Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Miami Herald, Tom Fiedler, and Original Sin … by gimleteye

Matt Bai writes a terrific cover story for the New York Times Sunday Magazine, tracking back to the implosion of Democratic front-runner Gary Hart in 1987 ("How Gary Hart's Downfall Forever Changes American Politics, Sept. 18 2014"). Hart was undone by a Miami Herald 7,000 word expose by lead writer Tom Fiedler.

I recall the moment well. Bai brings some fuzzy memories into sharp and excruciating focus. Hart is no longer the virile, handsome candidate who couldn't keep his hands to himself, on the party boat "Monkey Business". We need reminding, too, from the perspective of history before the true record of what happened defaults to the last lines written.

For me, there was one piece of the Hart affair with Donna Rice that was integral to his downfall: his challenge to the media to "follow him around". Although the point is peripheral to the main story, Bai discloses new information that really jumps out.

Hart's pride-that-goes-before-the-fall is a key part of the 1987 Herald bombshell and of the role of Fiedler, a better political OPED writer than editor of the Herald. (Fielder lead the Herald campaign for a downtown baseball stadium that eventually materialized -- long after he left Miami -- as the worst decision in baseball history.)

It turns out that I -- along with countless other observers -- was mistaken by the Herald and Fiedler. Hart made his infamous dare, not to the Herald, but to E.J. Dionne Jr., then the chief political writer at the NY Times.
Soon enough, as The Herald would put it in their longer reconstruction a week later, Gary Hart would be seen as “the gifted hero who had taunted the press to ‘follow me around.’ ” Everyone would know that Hart had goaded the press into hiding outside his townhouse and tracking his movements. So what if The Herald reporters hadn’t even known about it when they put Hart under surveillance? Hart’s quote appeared to justify The Herald’s extraordinary investigation, and that’s all that mattered.

The difference here is far more than a technicality. Even when insiders and historians recall the Hart episode now, they recall it the same way: Hart issued his infamous challenge to reporters, telling them to follow him around if they didn’t believe him, and then The Herald took him up on it. Inexplicably, people believe, Hart set his own trap and then allowed himself to become ensnared in it. (When I spoke to Dana Weems, she repeatedly insisted to me that she had only called The Herald after reading Hart’s “follow me around” quote, which was obviously impossible.)

And this version of events conveniently enabled The Herald’s reporters and editors to completely sidestep some important and uncomfortable questions. As long as it was Hart, and not The Herald, who set the whole thing in motion, then it was he and not they who suddenly moved the boundaries between private and political lives. They never had to grapple with the complex issues of why Hart was subject to a kind of invasive, personal scrutiny no major candidate before him had endured, or to consider where that shift in the political culture had led us. Hart had, after all, given the media no choice in the matter.

I had a chance to talk to Fiedler about this over lunch one day in the spring of 2013. We ate at a French restaurant near the campus of Boston University, where Fiedler, who went on to run The Herald before his retirement, was now installed as dean of the College of Communication.

Fiedler explained to me that while he knew no political reporter had ever undertaken this kind of surveillance on a presidential candidate or written an article about a possible extramarital affair, he had never doubted that Hart’s liaison with Rice, if it could be proved, was a legitimate story. Fielder’s view — a view shared by a lot of his younger colleagues and informed, no doubt, by the lingering ghosts of Nixon — was that it wasn’t a reporter’s job to decide which aspects of a candidate’s character were germane to the campaign and which weren’t. It was the job of reporters to vet potential presidents by offering up as detailed a dossier about that person as they could assemble, and it was the voters’ job to rule on relevance, one way or the other.

Fiedler readily acknowledged that the order of events pertaining to the “follow me around” quote had since become jumbled in the public mind, and his expression was genuinely regretful. He mostly blamed the way the TV news programs that weekend juxtaposed The Herald’s reporting with the quote from The Times Magazine, as if one had led to the other. That had really been the beginning of the myth, he said, and from that time on, people were confused about which came first — “follow me around” or The Herald investigation. When I asked why he had never tried to correct the record, Fiedler shrugged sadly. “I don’t know what I would need to do,” he said.

If Nixon’s resignation created the character culture in American politics, then Hart’s undoing marked the moment when political reporters ceased to care about almost anything else.

Then I mentioned to Fiedler that I had done a web search on his name recently and been sent to his biographical page on the B.U. website. And this is what it said: “In 1987, after presidential hopeful Gary Hart told journalists asking about marital infidelity to follow him around, Fiedler and other Herald reporters took him up on the challenge and exposed Hart’s campaign-killing affair with a Miami model.” Why did his own web page explicitly repeat something he knew to be untrue?

Fiedler recoiled in his seat and winced. He looked mortified. “You know what?” he said. “I didn’t know that. Honestly. I’m serious.” He stared at me for another beat, stunned. “Wow.” I knew he meant it. I was surprised to find that for more than a year afterward — until just last month — Fiedler hadn’t changed a word.

Why isn't this a trifling detail?

A decade earlier, the Washington Post set the gold standard for investigating political malfeasance when its ace reporters, Berstein and Woodward, disclosed Watergate. The Hart saga, at the time, was a curious alteration of the meme.

Call it the commodification of the personal and political sphere.

The Fourth Estate has always sought the "gotcha moment" to frame stories and attract readers. In that sense, there is nothing new about the Herald accepting and delivering on the challenge to reveal the most enticing news about a man who would be president in the competitive spirit of besting the photo of Michael Dukakis wearing the bizarre pilot's helmut in a military tank or, later, Howard Dean's hee-haw moment. They brought it on themselves.

Allowing the mythology to persist that the Herald was only rising to bait that Hart had cast himself to the Herald, the newspaper fell into its own commodification trap. Bai doesn't go there, in his excellent New York Times report, but his disclosure about the Herald and Fiedler points us in the direction.


Anonymous said...

At the time I felt Hart tried to outdo JFK. Never understood the preoccupation of the public with scandal.
May be he was the first to get "Spizered"

Anonymous said...

The Dean of Communication at a prominent university doesn't appear attentive to fact as would be required of his students.

Anonymous said...

Everyone who lobbied for a baseball stadium downtown and a baseball stadium built with the taxpayers money is disgraced. Carlos Alvarez, Manny Diaz, Bruno Barrerio, Dennis Moss, Joe Sanchez, Marc Sarnoff, Michelle Spence-Jones and the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce all are corrupt. "Worst stadium deal in the history of the world". Unless you are the owner of the hapless Marlins.

Malagodi said...

Surely you're not making a case for ethics in journalism AND politics?

Anonymous said...

The Miami Herald was a leading cheerleader for the Marlins Scam. (By the way, in their new $3 Billion stadium the Marlins lost over 100 games last year).