It’s been four days since an article by Richard Pérez-Peña in the New York Times told the story of how Robert M. Smith, a reporter in that paper’s Washington bureau, learned from FBI Acting Director L. Patrick Gray in late August of 1972 something about the larger story behind the Watergate burglary of two months before, and dutifully notified his superior, Robert Phelps. The article further explained that what seemed to be a chance for the Times to catch up to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Washington Post coverage failed to pan out because the day after notifying Phelps, Smith left the paper to begin studies at Yale Law School and subsequently became an attorney, never returning to journalism, while Phelps completely failed to put another reporter on the story and now offers no excuses, not least because, at age 89, he can hardly remember what happened.
So far the preponderance of newspaper commentary on this story has come from Britain, where many of Fleet Street’s finest profess to be completely flummoxed about how the Times could let this story slip away.
It should be pointed out, however, that it is not unknown for members of the Fourth Estate across the pond to miss a big story for reasons that might perplex an American colleague. I remember reading a tribute to the late Henry Fairlie by one of his colleagues on Fleet Street, whose name I forget. The journalist described an occasion in the early 1950s when he was covering a Labour Party conference in the company of Fairlie, who in those days was regarded by his peers as the foremost political reporter in the kingdom.
During a break in the conference’s proceedings, the two reporters repaired to a bar for refreshments. There, they spotted two men engaged in activity of a romantic sort in a dimly-lit corner. “I could almost swear that poof looks like Tom Driberg,” the reporter observed, referring to Labour’s leading gray eminence of the period, who was widely rumored to be homosexual at a time when to act upon such a preference was a felony in the UK.
“You would be well justified in such an oath,” said Fairlie in his slightly formal manner, “because that is Tom Driberg.”
The reporter, in his 1990 tribute, remarked that had he seen Driberg up to such activity in, say, a remote hallway of the hotel where the conference was being held, he would not have hesitated to report a story that would have shaken Labour’s establishment to its very foundations. But since he and Fairlie were off-duty for the moment, they simply sat and wondered at the indiscretion of Driberg’s actions, and so the politician’s proclivities went unreported. (It’s worth mentioning that next month Yale University Press will publish Bite The Hand That Feeds You, an anthology of Fairlie’s essays for British and American publications, edited by Jeremy McCarter.)
One thing worth mentioning about the Times article is that the paper was not only scooped on Watergate as it describes, but that the Times was scooped – twice – on reporting being scooped.
In a comment appended to Michael Calderone’s post on this subject at Politico.com, NPR ombudsperson Alicia C. Shepard, author of Woodward and Bernstein: Life In The Shadow of Watergate, observes that in her book, published in November 2006, she referred to Robert Smith’s learning about Donald Segretti’s involvement in Watergate and Smith’s telling the Times about this in August 1972 – and although the book was rather widely reviewed, the passage about Smith seems to have escaped everyone’s notice at the time. Shepard states that she did not learn about this from Robert Phelps, but she does not specify who told her. My guess is that she might have heardthe story from Smith himself.
And in a post at the Sidney Hillman Foundation’s site, Charles Kaiser, formerly of the Times, Newsweek, and the Wall Street Journal, reports that some time back, after learning that Phelps would write about the Watergate story that got away in his memoirs, Smith wrote an op-ed telling his side of the story, and submitted it to the Times. There was no reply to his submission and Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial page editor of the Times, says that the paper has no record of the op-ed’s having been received.
So Smith submitted his account instead to the American Journalism Review, which scheduled the piece for its June-July issue but this week posted it on its website in the wake of Pérez-Peña’s article.
What Smith has to say is rather interesting. While he was at Yale Law, he says he read the Times every morning during that fall semester of 1972, looking for anything indicating that the paper’s Washington reporters were following up on his lead. He found nothing. (Indeed, the Times didn’t start moving on Watergate until Seymour Hersh took it up in January 1973, just when James McCord wrote his much-publicized letter to Judge John Sirica.)
Smith also has this very interesting story to tell:
At some point, an editor at the Times called and asked me to come back to the paper. I thought it over for a couple of days, and decided not to. In my mind, it was the story of the century versus the intellectual experience of my lifetime. And I had already given a major breakthrough on the story to the Times.
But I did offer to make a telephone call. I called Pat Gray.
He did not call back.
This seems to suggest that the editor was calling Smith to ask that he get back to work on the Watergate story. But when did this happen – before or after January 1973? And who was the editor?
Smith’s comment about “the story of the century vs. the intellectual experience of my lifetime” is noteworthy. In the fall of 1972, investigate reporting had little of the prestige it had as soon as a year later, after Woodward and Bernstein’s book All The President’s Men was published, not to mention its allure after the ATPM film was released in 1976. So Smith’s decision, in the context of the time, is not quite as inexplicable as it probably appears to the thousands who went to journalism school in the wake of “Woodstein’s” rise to fame (or to just about any British reporter, who takes it for granted that he or she is immeasurably the superior of almost any barrister or solicitor in the land).
And it’s worthwhile to speculate what would happen if a young reporter, a day away from entering law school, came across a colossal story like Watergate now. Would the reporter drop academic plans just like that? Or would he and she start thinking about just how long and how well-paying a career in journalism, in today’s America, would be, compared to a career in the law, and do what Smith did – go off to the lawbooks and more or less forget about the scoop?