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Dallas Paper's Story: A Scoop That Wasn't

Style Showcase By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 28, 1998; Page D01

It had to happen: a major retraction in the Monica Lewinsky saga.

The Dallas Morning News made national news Monday night by reporting that investigators had spoken with a Secret Service agent who was prepared to testify that he saw President Clinton and the former White House intern in a compromising situation. The surfacing of an alleged witness in the case was, to put it mildly, explosive stuff.

Never mind.

Hours later, sometime after midnight, the Morning News retracted the story. The piece, published in the paper's first edition and posted on its World Wide Web site, was declared inoperative in a subsequent Web announcement.

"The source for the story, a longtime Washington lawyer familiar with the case, later said the information provided for that report was inaccurate," the paper said. It said the source is "not affiliated" with the office of independent counsel Kenneth Starr.

Morning News Editor Ralph Langer said last night that when the paper's source "reversed field . . . we felt the only responsible thing to do was tell our readers that a primary source was now claiming that he had provided us incorrect information."

He said the situation had now "been cleared" by a second story the paper posted on the Web last night. In that piece, the paper said that Starr's office has talked to an "intermediary" for one or more White House witnesses -- including a Secret Service agent -- who claim to have seen "an ambiguous incident" between Clinton and Lewinsky.

Washington Bureau Chief Carl Leubsdorf said the original story "had some errors," such as describing the alleged encounter between the president and Lewinsky as a "compromising situation." But, he said, "we felt we had a solid story" at the time.

"This clearly was a case of relying on a source who wasn't in a position to know the facts," said deputy White House spokesman Joe Lockhart. "That's an awful position for a newspaper to be in, and in turn it puts the White House in an awful position. There are millions of Americans the truth will never catch up to."

The national impact of the bogus story underscores once again the impact of the Internet. The Morning News report instantaneously became the lead story on "Nightline," cable networks, and local radio and TV stations, all of which plucked it from the Web site and would never have seen the first edition of a Texas newspaper. Knight Ridder sent out the Morning News story on its wire and the Associated Press carried a story about it -- then sent out "kill" notices.

The tale took less than 48 hours to spin out of control. On Sunday morning, ABC's Jackie Judd delivered an update on Starr's probe, reporting that "sources" had said that Clinton and Lewinsky "were caught in an intimate encounter" in 1996 by either Secret Service agents or White House staffers. By Monday night, the Morning News was saying there was a particular Secret Service agent ready to talk to Starr.

"Witness Said Ready to Testify," the headline said. In the piece, by reporter David Jackson, an unnamed lawyer "familiar with the negotiations" was quoted as saying: "Starr has this person in his hand. This person is now represented by the independent counsel. This person is now a government witness."

The incident also illustrates the dangers of relying on a single source who lacks firsthand knowledge. Part of the lore of Watergate was that reporters relied on a two-source standard for controversial stories, but that practice often melts in the competitive heat. And those news outlets that simply repeat someone else's "scoop" -- which is all too common in the '90s -- are basically following a no-source approach.

The Morning News was embroiled in controversy last year when it published an alleged confession by Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh shortly before his trial. McVeigh's attorney said the file on which the story was based was fake, but the paper stood by its story.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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