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Wall Street Journal Story Reflects Fast News Cycle

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 5, 1998; Page A12

White House spokesman Joe Lockhart got the call from a Wall Street Journal reporter shortly before 4 p.m. yesterday.

Did Lockhart have any comment on the newspaper's information that a White House steward, Bayani Nelvis, had told a federal grand jury he saw President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky alone in a study next to the Oval Office?

Lockhart said he would have to check, but moments later the reporter, Glenn Simpson, told him that the story had already been posted on the Journal's World Wide Web site. What's more, the paper put out the story on its wire service while Alan Murray, the Washington bureau chief, talked about it on CNBC, the Journal's new television partner.

"The normal rules of checking or getting a response to a story seem to have given way to the technology of the Internet and the competitive pressure of getting it first," Lockhart said in an interview later.

Murray replied: "The White House has made it quite clear that they are not going to provide information on this sort of thing. We had our information solid, so . . . we didn't see any reason to wait."

Within 90 minutes, however, Nelvis's lawyer, Joseph T. Small Jr., had put out a statement saying "The Wall Street Journal report of Feb. 4, 1998 relating to the grand jury testimony of our client . . . is absolutely false and irresponsible."

Washington Post efforts to confirm the report brought strong denials from several sources close to the investigation, who said no such testimony was given by Nelvis, whose grand jury appearance yesterday afternoon followed testimony he gave to the panel last week.

The Web story, by Simpson and Journal reporter Brian Duffy, was attributed to "two individuals familiar with [Nelvis's] testimony."

"We continue to believe our report is correct," said Managing Editor Paul Steiger.

In a subsequent posting last night, the Journal softened its story by deleting the assertion that Nelvis had made the allegations to the grand jury. Instead, the story said Nelvis had told "Secret Service personnel" about the alleged encounter.

The lightning-quick sequence underscored the increasing velocity of the news cycle, particularly during the latest White House scandal. Unlike in the days of the Watergate scandal 25 years ago, when news was made once or twice a day, newspapers and magazines find themselves in a round-the-clock environment in which they can move as quickly as CNN.

Duffy called the paper's contacts with the White House "unfortunate timing. . . . We tried to get a response, and things were moving so quickly that they didn't get back to us in time. Ideally, it's not the way you'd want to do this. We were sort of scrambling."

Why would the Journal rush to tell the world about a supposed exclusive that could have been in this morning's paper? "We heard footsteps from at least one other news organization and just didn't think it was going to hold in this crazy cycle we're in," Duffy said.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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