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ProPublica Editor-In-Chief Who Stirred Up Clarence Thomas Smears Built His Career On False Insinuations

Unlike allegations made against Clarence Thomas, a look into Stephen Engelberg’s career finds decades of allegations tied directly to his work.

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If media outlets measure their success by public influence, then ProPublica is having a banner year. Since the investigative nonprofit published the first of five stories about Justice Clarence Thomas’ social connections, popular news outlets and the Democratic Party have made the series the most-discussed “scandal” of 2023.

Thomas’ friend Harlan Crow has become internet clickbait, which amounts today to a household name, and Democratic lawmakers have argued Thomas should resign. Through it all, another figure, whose past and present are equally important to the series, has remained remarkably free from scrutiny: Stephen Engelberg, the longtime New York Times reporter, founding managing editor, and then editor-in-chief of ProPublica who oversaw the Thomas investigation.  

This is a major elision. If Thomas’ career tells one kind of 30-year story, of a black conservative jurist in Washington, D.C., Engelberg’s tells another: a story in which, unlike Justice Thomas, his alleged transgressions are directly tied to his work. Since 1992, even in the judgment of some of his peers, Engelberg made his reputation by turning investigative reporting into an exercise in false insinuations and reputational slander at the expense of asking who’s abusing power and where power lies.

The two series that marked and failed to derail Engelberg’s pre-ProPublica career, Whitewater and the case of Wen Ho Lee, were early journalistic forays down this compromised path. Like the Thomas series, they were headline-grabbing investigations with outsized effects marred by questionable assertions that Washington players used for their own ends. They open a window not just into Engelberg but into the colleagues, editors, and reporters at the pinnacle of today’s establishment journalism, who aid and abet him.

The Art of Tactical Omission

The Whitewater scandal began with New York Times reporting by Jeff Gerth and then Engelberg on possible improprieties committed by a defunct savings-and-loan association with connections to Bill and Hillary Clinton. It led to the appointment of three independent counsels, one of whom eventually issued a report to Congress recommending Bill Clinton’s impeachment — not for Whitewater-related corruption, but for lying about an affair with a White House intern, which the special counsel had uncovered during the investigation.

One possible reason the Whitewater inquiry swerved in Monica Lewinsky’s direction despite the Clintons’ careers being marked by questionable ethics was that, according to in-the-know observers, Gerth’s and Engelberg’s front-page Whitewater stories promised more than their information could support. In the view of these observers, witnesses were unreliable, suggestive facts didn’t form a causal line, and some of the paper’s implications were riddled with inconsistencies. Journalistic critics, many of whom leveled criticisms at the Clintons but doubted Gerth and Engelberg’s reporting, described these stories in ways that might sound familiar today: “stories that combine a prosecutorial bias and the art of tactical omission to insinuate all manner of sin and skullduggery,” featuring “loose new standards under which innuendo was enough to sustain reports of serious ethical wrongdoing…”

But the stories continued: The Times was committed to them, and up-and-comers were tied to their success — not just Engelberg but Dean Baquet, who would later become the Times’ managing and then executive editor. The stories also, in another pattern that might sound familiar, garnered Washington political “buzz,” as connected conservative operators like George Conway and William Kristol used them to drive commentary against Clinton, supported by certified establishmentarians like David Gergen and Sally Quinn. Many of these players were nominal Republicans, but above all, they were Washington insiders — and all of them have since become opponents of the new Republican Party’s project of taking power from the capital city.

Tellingly, even 20 years ago, many reporters and players failed to show an interest in what became the sites of the Clintons’ real systemic corruption: the new nonprofit landscape and its ties to too-big-to-fail financial firms and foreign governments. Nor were they interested in the bigger story behind Whitewater: the domino collapse of S&Ls thanks to lax rules on the government-backed housing market.

Instead, in the same year that Bill Clinton signed legislation allowing commercial banks to function as investment banks, expanding home mortgages’ investors and their risks and enriching people like future ProPublica benefactor and founder of America’s second-largest S&L Herb Sandler, The New York Times’ focus was largely elsewhere. It was defending its coverage of Whitewater and talking about the Lewinsky scandal and its effect on the 2000 election. Worse, it was supporting Engelberg’s running of another story, this time working hand-in-glove with the government as it targeted an innocent civilian.

On to the Next Headline-Grabbing Investigation

Between March 1999 and September 2000, the Times ran a series of front-page reports supervised by Engelberg, the earliest and most “explosive” of which was co-written by Gerth, about the prosecution and conviction of Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwanese-American nuclear scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, for allegedly passing nuclear information to China.

