Vindication Time (Kind of) for Reporters
By Howard Kurtz
If you listen carefully, you can hear the sound of journalists slapping themselves on the back. After all, 99.5 percent of what they reported about President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky was right there in Ken Starr's report. Vindication city!
Well, not so fast. True, the media bloodhounds deserve credit for staying on the trail while White House aides scolded them for being out of control. But a flimsy, thinly sourced story is still shoddy journalism even if the reporter lucks out and the charge turns out to be accurate. Good reporting is about nailing down facts, not publishing secondhand suspicions.
Don't forget that some news organizations recently reported that Bob Hope was dead after a congressman mistakenly announced his demise. One day, that story will be true but that hardly excuses the premature burial.
A year from now, however, all anyone will remember is that the media built a case that Clinton was covering up his affair with Lewinsky, and months later he admitted lying, sinning and generally stiffing those around him.
Take the Dallas Morning News story of last Jan. 26, which was quickly retracted. The paper said investigators had spoken with a Secret Service agent who was prepared to testify that he saw Clinton and Lewinsky in a compromising situation. In retrospect, the president and the intern were in plenty of compromising situations, and some agents had their suspicions.
How was that story reported? The Morning News's unnamed source was former U.S. attorney Joe diGenova, who got the account from his wife and law partner, Victoria Toensing, who got the account from an intermediary for the Secret Service agent a fourth-hand version at best. But the intermediary had by then backed off the story, and Toensing says she warned the paper not to go with it.
At the same time, it's worth tallying how many stories initially dismissed as ridiculous were contained in the independent counsel's 453-page impeachment report. And in fairness, many were first reported by the much-derided cybergossip Matt Drudge. These include the existence of the semen-stained dress, the charge that Lewinsky gave Clinton oral sex while he was on the phone with ex-adviser Dick Morris, the use of a cigar in sexual activity and a Clinton-Lewinsky liaison on Easter Sunday.
And the White House was tracking Drudge. According to Lewinsky's testimony, Clinton told her last summer "that there was something on the Sludge Report" about Kathleen Willey, the woman who was accusing him of groping her in the Oval Office. (Drudge was touting a then-unpublished story by Newsweek's Michael Isikoff.)
Mainstream reporters ABC's Jackie Judd on the stained dress, NBC's Lisa Myers on the Easter Sunday encounter also stuck to their guns. The New York Times story about Clinton coaching his secretary Betty Currie on his Lewinsky denials was on target, as was the Washington Times report on the president and the intern having phone sex. And the Starr report says Clinton told Lewinsky that he'd had "hundreds" of affairs as a screaming New York Post headline claimed early on.
Still, it's hard to measure how airtight these reports were at the time without knowing which unnamed sources provided them or whether the reporters were conduits for improper (if accurate) leaks from Starr's office.
After The Washington Post broke the Lewinsky story on Jan. 21, the Starr report says, Clinton lied to his attorney Robert Bennett, his friend Vernon Jordan, his aides Mike McCurry, Erskine Bowles, John Podesta and Sidney Blumenthal. The president told Blumenthal that "Monica Lewinsky came on to me," that he had "rebuffed her," that she had "threatened him" and was "known as the stalker among her peers," according to Blumenthal's testimony. They believed the boss, and wound up undermining their own credibility.
But the Starr report shows that some larger press portraits were off the mark. Currie, widely depicted as a loyal, unsuspecting secretary, admits she helped sneak Lewinsky in for clandestine meetings with Clinton. And Jordan, widely portrayed as a fixer, turns out to have told the truth when he contended that Clinton and Lewinsky had assured him there was no affair while he was helping her find a job.
Hold the champagne.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company