Saturday, July 12, 2008

'The Powers That Be'

More summer reading ...

"THE POWERS THAT BE" (Alfred A. Knopf, 1979). In this excerpt from Pulitzer Prize winner David Halberstam's book, the Los Angeles Times competes with the Washington Post on Watergate coverage and beats the eastern paper on a big story.

(Los Angeles Times National Editor Ed) Guthman was passionate on Watergate from the start. In later years he faulted himself for having let Jack Nelson cover the Berrigan trial through much of early 1972 and then work on a book about the trial. When Nelson was through with his Berrigan work, Guthman assigned him to Miami to scout the security setup for the Republican convention and to get to know the cops, so that if there were trouble at the convention the Times would be wired in. Guthman was later convinced that if Nelson had been in Washington in June, he would have been drawn to the smell of Watergate. Guthman thought Nelson was the best all-around reporter he had ever seen, that he could get anyone to talk. He often wondered what would have happened if Nelson had been in on the story from the beginning. He might have taken hold and he rather than Woodward and Bernstein would have locked up the best sources, because of the smell of it.

The smell. That was crucial. Woodward and Bernstein were new and young, and no one knew their names, they had no established sources, they had no wives or children to go home to, all they had was hunger, and they were out on the street every day visiting the homes of the people from CREEP. The Los Angeles Times reporters were hardly, by Washington standards, establishment reporters, they were diggers and boat rockers and outsiders, but they were not kids, they were not as young, and they were no longer police reporters, they had done that. They had families and they were established and they had established sources, people whom they had learned to trust over the years. So they went by instinct to their sources, many of whom were in the Justice Department or on the Hill, and they did a lot of checking by phone and dropping by at offices, and they never did what Woodward and Bernstein did, which was to knock on every door. Years later, reading their first book, "All The President's Men," Jack Nelson felt somewhat sick, he knew immediately what had happened and why he had been beaten on the story, why the younger reporters had been better. They had picked up the fear, he had not. In Los Angeles, Guthman, impressed from the start by the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein, had sensed the difference and understood the other paper had its reporters closer to the pulse of the story. He somehow realized that his own people were doing it by more traditional means, and he knew that this story was too explosive for phone work, that it had to be done by foot. No one he knew passed such confidential and delicate information over the phone, not in contemporary Washington. If he had confidential sensitive information to give out, Guthman thought, would he do it over the phone? Did anyone in America consider the phone a confidential instrument any more?

So he began to push Dennis Britton, the bureau manager, to get the reporters out of the office, telling Britton again and again that it could not be done on the phone. Every day he would call Britton and tell him to get them off the phones. "They've got to get off their asses and knock on doors. Dennis, get them outside," he said. Finally Britton had a small sign made up saying GOYA/KOD: Get Off Your Ass and Knock On Doors. Britton kept putting it on the desk of his three investigative rporters, GOYA/KOD, but there was an age difference, it was hard for journalists in their forties, men who had reached some status in life, to knock on doors, knocking on doors was something you did before you came to Washington. It was for the three Times reporters very frustrating, particularly for Jack Nelson, who had never been behind on a story before. No matter how hard they worked, Woodword and Bernstein always seemed to be just one step ahead. Woodward and Bernstein! Who the hell were Woodward and Bernstein? Bernstein, it was said through the journalistic grapevine, was some flaky semi-hippie who had been hanging around the Star and the Post forever, usually screwing up, and Woodward was some fresh-faced kid just out of the Navy. Yet there were Woodward and Bernstein, always ahead, locking up the best sources, and their stories--and this sometimes made Nelson and (Ron) Ostrow and (Bob) Jackson especially envious--always got good play, which surely led to other stories. So the Los Angeles people kept driving and pushing, and occasionally they would be slightly ahead on a story and hearing that the kids were moving on it too, they would move a little faster, but they were in second place at best, there was no doubt about it.
Guthman was right. One of the Time's first big stories, one of the most important in the entire episode, came precisely because Nelson was out in the field, knocking on doors, in effect, camping out. The story broke in early October 1972, at a time when the Los Angeles Times was distinguishing itself, not by brilliant Watergate stories, but by being one of the very few papers in America doing any Watergate stories at all. In late September, Jack Nelson had been down in Miami tracking the Cuban end of the story, talking with Henry Rothblatt, the lawyer for the Cubans. While he was there, Ostrow, Nelson's colleague in Washington, picked up a rumor that there might be an eyewitness to the bugging and break-in and so he doggedly began to call sources on Capitol Hill, picking up a few bits of information, and then someone mentioned the name Baldwin to him, Alfred Baldwin. Baldwin was in fact an ex-FBI agent who sat in for McCord monitoring the wiretaps the night of the bugging and who had, from the Howard Johnson motel across the street, watched the police capture his colleagues. So Ostrow quickly got on the phone to Nelson in Miami and said, "Try out the name Baldwin on your man Rothblatt." Nelson did, catching Rothblatt by surprise. "How did you know about him?" Rothblatt said, startled, and Nelson knew he was on to something very good. They had the story and they played it well. There was an eyewitness to events: he had been monitoring the raw stuff the Plumbers were tapping and he had seen the events. This was a very big story, and Nelson sensed there was more to come, this might tie the break-in even closer to the White House or the Attorney General's office. Besides, for the first time the Times was ahead of the Post and Nelson did not want to lose the advantage.