At least one of these reports was riddled with a basic error. One, on March 24, 1999, asserted that Lee had hired a laboratory assistant who was a Chinese citizen “already under investigation as a suspected spy,” for whom the FBI was looking and who had disappeared. But the laboratory assistant was a graduate student whose “disappearance” was back to Pennsylvania State University where he was studying and was reachable by the university’s website or phone — the Times hadn’t checked.

Neither had the FBI, which also leaked reports of the investigation to the Times and then used the Times’ stories off their leaks to prosecute Dr. Lee. According to the transcripts of the FBI interrogations of Dr. Lee on March 7, 1999, the day after the Times ran its first story which described Lee without disclosing his name, interrogators made that story into leverage, threatening him with public humiliation via the newspaper in language that reads like a lift from a David Mamet play. (“No, you stop a minute, Wen Ho. … this newspaper article … this is what’s going to do you more damage than anything. … Do you think the press prints everything that’s true? Do you think that everything that’s in this article is true? … The press doesn’t care.”)

Two days later, Dr. Lee was fired, and his name was disclosed to and run in The New York Times. The Justice Department, benefiting from the coverage it had provided the Times, prosecuted Lee and caused him to be held shackled in solitary confinement for nine months until, on Sept. 14, 2000, the government withdrew 58 out of 59 charges after an FBI agent admitted to lying in testimony, and Lee received an apology from a Reagan-appointed federal judge.

Here the journalistic criticism was more sustained than with Whitewater, especially toward Engelberg but extending to the Times as a whole. One observer said, again in language that might sound familiar today, that “It felt like mob rule … the whole journalism fraternity and sorority aided and abetted what happened.”

But the Times was largely unapologetic: It ran an editorial about its own conduct in the case concluding that “on the whole, we remain proud of work that brought into the open a major national security problem. Our review found careful reporting that included extensive cross-checking and vetting of multiple sources…” — not mentioning that these were some of the same sources, FBI and Justice Department officials, who had pushed the flawed case to the Times’ attention in the first place. Instead, Bill Keller, soon to be the Times’ executive editor, wrote an internal memo praising Engelberg, “who managed this coverage so masterfully.”

As one critic said, this was “bureaucracy at its purest” an approach that was also followed by Keller’s eventual successor, Jill Abramson, for whom, growing up, the Times was the “religion.”

Fast-forward to today and establishment politics has shifted as insider Democrats have taken over from insider Republicans, but the role of the journalists hasn’t changed: pushing skewed narratives off personality journalism and Washington leaks instead of investigating systemic abuse. After all, why would they question the system that’s treated them so well?

Failing Upward

Bill Keller ran and serves on the board of a respected nonprofit. Dean Baquet supervised the Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of President Trump’s alleged Russia collusion, coverage that flowed, again, from FBI leaks later revealed as flawed. Jill Abramson and David Gergen are on ProPublica’s board of journalistic advisers. Jeff Gerth was a senior reporter at ProPublica from 2008 to 2016 and has two Pulitzer Prizes to boot. And ProPublica’s Engelberg is continuing his 30-year career of character assassination, helping Senate Democrats obliterate the federal government’s separation of powers in the process.

In these journalistic circles, a debate is occurring over how “objective” journalism should be as more Americans lose trust in it. Should it favor “balanced” reporting or vigorously identify “threats” to the republic, e.g. Donald Trump? Backlit against 30 years of media practice, with the campaign against Clarence Thomas the latest but surely not the last example, this debate is meaningless. To call the reporting of Engelberg and his peers “balanced,” or, in ProPublica’s parlance, “journalism that holds power to account,” is an abuse of language. It’s also a dereliction of truth: the one concept that these people, insider players all, claim to revere and uphold.

UPDATE: Mr. Gerth provided the following post-publication comment:

The original article, published without my input, contained mistakes, large and small. Some minor errors were corrected but the broader attack on my decades-old reporting still stands, and the criticism remains evidence-free. For example, the piece repeatedly criticized my Whitewater reporting without naming a specific mistake. Actually, my original 1992 Whitewater story —as well as the next most consequential one of that genre, the 1994 story about Hillary Clinton’s commodity trades —-were both fully confirmed by subsequent investigations. Furthermore, some of my reporting proved to be understated. Finally, I remain puzzled why I was featured in an article about coverage of Clarence Thomas when I have never done a story about him.

This article has been updated since publication.


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