By Howard Kurtz
Sometimes, though, media credibility is submerged in the process. The sources of these leaks are usually partisans, and some reporters were red-faced yesterday for having bought the line that Clinton blew his top during his grand jury testimony.
"I felt pretty comfortable with the story, and it was wrong," said CBS's Bob Schieffer, one of those who reported that the president was profane, lost his temper and at one point stormed out of the room. "I got hooked."
Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, put it this way: "We were spun -- totally spun -- whether by people who didn't know what they were talking about or as a conscious strategy. We're at our weakest as journalists when we try to report what will happen in the future."
The furious finger-pointing that has enveloped Washington during the Monica Lewinsky melodrama is in part about who leaked what to whom. Independent counsel Kenneth Starr is himself under investigation by a federal judge for alleged improper leaks. The firestorm over last week's Salon magazine report that Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) had a 30-year-old affair prompted Republicans to demand an FBI probe of possible White House leaks (even though they have no evidence of such leaks and Salon's source, a Florida retiree, has always been on the record).
Not that there isn't some reason to be suspicious of the Clinton crowd. The White House recently apologized to Rep. Paul McHale (Pa.), a Democratic critic of Clinton, after NBC's Geraldo Rivera reported a false charge about McHale's military record that Rivera said came from a "source very close to President Clinton."
The shadowy world of Beltway leaking is hardly new; the most mysterious character in Watergate remains the elusive Deep Throat. But the sheer velocity of the Lewinsky saga makes it hard to follow the anonymous action without a scorecard.
The word "leak" is shorthand for the delicate dance between reporters and sources. Sensitive information generally doesn't arrive gift-wrapped; journalists often work the phones and piece together a story from different people. But the sources (invariably described as "knowledgeable") get to keep their fingerprints off the product.
One of Clinton's most passionate moments in his Lewinsky testimony was his denunciation of Paula Jones's lawyers for leaking evidence in an attempt "to hurt me . . . to find any negative information they could on me, whether or not it was true, get it in a deposition, and then leak it."
White House aides, meanwhile, are so practiced in this realm that they have leaked damaging information about their boss as a way of putting it behind them, sometimes doing the deed on a busy news day or a Friday night to minimize the publicity.
It's fitting, perhaps, that the original leak of Starr's probe of the Lewinsky affair was itself leaked -- to Internet gossip Matt Drudge. He reported in January that Newsweek was holding the exclusive story, which broke three days later in The Washington Post, quickly followed by the Los Angeles Times and ABC.
Many of the signature elements of the scandal -- the semen-stained dress, the phone sex, the oral-sex-isn't-sex argument -- were also leaked early on, prompting White House complaints that Starr was illegally planting such stories. "I have talked with reporters on background on some occasions," Starr later told Brill's Content magazine, maintaining that no secret grand jury information was revealed.
On March 5, without describing its sources, The Post published a highly detailed account of Clinton's sealed deposition in Paula Jones's sexual harassment suit. There was a torrent of speculation about whether the White House spin machine was responsible. Clinton called the leak "illegal"; his attorneys said it was "reprehensible"; and Jones's lawyers said any suggestion that they were responsible was "erroneous, irresponsible and fallacious."
Two weeks later, Jones's lawyers leaked to The Post a letter that presidential attorney Robert Bennett had sent to the court, saying he planned to file "sensitive information of a sexual nature about Paula Jones." Bennett denounced the leak after the first edition and told the New York Times he would not be delving into Jones's sex life, producing opposite headlines in the two papers the next morning.
The pattern had been firmly established. About an hour after Lewinsky finished her grand jury testimony on Aug. 7, NBC's Lisa Myers reported that the former intern had described a sexual relationship and late-night sex calls with the president.
On Aug. 14 -- three days before Clinton was to deliver his own grand jury testimony -- the White House got into the act. The New York Times quoted "senior advisers" as saying Clinton "had extensive discussions with his inner circle" about finally acknowledging sexual encounters with Lewinsky. A similar account was provided to the Associated Press. This appeared to be the classic "trial balloon," a scenario floated to see whether critics shoot it down, in which case officials can say they were never seriously considering it anyway.
Commentators immediately commented that these aides were trying to push the president into coming clean with both the country and the first lady -- an impression reinforced when Bob Woodward reported in The Post that Clinton, according to a confidant, "has not prepared the family."
Fast-forward to last week, when several reports popped up about how angry Clinton appeared on the videotape.
CBS's Schieffer said his sources were on Capitol Hill, not the White House. But, he said, "I got it from Democrats who'd been talking to the White House. I do not believe the people I talked to would deliberately mislead me. I asked Republicans and they said, yes, we're hearing that. . . . I'm sure some of the people I talked to just didn't know what they were talking about."
Said CNN correspondent John King: "I was told by people on the Hill, who'd either seen the tape or been briefed by those who had -- both Democrats and Republicans -- that you would see flashes of anger. Several people who told me this are not friends of this president."
White House officials acknowledge that they knew this negative spin would eventually help Clinton. But they say they offered accurate guidance to reporters once they were briefed by the president's lawyers last Friday.
On Sunday, a day before the sex-and-lies tape premiered on seven networks, what smelled like the White House version of the testimony appeared in the New York Times and the AP. According to the Times, which obtained a copy of Clinton's opening statement, the president "painted a picture of himself as a concerned friend to Monica S. Lewinsky, lawyers familiar with the Aug. 17 proceeding said. That image is starkly at odds with that of the callous manipulator of an illicit affair portrayed in the impeachment report to Congress."
By Monday night, the leakers were on to the next news cycle. NBC's David Bloom reported that "White House aides say that one option that is under consideration is for the president to testify under oath before the House Judiciary Committee." Whether this was an official leak, a trial balloon or just more capital chatter should become clear any hour now.
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