By Lloyd Grove
When it broke Wednesday morning on NBC's "Today" show, Tim Russert's report was Washington's scoop of the day. It provoked indignant howls at the White House where presidential press secretary Mike McCurry devoted much of two briefings to it plus high interest among rival news organizations and consternation in the office of independent counsel Kenneth Starr.
But by the evening news cycle, Russert's big story that Starr is investigating whether Secret Service agents "facilitated" President Clinton's alleged fling with Monica Lewinsky had evaporated into a fog of vague sources and apparently shaky substance. Russert, NBC's Washington bureau chief and moderator of "Meet the Press," was quickly forced to revise the description of his sources and significantly back away from his initial tone of authority.
It was another example of the journalistic perils presented hourly by the six-month-old White House intern probe a story in which scores of journalists are vying for grand jury secrets that are difficult if not impossible to come by, while at the same time responding to competitive pressures by providing wall-to-wall coverage, 24 hours a day.
"In the age of the perpetual news cycle, scoops are only scoops for a matter of seconds minutes, at most," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a Washington think tank associated with Columbia University. "It is becoming increasingly important to be right, and a little less important to be first."
Wednesday's episode began on the first segment of "Today," when Russert told host Matt Lauer and about 4 million viewers: "There are lots of suggestions coming out of people close to Ken Starr that perhaps the Secret Service facilitated for President Clinton. Remember that code word it was used about the state troopers in Little Rock. . . . Was the Secret Service was a Secret Service agent an accomplice in trying to cover up a relationship with Monica Lewinsky?"
Shortly after Russert's televised allegation, Charles Bakaly, counsel and spokesman for Starr, took a call from a rival broadcast journalist whom Bakaly declines to identify. The reporter alerted him to Russert's "people close to Starr" wording, and a disturbed Bakaly promptly phoned Russert to complain.
"I called Mr. Russert and shared my concern with him that his sourcing, as I understood it, improperly gave the impression that this office had been the source of that information which was untrue," Bakaly said yesterday. "He agreed, represented to me that the Office of the Independent Counsel was not his source, but rather, it was congressional sources, and he said he would modify his report on the noon broadcast on MSNBC. I thanked him."
At the White House, press secretary McCurry also focused on Russert's description of his sources. At his morning briefing, he leapt to the inference that Starr and his staff were illegally leaking. "Sneering at the president," McCurry raged, "is common sport here in Washington now, and that's life. But the Secret Service agents . . . should not be slimed by Ken Starr and his operatives."
Bakaly added that Russert hadn't called him before going on the air for his response to the story common journalistic practice. Russert yesterday didn't return a phone call seeking comment on his role.
Fulfilling his promise to Bakaly, Russert appeared on MSNBC's noon "Investigating the President" newscast whose tiny cable audience is a fraction of the "Today" show's and revised his controversy-sparking description of sources. But he didn't acknowledge that he was correcting an error or even making a change.
"This morning I reported that congressional sources had told NBC News that Ken Starr is very interested in finding out" what the Secret Service agents may have done as "accomplices" in a "coverup," Russert claimed.
Rosenstiel, a former reporter for Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times, was critical of Russert's approach to fixing his initial misstatement. "If you make a mistake as a journalist, you enhance your credibility by saying so and correcting it," he said. "Nobody expects us to be perfect."
At the afternoon White House briefing, McCurry was told of Russert's alteration and adjusted his attack on Starr to assert that the prosecutor was "laundering" his leaks through the Congress. That night on "NBC Nightly News With Tom Brokaw," White House correspondent Claire Shipman, chronicling the flap generated by Russert's story, referred to "congressional sources" without mentioning his original attribution.
Russert, appearing live from the White House, provided yet another description of his sources: "Members of Congress have been talking to investigators, people, lawyers associated with the grand jury, people who are free to talk, and they are coming to some conclusions that perhaps Secret Service agents may have been, quote, 'facilitating.'‚" He also sounded less confident in the story itself: "We don't know whether that's Republican spin, partisan spin, ideological spin, or there's a germ of evidence."
Rosenstiel commented: "Russert appears to be passing on rumors. . . . That's troubling. As a journalist, you have to weigh when it is appropriate to pass along rumors and when it isn't."
But Brokaw yesterday defended how his broadcast handled the Starr story.
"We had Claire Shipman's report, which mentioned the role of the NBC story, and we got Tim to give a lot of that some context," Brokaw said. "But I am one who strongly believes that we are not out here every day grabbing chaff out of the air. We have a very strong filter for that stuff. I think Tim was saying there were congressional sources who believed that Starr's got evidence, but we don't have a hard line on that. . . . It had already been in play in McCurry's briefing."
But wasn't Russert the one who put it in play?
"Talk to Tim," Brokaw replied.
While not talking to The Post, Russert did defend his report to Salon, an online magazine. "These are congressional sources who told me that, in fact, this is part of what the investigation is looking at," he said. "All I'm doing is reporting it. I'm not making it up."
Staff writer Michael Colton contributed to this report.
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