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A Question of Leaks

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 9, 1998; Page B01

It seems a logical enough question: Why is it against the law to leak information in a criminal probe, but not for reporters to receive it?

Why do journalists raise all sorts of questions about everyone else's behavior but give themselves a pass when it comes to obtaining illicit material?

On one level, the answer is obvious: Journalists live off leaks. They are reluctant to bite the hands that keep feeding them. Many would just as soon not worry about how the information got to them if it is solid and sufficiently juicy.

Indeed, there was a bizarre quality to the weekend coverage of White House charges that independent counsel Kenneth Starr was illegally leaking in the Monica Lewinsky case. At least some journalists at each major news organization know whether Starr's staff is in fact dishing on background, but the stories are written as though this were an impenetrable mystery.

It's impossible for outsiders to know, of course, whether each leak of supposed evidence -- the imaginary semen-stained dress, for example -- came from a Starr investigator or some other source. Fortunately for the press, criminal sanctions apply only to those who leak grand jury material, not to the recipients.

Despite the illegality, the Wall Street Journal (in a World Wide Web story that was later softened) described what a White House valet supposedly told a federal grand jury about an alleged encounter between Clinton and Lewinsky. The New York Times reported on what presidential secretary Betty Currie told investigators. No bit of testimony seems to remain secret for long. White House aides pressed the point on television yesterday with Paul Begala asking NBC's Tim Russert, and Rahm Emanuel asking CNN's Wolf Blitzer, about investigative reports that their networks had attributed to Starr's office.

Reporters have been trying to penetrate criminal investigations for a long time: In 1972, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein actually visited the homes of Watergate grand jurors in an attempt to unearth information. They stopped after the Watergate judge, John Sirica, laid down the law.

Remember that 1996 tape of an intercepted phone call involving House Speaker Newt Gingrich? The Florida couple who recorded the call were fined $1,000 for the illegal interception. The couple gave the tape to Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), who has been accused of leaking its contents to the press. (The New York Times described its source as a "Democratic congressman.") A federal grand jury is investigating. But the Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which reported the tape's contents, are seemingly off the hook.

Those who defend leaks (which is to say, most journalists) point to their value in ferreting out malfeasance: the Pentagon Papers, Watergate and so on. Unless reporters are free to vacuum up leads from whistle-blowers, disgruntled officials, police sources and so on, much important information would never become public.

Indeed, the alternative would be some version of Britain's Official Secrets Act, which allows the government to prosecute journalists as well as their sources for almost any unauthorized disclosure of information, regardless of whether national security is involved.

But when stories are attributed to "knowledgeable sources," "reliable sources" or "sources close to" the matter, the potential for abuse is obvious. The sources may be politicians trying to make partisan mischief (John Sasso resigned as Michael Dukakis's 1988 campaign manager after admitting he leaked a negative story about Democratic rival Joe Biden to the New York Times). They may be police officials trying to make themselves look good (investigators fingered an innocent man, Richard Jewell, as the chief suspect in the Summer Olympics bombing). Yet readers are rarely told which side the leakers are on.

Most prosecutors don't simply call reporters and hand them neatly packaged evidence. In the real world, journalists collect bits and pieces and then seek guidance or confirmation from those running an investigation. But while the reporters may not be at legal risk, the rash of journalistic mistakes in the Lewinsky case underscores that this is a dangerous game for all sides.

Abstract Art

It was a dramatic document in the Monica Lewinsky saga. Newsweek scored a coup in obtaining part of the "talking points" paper that Lewinsky is said to have given her friend Linda Tripp, guiding her on what to say if she were deposed in the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit.

But as Slate magazine later observed, there was less than met the eye to the page that Newsweek seemed to reproduce, which looked as though it had been banged out on a manual typewriter. In fact, it was a dramatization of what was actually a garden-variety computer printout.

Ann McDaniel, Newsweek's Washington bureau chief, said the "artwork" was needed because the words on the original copy were too widely spaced. "What we thought was more important than the look was the actual text, so we created a picture of the text," she said. Could readers have been misled? "I guess it's possible. We were trying to get in all the words so people could read them. There was an argument about whether it should have been labeled differently."

Just Doing It

Some colleagues were stunned to see CBS News folks at the Winter Olympics wearing blue jackets emblazoned with the Nike "swoosh" logo.

The on-air wardrobe choice Thursday night, by the likes of anchor Jose Diaz-Balart, led to some intense talks between CBS News President Andrew Heyward and network sports executives in Nagano, Japan. Heyward decreed that his troops would not wear the Nike jackets on the air, although CBS Sports people were free to do so.

CBS News spokeswoman Sandy Genelius explained the decision this way from Nagano: Nike is "a paid sponsor of CBS's coverage of the Olympics. Any appearance of impropriety is not allowable."

End of flap? Not quite. It seems that such newsmen as Bob Simon and Harry Smith wore the Nike outerwear while filming taped pieces as long as a year ago, and those reports will air during the games.

"In a perfect world, none of it would appear," Genelius said. "But you have an army of people covering this. It's simply not feasible to go back and reshoot all that."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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