What Was Jeff Gerth Thinking?

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The new right-wing movie about Hillary Clinton (“Hillary: The Movie”) is generally populated with all the usual suspects: Dick Morris, Ann Coulter, Newt Gingrich and other conservative commentators, along with a couple of convicted felons, none of whom have anything nice to say about the senator. One headliner, though, is not like the others: Former New York Times reporter Jeff Gerth. The Pulitzer-Prizing wining Gerth is not a pundit, and in his 30-year-career at the Times, he says he never even did so much as a radio interview about his work. But there he is, on the big screen with Ann Coulter in a film created by a conservative group known for playing dirty.

Gerth’s comments are mostly limited to material from his new book on Hillary, such as observations about her attempts to redefine herself. But it’s clear that the filmmakers are psyched to have someone from the mainstream media participating in the project to offset its heavy reliance on felons as sources. They’ve even used Gerth’s interview in an ad for the film, which is now at the center of a lawsuit against the Federal Election Commission. All in all, it does beg the question: What was Gerth thinking?

When I wrote about the film’s recent D.C. screening yesterday, I called to ask him just that, but didn’t hear back until this morning.

Gerth, who is now working at ProPublica, the new investigative reporting shop headed up by Paul Steiger, says that the interview was one of “about a thousand” the publisher of his book asked him to do last summer. He says he did them all, right-wing, left-wing, any wing. “I’m not endorsing the movie,” he says, annoyed at any suggestions of guilt by association. “If you believe in free speech, you believe in free speech. I’m not naive. I know who these people are,” he adds, noting that Barack Obama has also used some of his Hillary research on the campaign trail. Of course, Gerth isn’t personally appearing in any Obama campaign ads. He didn’t have to participate in the movie on-screen. But Gerth counters, “As a journalist, I don’t ever avoid talking to anybody.” Gerth says he doesn’t care what people say about his film debut. As long as his work holds up, and it’s accurate, “That’s what counts–getting it right.”

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