So he began camping out in Connecticut, where Baldwin lived and where his lawyers, Bob Mirto and Jack Cassidento, both lived. At first it was very low-key, just getting to know the lawyers, trying to separate himself from the rest of the pack of reporters, sensing finally that they wanted to talk, that Baldwin was unhappy over what he had been part of, feeling that he had been used by what he had thought was the government and now was doubtful that the government would protect him against the government. The reaction of Mirto and Cassidento was, Nelson thought, somewhat encouraging. Nelson suggested that in this case, since the normal protective agency, the Justice Department, was under control of some of the men who had operated the Watergate break-in, perhaps Baldwin's greatest protection in the long run was to get his story out. Otherwise he might end up a fall guy. A first-person story that would get his side out, and why not in the Los Angeles Times? If it was a first-person story, Nelson said, Baldwin would have some measure of control, it would be his story, and it was the only way he could get to see a story before it was published.

Mirto and Cassidento were interested and Nelson went back to Washington, only to reappear a few days later. By then the two lawyers were talking about selling Baldwin's story, perhaps to the Times or The New York Times or the Post, or some magazine. Nelson argued vehemently against it; it was not the money, he insisted, but the idea; if the Los Angeles Times paid for the story it would cast an immediate cloud over Baldwin's motives and credibility. The White House, which had powerful information instruments at hand, would find it easy to discredit him. He was very insistent. At about the same time, Bob Woodward called Cassidento trying for the same story. "Ugly f - - - - - s, you reporters," Cassidento said. But Nelson was pleased by the fact that they were talking about money; it was an encouraging sign, it meant that they wanted the story out. Victory number one, he thought.

He went back to Washington. He called a few days later and Mirto said that nothing had changed, there was no need to come back up, but Nelson insisted, he wanted to come anyway, you never can tell, besides, he told Mirto, he and Cassidento had promised Nelson a look at the famous Baldwin. "Hell, I've been up there all those times and I've never even met him." He thought they were ready to talk, but there was one problem, Baldwin was under subpoena from the Patman committee in the House and that prevented him from talking with the press, otherwise he might be in contempt of Congress. So Nelson spent the afternoon with Cassidento and Mirto, being a good old boy, explaining the danger of being locked in to the feds, sure somehow that Baldwin was in the same building, wanting to get a look at his man. Then in the late afternoon the phone rang. Cassidento talked to someone for a few minutes and when he finished he turned to Nelson. "Hey, you still got your tape recorder with you?" he said. Nelson asked why. "Because the Patman committee just called and said it wasn't going to subpoena Baldwin." Did Jack Nelson have a tape recorder? It was in the car, he had in fact checked the batteries earlier, and Nelson walked very slowly and deliberately out of the office, so as not to tip off his eagerness. Then, outside the building, he ran like hell for his car before thay could change their minds.

