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Brill Grills Starr About Other Reporters

By Lloyd Grove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 1, 1998; Page D01

Six weeks before the debut of his journalism magazine, Content, Steven Brill is already making journalists nervous.

The 47-year-old editor in chief -- "a legendary journalist," according to Content's purple-prosed direct-mail advertising (which also screams that "the media's free ride has come to a screeching halt") -- is apparently trying to unmask the anonymous sources of the various White House sex scandal stories.

Occasionally claiming to possess incriminating documents, Brill has spent recent weeks grilling reporters and their alleged informers in what seems to be an effort to "out" them. Half a dozen journalists who said they talked to Brill for his investigation -- rumored to be focused on the opening weeks of the Monica Lewinsky scandal -- said they refused to tell him the names of their confidential sources.

But it's now possible to identify one of Brill's key sources -- independent counsel Kenneth Starr.

According to Charles Bakaly, the prosecutor's counselor and spokesman, Starr recently sat for a 1 1/2-hour interview in which he patiently answered Brill's detailed questions about which reporters he has talked to, and on what subjects, as they prepared their news stories on the developing scandal. It is, so far as anyone remembers, Starr's first exclusive interview since taking the job.

"I am not the only one who is anxiously awaiting the release of Steve Brill's new magazine," President Clinton remarked last weekend at a black-tie dinner for reporters and their sources, where he waved a promotional mock-up of Content. "This is a unique and rather unsettling moment in Washington."

No kidding -- especially for the reporters and sources.

"It makes me a bit uncomfortable for a media magazine to be focusing its efforts on uncovering reporters' sources," said Newsweek correspondent Michael Isikoff, whose reporting threw the spotlight on the Lewinsky matter. "We ought to be able to protect our sources, because without that you don't have the free flow of information."

Isikoff pointed out that no one outside Brill's magazine knows for sure what he's really doing, and Brill declined to comment.

"It obviously has a chilling effect if people think they're going to undergo an inquisition about talking to reporters," said Washington Post reporter Susan Schmidt, another prominent investigator on the story. "I don't think it's good for the search for truth. And I don't think Brill is going to have success with this approach long-term, because nobody is going to want to talk to him."

"He called me up and I told him I thought his magazine is a good idea," said the New York Times's Jeff Gerth, whose early stories on the Whitewater affair fueled that scandal. But still Gerth refused to share his sources with Brill.

The Washington bureau of the Wall Street Journal recently had a soul-searching session on Brill's magazine and whether to take its reporters' phone calls.

"My bottom line, and I know I'll live to regret it, is that I think this is a good thing," said Alan Murray, the Journal's bureau chief. "I think it's about time that somebody covered us as aggressively as we cover everybody else." But Murray's enthusiasm goes only so far. "We will never talk about our sources," he said. "For the most part we say what we have to say in our news pages. I'm certainly not encouraging our people to spill their hearts to Steve Brill."

A network television reporter who asked not to be named recalled a recent phone conversation with Brill in which he "tried to get me to disclose my sources and said, 'What would you say if I were to tell you that I have sources and documentation from your network proving who your source is.' " The network reporter, who doubts such documents exist, didn't rise to Brill's bait.

"This is really postmodern journalism," said New York Times Washington bureau chief Michael Oreskes. "I'm happy to take questions about our coverage, but it's a little too strange to take questions about the questions we are taking about our coverage."

Starr, who'd been friendly with Brill when he was running American Lawyer magazine, initially believed the editor had come to pay a courtesy call when he visited Starr's office two weeks ago. But after brief pleasantries Brill whipped out his notebook and began grilling Starr about his press contacts.

Of particular interest to Brill was a Feb. 6 New York Times story reporting that Clinton summoned his personal secretary, Betty Currie, to the White House one Sunday to compare notes with her about his relationship with intern Lewinsky. The day before, Clinton had testified under oath about that relationship in a deposition for the Paula Jones lawsuit.

Starr told Brill that he met with two reporters who worked on the story, Gerth and Stephen Labaton, who asked for the appointment to present him with a detailed account of their reporting "as a courtesy," Bakaly said. But Starr told Brill he did not confirm their account.

Brill named several reporters and asked Starr whether he had talked to them. Starr obligingly told him which reporters he'd spoken with and which he had not. Among Brill's questions was: Have you ever provided original information to a reporter? Starr said, no, he hadn't. Did he ever confirm a story? No again. Had he ever leaked information? No again.

Starr explained, however, that under Justice Department policy and federal rule 6E -- which prohibits officers of the court from disclosing grand jury proceedings -- the office of the independent counsel is permitted to correct misinformation.

For a more detailed account of their conversation, presumably, you'll have to read Content.

"The office of independent counsel does not discuss our communications with reporters to other reporters," Bakaly said. "We rigidly follow the restrictions imposed on federal prosecutors by law and [Justice Department] policy. However, we will respond to misstatements of law or fact to the extent that we can."

He added: "We are concerned about any allegations that this office improperly discloses information. That is false."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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