Some Reporters Heard Unedited Tapes
By Howard Kurtz
Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) has been roundly denounced for releasing selectively edited transcripts of the prison conversations of presidential pal Webster Hubbell.
But the actual story is more complicated than that, involving a backstage collaboration between Burton's staff and more than a dozen journalists who were allowed to read complete transcripts and listen to the unexpurgated tapes in the days before they were publicly released.
There is no dispute that Burton bungled the public release of transcripts that were missing key passages deleted by his staff. "It's clear the transcripts were edited to leave out material more favorable to the Clintons," said "Nightline" correspondent Chris Bury. "We obviously were used in that regard. Unfortunately, that happens all the time with leaked material."
"Selective material has been one of the greatest concerns of this whole Clinton-Lewinsky story," said Jonathan Wolman, Washington bureau chief of the Associated Press, which moved one of the first stories. "Sources, both on and off the record, are often dishing up a part of the story, and we're always trying to poke away at it."
But the press may have been more complicit in the controversy than previously understood. Burton committee staffers say selected reporters were allowed to review the complete transcripts of the Hubbell conversations, although some of these, as prepared by the panel, included paraphrases and summaries. And network correspondents were given a separate room to listen to the uncensored tapes and to make audio copies for broadcast use. (The committee stipulated that no information could be used until Hubbell's expected indictment.)
David Bossie, who lost his job as Burton's chief investigator over the incident, said there is "absolutely, positively no doubt" that reporters were shown the full transcript of the most controversial conversation.
On that tape, the former associate attorney general told his wife: "I won't raise those allegations that open it up to Hillary. . . . So I need to roll over one more time." But in the version made available to all news organizations, the committee deleted a portion in which Hubbell says Hillary Rodham Clinton had "no idea" about billing irregularities at their former law firm. These and other deletions were made by committee lawyers during a chaotic evening on April 30, hours after Hubbell's indictment.
Some of the journalists involved say they don't believe they saw the passage involving the first lady, but that it's possible. They say they skimmed the transcripts and scribbled notes under deadline pressure. Reporters were not permitted to make copies of the transcripts and few of the broadcast outlets made complete copies of the tapes. "There's no way we can know if we saw the full transcripts or not," said NBC's Lisa Myers.
The larger dilemma is one that every investigative reporter has faced. Much of the testimony and documents in any criminal probe is secret. The sources with access prosecutors, defense lawyers, lawmakers generally have their own axes to grind. Yet they are the only possible sources for reporters trying to pry loose crucial details before their rivals do.
Personal relationships also come into play. Bossie, a former Senate Whitewater committee staffer, has long been a valuable source for Washington reporters.
"I'm not trying to shift the blame to anyone else, but the decision was made above my pay grade to edit the transcripts," Bossie said. "Once that process was started, I supervised it and the blame automatically fell to me." He said the charge "that we purposely edited out" exculpatory material was "false . . . because there was clearly exculpatory material in the transcripts we released." Several reporters agreed that their unfettered access shows the subsequent editing was due to confusion and incompetence.
But White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said journalists should have shown "a lot more skepticism" about the tapes because Burton is a clear "partisan" who recently called the president a "scumbag."
The reporters say they did what they could. The AP tracked down Hubbell for comment. Susan Schmidt of The Washington Post noted that her story quoted Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the panel's senior Democrat, as saying the Republicans were trying to "smear" Hubbell through selective editing. "I don't know what I could have done differently," she said.
Bury, whose program was the first to broadcast the tapes, said "Nightline" "couldn't make a full decision on what was withheld and what wasn't because we didn't have the transcripts in our possession. We were sort of trapped with the material we had."
Anchor Ted Koppel put the question to Burton, asking if any of the tapes aired on the program that night had been taken out of context. "Might it have been interpreted in a different way if we'd heard the entire conversation?"
"No," Burton said.
There's been chatter in recent months that Limbaugh, despite a nationwide audience estimated at 19 million, was in decline. In fact, the whole genre of political talk radio seemed played out, a victim of the growing public indifference toward Washington. The future was said to lie with more therapeutic hosts like Laura Schlessinger.
But the latest Arbitron ratings show the conservative Limbaugh as strong as ever. He's up sharply in Los Angeles (from 5.9 percent of the audience to 7.7 percent), Philadelphia (from 4.8 to 7.5), Washington (5.3 to 7.4) and New York (4.1 to 4.9). Also in New Orleans, Atlanta, Omaha, Louisville and Oklahoma City. The only Top 20 market in which he's down is San Francisco, where he's the highest-rated act on an all-sports station.
Could this have anything to do with a certain former White House intern? "I do not deny the Lewinsky effect," Limbaugh said. But he says, "Consider why all political talkers are not up as well if Lewinsky is the reason."
As for the more cosmic question of whether political talk is fading, Limbaugh calls those obituaries simply "wrong." For now, at least, the Dittoheads are sticking with their leader.
Christie Brinkley sued the National Enquirer for $42 million, saying that stories such as "Christie Cracks Up" were false. But a New York judge has thrown out the model's suit. Even though the stories were "truly obnoxious," the Justice Emily Jane Goodman said, they did not subject Brinkley to "hatred, contempt or aversion."
Brinkley, 44, called the ruling "incomprehensible." But Enquirer Editor Steve Coz said that "if a celebrity thinks a story is obnoxious, that means we're doing our job. We're not part of the Hollywood publicity machine."
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