbyist who used to work for Al Gore and is now a prominent Gore fund-raiser. Knight lobbied for Molten Metal Technology, a hazardous-waste firm that collected a large federal contract and whose chief executive, coincidentally or not, was a large donor to various Gore causes.

The Gore-Knight-Molten connection had already been reported. So what’s the story? There are perhaps three ways to tell it. One is chronologically–not a bad idea when the plot is complicated. Another is “pyramid style”–the traditional newspaper approach, with the nub of the story on top and an expanding base of detail. Then there’s Woodward’s way–a sort of postmodernist literary technique in which time and space loop around and tie each other in knots. The piece is a surprise coming from someone who has produced many readable scoops.

In the spring of 1995,” the story begins (and compressing it makes the story far more comprehensible than the full-blown version), Molten executives pledged to raise $50,000 for the Clinton-Gore campaign. Knight sent them a thank-you note. Three weeks earlier Gore had visited and praised one of the company’s plants. The CEO of Molten sent Knight a thank-you note for arranging the Gore trip. Six weeks later the CEO attended a dinner for contributors at the vice president’s mansion. Now government investigators are looking into this. Into what, exactly? In the eighth paragraph we learn that this is “a stark picture of how business and politics often overlap, demonstrating the advantage of having friends in high places.” Anyone previously unaware that business and politics “overlap” (whatever that means) and that it’s good to have friends in high places has now had that cleared up. But without any more guidance about why readers who weren’t born yesterday should keep reading, Woodward resumes the narrative carpet-bombing.

We are neck-deep in the morass when Woodward offers up something that smells like news. On March 22, 1994, the Molten Metal CEO donated $50,000 to help endow a chair at the University of Tennessee to be named after Gore’s deceased sister. Two days later, the Department of Energy boosted an existing contract with the company by $9 million. Even later in the piece, the most devoted reader is rewarded with another significant item: On the day the company’s expanded DOE contract was announced, the Democratic Party received $15,000 from Molten. Peter Knight was simultaneously a lobbyist for the company and a fund-raiser for both the Gore campaign and the university chair. At that time, a DOE official involved in the contract was a former Gore staffer.

Believe me, you now have a better grasp of this story than you could possibly have gained from reading Woodward’s entire piece–once. You also have maybe half an hour of your life back. What you don’t have is Woodward’s descriptions of various dinners attended by the principal figures. (The choice is yours. Click here for another chance to read the Woodward story.)

Another traditional journalistic concept (like pyramid style) is that the news ought to be new. Despite the front-page placement and Woodward’s brand-name byline, the Post’s Oct.17 story added little to a report posted two days earlier by Time reporter Michael Weisskopf on his magazine’s Web site. (Click here to read it.) Weisskopf presented the story in a few hundred comprehensible words, reporting that Molten’s federal contract was expanded at the time the company and its chief were making large, Knight-brokered donations to the Democratic Party and Gore. (A month earlier, William Safire made an elliptical reference to the Molten case in his New York Times column. Click here to read the column.)

T he traditional investigative story, at least in the movies, works this way: The intrepid reporter, through gumption and legwork, exposes the evildoer; then the government takes over to flesh out the case and administer punishment. These days, all too frequently, this chronology runs backward. Specifically, the government process predates the journalistic exposé–and in fact is its major source. Following what is by now standard Washington procedure, Thompson-committee investigators routinely shop stories to reporters. The pile of documents that Woodward relied on for his article (and Weisskopf, too) were, in all likelihood, provided by the committee’s investigators. Many reporters, including me, make deals with congressional investigators to get material by promising not to reveal the source. Such deals are sometimes necessary to get a good story. But readers deserve to know that some of the big, important stories thrust in front of them are actually the product of Washington’s political games.

Actually, more than a year ago (June 18, 1996) the Wall Street Journal’s Michael Frisby wrote a long story on Peter Knight that disclosed Knight’s connection to Molten, Molten’s donations to the Democrats, and the company’s success in obtaining contracts from the Clinton administration. I don’t know where Frisby got his material, but he wrote the story before the Thompson committee even existed. (Click here to read that story.) Woodward did advance the story by reporting on the $50,000 donation for the university chair honoring Gore’s sister and the DOE contract expansion. Still, Frisby did a better job than Woodward in offering meaning. He summed up the Knight case rather well:

“Mr. Knight’s link to the vice president is now the power axis for a circle of his friends and clients, all of whom benefit from the relationship. It works like this: Mr. Knight’s clients, some of whom are old friends and contributors to Mr. Gore, donate to the Democratic Party. In return, the vice president occasionally helps them. Everybody wins. Mr. Clinton rewards Mr. Knight for his fund raising, Mr. Gore lays the groundwork for his anticipated presidential bid four years from now, and the companies, by hiring Mr. Knight, get the administration’s ear.”

So that’s what it’s all about. Now you know.