NYT Public Editor says the Times blew the Kutler story "out of proportion"

Historians in the News

[Clark Hoyt is the Public Editor (ombudsman) of the NYT.]

WITH the movie “Frost/Nixon” reviving memories of Watergate, Times readers on a recent Sunday might have been expecting major revelations when they saw this front-page headline: “John Dean’s Watergate Role At Issue in Nixon Tapes Feud.”

Instead, they got an article reviving a decade-old argument over the editing of widely cited transcripts of the Watergate cover-up, as captured on Richard Nixon’s secret taping system. The article repeated accusations by a handful of critics that Stanley I. Kutler, an esteemed historian, deliberately omitted and distorted material to paint a benign portrait of Dean, the presidential counsel who turned on Nixon and helped to bring him down.

The story demonstrated The Times’s power to propel an essentially dormant dispute into the national conversation. Web sites have been alive with discussion of the controversy — and The Times’s judgment in highlighting it. The article posed important journalistic questions: What makes an academic feud news, and what is the newspaper’s obligation to try to figure out who is right?

In this case, I think The Times blew the dispute out of proportion with front-page play, allowed an attack on a respected historian’s integrity without evidence to support it and left readers to wonder if there was anything here that would change our understanding of the scandal that ended Nixon’s presidency.

The peg for the article, its reason for being, seemed weak: Peter Klingman, a little-known independent historian, had submitted a manuscript to the American Historical Review, the leading journal in the field, charging Kutler with willful deception. Klingman had made a similar charge in 2002, and it had gotten no traction. ...

Does anything here change our understanding of Watergate? Luke A. Nichter, a professor at Tarleton State University-Central Texas, has prepared new transcripts of some key conversations edited by Kutler. They are available, with digital audio, at nixontapes.org. Nichter said he believes the attack on Kutler was misguided, but as a result of The Times article, he took another look at the Watergate cover-up, using more sources than the tapes Kutler edited. In an article that will be published shortly in Passport, another scholarly journal, Nichter said he concluded that both Nixon and Dean were somewhat guiltier than we knew....

Related Links

  • HNN Hot Topics: The Watergate Transcript Controversy

  • Luke Nichter: What led to today's NYT article
  • Read entire article at Clark Hoyt in the NYT

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    More Comments:

    Alonzo Hamby - 2/23/2009

    It is interesting that this article appeared in the Times in the first place and remarkable that Hoyt devoted a Sunday column to it.

    It is very difficult to work with recorded conversations. Stanley Kutler appears to have made a mistake. Perhaps it was a big one, perhaps not. In any case, I am certain it was inadvertent.

    The accumulation of historical knowledge can be a messy business in which personalities get into play. That's unfortunate.

    I'm still not quite sure how all this wound up in the Times, but I do think historical accuracy involves historians checking each other's work.

    Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 2/23/2009

    At least half of America does not believe John Dean anyway, since G. Gordon Liddy has been damning him on the radio for about 20 years, and I think Liddy won in the lawsuit Dean filed against him, or at least won a hung jury.

    Robert Lee Gaston - 2/23/2009

    You can now purchase a share of Times Stock for less than the price of a Sunday paper. Could not have happened to a better group of people.