It was about 5 p.m. when he returned. The lawyers said it was a little late, why didn't they start in the morning, but Nelson did not want to wait, he was nervous about their changing their minds or about the prosecutors moving in and stopping him. With the Patman subpoena lifted, Baldwin was like a minnow among sharks, and Nelson wanted to move, and move quickly. So they went out to Mirto's house and worked for five hours that night, sending out for sandwiches, and Baldwin was wonderful. The ideal source, he had total recall, he was enjoying it, there was almost, in fact, a danger that he was embellishing it and Nelson had to slow him down on a few occasions. Baldwin insisted that John Mitchell knew about the break-in, and Nelson demanded proof, and Baldwin just insisted he knew, but there was no proof, and so Nelson made him drop the reference. It was a fascinating story of how Baldwin had been recruited by McCord and taken through CREEP, of taking logs from the bugging to the Nixon reelection headquarters, of dealing with Hunt and Liddy, of sitting across from the Watergate the night of the break-in, and of seeing Hunt casually slip away from the Watergate as the police closed in.

It was powerful stuff. It brought Watergate right to the heart of the Nixon reelection campaign, in a more dramatic way than any other story so far. Near the end of it Baldwin made one request of Nelson. What was it? the reporter asked. Well, said Baldwin, he had this girlfriend out in Wisconsin, and perhaps Nelson could refer to him in his story as a husky ex-Marine. Nelson looked at Baldwin, who struck him as being somewhat pudgy and overweight, and thought, well, every story has its price, and so it was that Al Baldwin was described in the Los Angeles Times as a husky ex-Marine. They almost finished the first night and then they went back the next morning for a few hours. Then Nelson called Guthman and said that he had the story; Guthman sent Ron Ostrow up to help Nelson by writing the regular news story that would accompany the first-person story, and to get a copy of the tapes. That night, with the story done, Nelson went over it line by line with Baldwin and Cassidento, getting their approval; Mirto was to read it the next morning. But Nelson had their approval and so, because he was afraid of the prosecutors, he stayed up until 3 a.m. dictating the story to Los Angeles. When it was done he was relieved; it was now the property of the home office.

The next morning, sure enough, there was a call from Cassidento at 7 a.m. telling Nelson he could not run the story. Why not? Nelson asked. "Because we've just gotten a call from Earl Silbert and Silbert knows about the Times story and he says if you run it he'll revoke Baldwin's immunity." Nelson, very noncommittal, said he would talk to his editors. A few minutes later there was another phone call from Cassidento, and this time he said, "Now I know you can't run it!" Why not? asked Nelson again. "Because Judge Sirica has just issued a gag order," Cassidento said. Nelson again said he would talk with his editors and immediately called both Guthman and (L.A.Times Editor Bill) Thomas, and with Ostrow helping him, argued ferociously that the story must run, that the Times already had it, that they had lived up to their part of the bargain--thay had the story as Baldwin had dictated it, with his approval and with his lawyer's approval. It was not Baldwin who had changed his mind, it was the government that did not want the story out. In this case, Nelson argued, Baldwin really wanted the story out, there was no doubt in his mind on that score; clearly Baldwin thought he was better protected that way. The only obligation in a case like this, Nelson argued, was to the source, and in this case they had honored the source's request. In fact, said Nelson, despite what Cassidento was saying on the phone, which was what as a lawyer he had to be on the record as saying, both Cassidento and Baldwin wanted it out. They did not trust the government, there was no reason to, no one was sure what role the prosecutors were playing; were they trying to get information in order to suppress it or were they trying to build a real case?

