Stop Making Sense

Lessons from the New York Times on turning innuendo and incomprehensibility into a Pulitzer Prize.

New York Times investigative reporter Jeff Gerth is famous for being a terrible writer. Here, for example, is a sample from the series that won Gerth a 1998 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting, announced last week:

The President’s decision was valuable to Ms. Liu because it enabled her company to do more business with American companies, but it had also been sought by American aerospace corporations, including Loral Space and Communications and the Hughes Electronics Corporation, a subsidiary of the General Motors Corporation, seeking to do more business in China.

That may not seem so bad, until you consider dozens of such sentences strung together. And take a closer look. Why the “but”? Something was “valuable to Ms. Liu” but “had also been sought by” others? “But” suggests a contradiction, but there is nothing contradictory about the notion that an item valuable to one person would be sought by others as well. Many investigative reporters are bad writers, and the impenetrable prose is held to be the price you pay for the dirt they unearth. But this small example illustrates how bad writing can actually help an investigative reporter to paper over the holes in his case. He can imply something without saying so–in this case, that “the President’s decision” must have been motivated as a favor either to this Ms. Liu, a Chinese government agent, or to those companies.

Stripped of clutter and confusion, the gist of Gerth’s Pulitzer Prize series was that President Clinton had helped a campaign contributor to leak important military secrets to China.

The longer version (still a lot shorter than Gerth’s) is this: Several U.S. aerospace firms would like to hire the Chinese space agency to launch satellites for them. They are legally prohibited from doing so because the U.S. government worries about sharing aerospace technology with China. But the law also allows the president to waive this rule on a case-by-case basis if doing so is in the “national interest.” Both Presidents Bush and Clinton have granted these waivers, and by 1998 around 20 launches had been approved.

In 1996, a Chinese missile carrying an American satellite exploded just after takeoff. The satellite’s owner, a Manhattan aerospace firm called Loral, subsequently helped Chinese scientists figure out what went wrong. In April 1998, Gerth revealed a Pentagon study concluding that Loral had spilled national security secrets during the 1996 accident review. The Pentagon’s conclusions led the Department of Justice to begin a criminal investigation.

But Clinton, Gerth reported, had dealt the Justice investigation “a serious blow” in February 1998. He had “quietly” permitted Loral to export to China the same technology supposedly leaked in the 1996 incident. He ignored Justice Department concerns that approving this technology transfer in 1998 would make it harder to convict Loral of harming national security by leaking it two years earlier. Gerth also reported that Loral’s chief executive was a generous contributor to the Democratic National Committee.

In other words: 1) a Democratic donor helped China, possibly in violation of the law; 2) this imperiled U.S. national security; but 3) Clinton “quietly” let the donor off the hook. Let’s take these claims one by one.

First, the claim that Loral helped China. Gerth says Loral had a “corporate mindset in which the priority was to fix” the failed Chinese rockets. Gerth makes this sound bad, even treasonous. But this is an example of useful bad writing that implies more than it delivers. After all, if you’re in the business of launching satellites from Chinese rockets–with U.S. government approval–it’s not unreasonable to take some interest in making sure the rockets work.

Furthermore, tucked away in part of the Loral series (a piece not nominated for the Pulitzer) are the following three facts. 1) The post-accident report was initiated not by Loral but by its insurers. 2) The report was released to China by accident: An engineer’s secretary faxed it off before Loral’s lawyers vetted it. 3) Loral’s lawyers tried in vain to block the transmission just after it had occurred. The Washington Post, not Gerth, reported that Loral voluntarily revealed this breach of security to the government, precipitating the Pentagon investigation. None of this proves that Loral wasn’t disloyal or criminally negligent in its dealings with China. But it certainly complicates the story, and Gerth either downplayed it or left it out.

Second, the claim that Loral hurt U.S. security. Gerth’s prize-winning articles do not mention a CIA report concluding that U.S. security was not harmed by the 1996 accident review. The CIA report was revealed in the Washington Post in June 1998, but even subsequent Gerth pieces make no mention of it. Gerth’s original piece in April said that the Pentagon believed Loral had “significantly improved the reliability of China’s nuclear missiles.” By June, Gerth was writing, with a tinge of desperation, that the Pentagon “did not find grave damage but did conclude that the United States national security had been harmed.” Gerth also failed to mention that the Pentagon agency reaching this highly qualified judgment had a long-standing grudge against Clinton. This information is also courtesy of the Washington Post, which quoted public testimony from a senior Pentagon analyst that Clinton had “neutered” the agency.

Third, the claim that Clinton “quietly” approved the second Loral launch in February 1998. Gerth means to suggest that Clinton was attempting to hide an out-and-out favor to a political crony. But a subsequent Gerth article (also not nominated for the Pulitzer) revealed that Clinton immediately notified Congress of his February decision. Can Gerth really be serious? Submitting a decision to the U.S. Congress counts as “quietly”? Moreover, after Gerth’s article the White House released a series of documents detailing the decision. The documents show, as Gerth himself acknowledged in reporting them, that the State Department and all Clinton’s top national security aides recommended that Clinton approve it. The Washington Post added that even the Pentagon–Loral’s initial accuser!-- recommended approval.

Gerth waited until June, two months after his leadoff article, to mention that Clinton’s predecessor, Bush, had approved all the waiver applications that reached his desk and that Clinton himself “routinely followed the practice … signing 10 waivers.” Bush and Clinton allowed launches by the Hughes Electronics Corp., an aerospace firm also subsequently accused of giving secrets to the Chinese, which backed Bush in the 1992 campaign. Late in his prize-winning series, Gerth wrote some harsh things about Hughes, and Hughes’ lobbying of Clinton, but he scarcely mentioned Hughes’ Republican connections.

Gerth’s series of articles did illustrate how, under current campaign finance law, a president is certain to make national security decisions affecting firms to which he is beholden. If he’d presented it that way–as an example of the need for campaign finance reform–he would have had a more honest piece, though one less likely to win a Pulitzer. But what Gerth alleges, and fails to prove, is the much more glamorous charge that Clinton short-circuited existing laws to allow a major Democratic donor to sell ballistic weapons secrets to China. If true, it would probably count as treason, which is why House Speaker Newt Gingrich briefly considered adding this charge to the list of impeachable offenses. But Gerth’s reporting fell far short of demonstrating this–a fact that would be obvious if his writing were a bit better.