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Style Showcase In Clinton-Jones Case, Some Out on Allege

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 30, 1998; Page C01

The legal filing, depending on which account you read, desribed a "sexual incident" (the New York Post); a possible "assault" (the Washington Times); a "hearsay account of an otherwise unsubstantiated encounter" (the New York Times); or "a sensational – but uncorroborated – allegation that Clinton raped a woman" (The Washington Post).

It was also a journalistic conundrum: how to treat the allegation, contained in a larger filing by Paula Jones's lawyers, that President Clinton had committed rape when he was Arkansas attorney general in the late 1970s. News organizations differed not only in describing the unsubstantiated charge but on whether to name the woman in question, who has denied the assertion in a sealed deposition.

The New York Post and Washington Times named the woman; the New York Times, The Washington Post and the three major TV networks did not. The Associated Press identified the woman in an early account but later removed the name. ABC's "World News Tonight" called her "Jane Doe No. 5," as she's known in the case, but said it was a "secondhand account." "CBS Evening News" also did not name the woman in describing "unsubstantiated claims of a rape and coverup."

Ordinarily, news outlets would be unlikely to report on such a 20-year-old allegation against a president without a direct account from the supposed victim herself. But the fact that it was filed in a legal brief in Jones's high-profile sexual harassment suit seemingly made it fit to print – or, at the least, difficult to ignore. What's more, the same filing contained a clearly newsworthy charge that Clinton had failed for months to turn over subpoenaed letters and messages from Kathleen Willey, who has accused the president of groping her in the Oval Office.

Further complicating the matter is that while the woman's attorney complained that she was the subject of "vicious rumors," he would not confirm or deny the allegation, which was based on the statement of an Arkansas man who described himself as the woman's friend. The woman declined to comment to the AP. A White House spokesman called the charge "outrageous and false."

Robert G. Kaiser, The Washington Post's managing editor, said, "It appeared to me the filing combined a very solid and potentially important case of the White House appearing to evade a pretty carefully worded subpoena for documents, and a kind of fantastic accusation with no supporting evidence in the same breath." He said it seemed fairest to readers and to Clinton to report both elements of the filing.

"It seemed to be more fair to him [Clinton] . . . to show the whole thing rather than censor it," Kaiser said. "Although you could obviously say it was unfair to him to repeat this charge with no supporting evidence." But that, he said, would have been "misleading" as to "what sort of document it was." Kaiser also said The Post followed its usual policy of not naming alleged rape victims without their permission.

The Washington Times had no immediate comment. Jonathan Wolman, the AP's Washington bureau chief, said the initial account naming the woman was "an unedited version of the story that was mistakenly sent to the wire." As for reporting the allegation at all, he said, "We did wrestle with it and we thought it was a tough decision," but decided to go ahead after reaching the woman, her attorney and Clinton's lawyer.

In This Corner . . .
Time and Newsweek have staked out different ground in the heated debate over Kathleen Willey. And that has raised questions about the relationship between journalists and their sources – and about just what is fair game when someone comes under the media microscope.

According to Time, Willey engages in "baroque acts of deception" and once falsely told a boyfriend she was pregnant and, later, that she'd had a miscarriage. Part of Time's story is based on accounts by Willey's friend-turned-accuser, Julie Steele.

Newsweek, meanwhile, dumps all over Steele, saying that she betrayed her friend by trying to peddle Willey's account of Oval Office groping to the Star tabloid and later selling a picture of Willey and President Clinton to the National Enquirer.

The contrast is striking. Editors at both magazines say they struggled with the question of how much to rummage through the women's dirty laundry.

"Julie Steele talked to us several times and gave us some good leads for aspects of our story that give a more complete view of Ms. Willey," said James Kelly, Time's deputy managing editor. "We've tried to get Ms. Willey to talk to us. We've tried hard. I do think our portrait of Ms. Willey is a fair and balanced one."

Said Ann McDaniel, Newsweek's Washington bureau chief: "Our piece was different from Time's, but it wasn't soft. . . . I don't think it's fair to say we told Kathleen Willey's side of the story and Time told Julie Steele's side of the story." Newsweek's access to Willey has been "beneficial," she said, but "we took a tough look at her credibility."

Willey was Newsweek's original source, describing her meeting with Clinton off the record to reporter Michael Isikoff, who broke the story last summer. Indeed, the former White House volunteer granted Isikoff her only interview since appearing on "60 Minutes" two weeks ago. She accused the White House of trying to portray her as a "wacko."

Time, for its part, couldn't even get a return call from Willey's lawyer. The magazine played up what it described as Steele's account to the FBI about a "bizarre ruse" involving Willey in 1995.

According to this account, Willey falsely claimed she was pregnant with twins to "get back" at her British-born boyfriend "for Fourth of July plans gone awry." Then, the magazine says, Willey claimed she had scheduled an abortion, and later had Steele call the man and say her friend had suffered a miscarriage.

Time excavates even deeper into Willey's past. The magazine reports that Willey became pregnant in high school, put the baby up for adoption and, several years ago, hired an agency to track down the child.

Is such information relevant to whether Willey is telling the truth about being groped by the president?

"Getting pregnant in high school is not good or bad, it's just a fact," Kelly said. As for the incident with Willey's boyfriend, he said: "It is germane, when someone is making these kinds of charges against the president of United States, to talk about her other relationships with other men in which her friends feel she has been less than truthful.

"We were very careful that we weren't doing what some people have accused the White House of doing: trashing the reputation of anyone who dares make an accusation against the president."

Willey has drawn criticism for exploring the notion of selling her story to a tabloid. But Newsweek (which is owned by The Washington Post Co.) reports that Steele was "demanding cash up front" – $20,000, it says – when she approached the Star, and later reaped $7,000 by selling the Enquirer a Willey-Clinton picture.

The tangled Willey tale is complicated by the fact that Steele told more than one story to Isikoff, as Newsweek originally reported last year. First, at Willey's request, Steele said that Willey had graphically described being fondled by Clinton. Before the story ran, Steele recanted, telling Isikoff that Willey had asked her to "lie" about the incident and had not told her about it until weeks later. In a recently released affidavit, Steele tells a third version, saying that "Ms. Willey never said anything to suggest that President Clinton had made sexual advances."

Newsweek included plenty of criticism of Willey. "She has not always been forthright in tight spots, and she has a reputation for volatility," Newsweek said.

Pulling the Plug
It was, from the start, an experiment. But now the "CBS Evening News" is dropping conservative commentator Laura Ingraham and former Democratic senator Bill Bradley as weekend talking heads.

CBS spokeswoman Sandy Genelius says the parting was "amicable" and that the network may use Ingraham in the future. But it was no secret around CBS that many staffers resented Ingraham, who has never worked as a reporter, and felt she had not made the transition to network television. And CBS executives, acknowledging concern that they were providing a platform for a possible Bradley campaign for president, had written into his contract that either side could walk away after a year.

One CBS staffer said there was "huge relief" about Ingraham's departure few colleagues "thought she was very good."

"I didn't fit what they wanted to do," Ingraham said, adding that CBS's hard-news format "doesn't really allow me to do what I like to do, which is to move away from punditry." Both NBC and Fox are interested in signing Ingraham.

Department of Duh
"Almost Half of Cal State Freshmen Lack Skills" – Friday's Los Angeles Times.

"New Doubt on Plan for Nuclear Dump at Yucca Mountin" – Same paper, same day.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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