Newsweek's Melted Scoop
By Howard Kurtz
Newsweek's top editors, after a day of frenetic meetings, sought yesterday to explain why they failed to publish the story that stunned the nation, an exclusive piece about allegations that President Clinton encouraged a 24-year-old former White House intern to lie about whether they had an affair.
As the media furor over the charges reached a fever pitch, the magazine belatedly posted Michael Isikoff's story on its America Online site, four days after top editors pulled the potentially explosive piece from this week's issue late Saturday. Last night, Newsweek sent out some of its troops to discuss the story on the network news shows, including Assistant Managing Editor Evan Thomas on CNN's "Larry King Live," and Assistant Managing Editor Ann McDaniel on ABC's "PrimeTime Live." Isikoff was interviewed on "NBC Nightly News" and MSNBC.
Newsweek editors said they delayed the highly detailed article in part at the request of independent counsel Kenneth Starr to avoid compromising his investigation. "On the basis of what we knew Saturday, I am comfortable that we didn't go ahead with the story," Newsweek President Richard Smith said last night. "Given the time that was left, we had the ability to get some very sensational charges out there, but . . . when the clock ran out, I wasn't prepared to air an allegation that a young White House intern had an affair with the president without more independent reporting on her."
There are few secrets in the modern media world, however, and word of Isikoff's suppressed scoop leaked out through an increasingly familiar route: Matt Drudge's Internet gossip column. Reporters across Washington, some of whom were already pursuing the story, kept scrambling for confirmation.
The Washington Post broke the story Tuesday night, followed by ABC News, with a 12:45 a.m. radio report, and the Los Angeles Times. The reports said Starr is investigating whether Clinton and his friend Vernon Jordan encouraged former intern Monica Lewinsky to lie to lawyers for Paula Jones about whether she had an affair with the president.
The story detonated in the media with Watergate-like intensity. CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel provided live coverage of White House spokesman Mike McCurry's grilling at his daily briefing, where ABC's Sam Donaldson asked whether Clinton would cooperate with an impeachment inquiry. Moments later, Rush Limbaugh read listeners the latest Drudge update.
ABC's Peter Jennings, in Cuba for the pope's visit, broke into regular programming at 3:32 p.m. to pick up a live feed of Clinton's interview with PBS's Jim Lehrer, made available by Lehrer's "NewsHour." Jennings was followed two minutes later by NBC's Tom Brokaw. And, in what many CBS staffers considered an embarrassment, anchor Dan Rather did not get on the air until more than 20 minutes later. Ted Koppel, meanwhile, returned from Havana to anchor "Nightline."
All of which underscored the question: What happened at Newsweek?
Some staffers there say the magazine's editors appeared fearful of the enormity of the charges and the gravity of an obstruction-of-justice investigation involving the president. Newsweek's Smith kept Donald Graham, chief executive of the parent Washington Post Co., apprised of the decision.
While acknowledging "disagreement" among his editors, Smith said: "We were determined from the beginning not to let the deadline drive the judgment. . . . We were all disheartened that we hadn't gotten it across the finish line before the deadline."
Newsweek sources said Isikoff lobbied vigorously for publication, arguing that it was not the magazine's role to help Starr do his job. Isikoff would say only that "there was a vigorous discussion about what was the journalistically proper thing to do. There were no screaming matches."
For Isikoff, losing the exclusive involved a double dose of deja vu. As a Washington Post reporter in 1994, he clashed with his editors over publication of his account of Paula Jones's allegations that Clinton crudely pressed her for sex in a Little Rock hotel room in 1991. The Post eventually published the story, but along the way, Isikoff was suspended for two weeks because of a shouting match with editors. He joined Newsweek soon afterward.
Last summer, Isikoff was scooped by Drudge on another charge of sexual misconduct by Clinton. While Newsweek was weighing whether to run his article on allegations that Clinton made advances toward another former White House aide, Kathleen Willey, in the executive mansion, Drudge "outed" the Isikoff piece on computer screens across the country. Drudge says that leak came from another Newsweek staffer.
"Lightning did strike twice," Drudge said yesterday. "There's something in the culture of Washington where reporters share their stories, and now there's an outlet, meaning me. Before we all talked about it, but who's going to print it? . . . This thing just fell into my lap." He said news organizations were failing to credit him with the scoop.
Newsweek had plenty to go on; indeed, the magazine says Isikoff knew of the alleged affair for more than a year. Among other things, last week he listened to a tape of Lewinsky describing her relationship with the president and agonizing over whether it might become public. The tape was recorded surreptitiously by another former White House aide, Linda Tripp, who worked with Lewinsky at the Pentagon. Starr's office wanted to use Lewinsky to "sting" Clinton's friend Jordan in a recorded conversation and asked Newsweek to hold off, the magazine says.
Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review, said Newsweek's decision "really looks as though it was a mistake. The Starr investigation gives it a legitimate angle; it's not just salacious gossip."
For the White House, the self-styled conservative Drudge has become a growing irritant. White House aide Sidney Blumenthal sued him over a false report which the columnist retracted and apologized for that Blumenthal once beat his wife.
Former White House aide George Stephanopoulos, now an ABC consultant, criticized Drudge Sunday on ABC's "This Week." He seized the opportunity when Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, mentioned Newsweek's killing of the story. (Kristol says he knew of the imbroglio, from a source who had heard the tapes, a day before an ABC staffer handed him the Drudge item.)
"Where did it come from? The Drudge Report," Stephanopoulos said. "We've all seen how discredited that's been." In this case, however, Drudge appears to have been on target.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company