In Los Angeles, Bill Thomas had to make the decision himself. Otis Chandler was away at the time and was unreachable. Guthman wanted to go ahead with it, and Thomas knew it was a very important story. The Times’s lawyers read it and they were very nervous; their judgment was if the Times printed the story it was running an enormous risk, not just to the paper but to the corporation as well. The lawyers pointed out that if Baldwin were penalized in any way because the story ran, he stood a very good chance of collecting from the paper, and collecting big. Thomas, who was normally a very cautious man, thought about it, and he thought that the story had been obtained honorably and fairly, and he said go with it. It was a very tough call. Sirica was furious, there was an immediate legal hassle and at one point Sirica ordered John Lawrence, the Los Angeles Times Washington bureau chief, to jail. It also looked for a moment as if Nelson and Otis Chandler might also have to go to jail. Nelson, coming out of a Washington courtroom, was interviewed by a radio reporter, and said rather casually that he was ready to go to jail and he was sure that Otis Chandler would be proud to go to jail on case like this too. The Washington Post picked up Nelson’s quote and made a parenthetical insert to it: “In Los Angeles, Otis Chandler had no comment.” The next day Nelson’s phone rang and it was Ed Guthman saying, “Goddamn! What have you said about Otis?” This much amused most of Nelson’s colleagues, his volunteering his boss for prison, but a year later his friends Chuck and Camille Morgan were with the Chandlers in Los Angeles and Mrs. Morgan told Otis that even though she had never met him before, she had always liked him, ever since she had heard her friend Jack Nelson say that he would be glad to go to prison. “I would have been proud to have gone,” Otis Chandler said. Meanwhile the government’s case against the Times came apart quickly. The Times’s lawyers were well prepared, it was a quick (and costly) legal battle, five days, all the way to the Supreme Court, and the Times won.

The story ran on October 5, 1972, perhaps the most important Watergate story so far, because it was so tangible, it had an eyewitness, and it brought Watergate to the very door of the White House. It ran in most papers that carried the Times-Post news service. But it did not run in one paper, and that was the Washington Post. There had been a tendency not to use the Los Angeles Times’s stories or, on occasion, to rewrite them without giving credit. Ben Bradlee was not the most generous of souls. But this was really too much, a story of this magnitude could not be lightly rewritten; you could not rewrite an eyewitness story. So the Post did nothing with it. The next day the managing editor of the Washington Star called the Los Angeles Times and asked to use the Baldwin story. Bill Thomas said that was fine but the Star had to clear it with the Post because the Post had jurisdiction over syndication within the area. A few minutes later Bradlee called Thomas and said, “Hey, old buddy, you can’t give that one away. We’re going to use it tomorrow.” Which they did, almost reluctantly.

It was a great victory for the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington bureau was particularly proud. It was a strong bureau and there was a feeling in it that, journalist to journalist, they were now the best bureau in Washington. Privately many of the members thought the New York Times bureau was vastly overrated, that it had slipped and its members too often simply reflected the official government viewpoint. The Washington Post, they thought, was good but erratic, it had some excellent people, but it seemed undisciplined. If anything, the fact that the Los Angeles Times reporters did not get good play on their stories in Washington made them more closely knit and tougher-minded. With several hundred papers subscribing to the news service, it was now a real force in American journalism. More than a decade had passed since Bob Donovan had come over from the Trib, and if in some way he had failed in Los Angeles, he had nonetheless succeeded to an uncommon degree in his first intention, which was to bring New York standards to West Coast journalism. The Washington bureau of the Times was genuinely distinguished, the rest of the paper was getting better and better. In the early days of Watergate the one paper dogging the Washington Post was the Los Angeles Times. And this was important; it made the story that much more national, and it meant that Richard Nixon could not say that he was being pursued only by eastern outlets or liberal outlets. He was being pursued, if that was the word, by the very people who had helped to invent him.
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Thursday, July 10, 2008

In an Iranian Image, a Missile Too Many

In the four-missile version of the image released Wednesday by Sepah News, the media arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, two major sections (encircled in red) appear to closely replicate other sections (encircled in orange). (Illustration by The New York Times; photo via Agence France-Presse) [Click HERE for details]
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Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Paper Cuts: More Layoffs

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