Documents Show How Reporters Chase Stories
By Howard Kurtz
"She somehow got my home number," the senior White House aide told a grand jury. ". . . She does the 'Today' show, and she would often call me at 10:30 or 11 o'clock at night and ask me what we heard the stories were going to be for the next morning, so that she could sort of get a leg up on what she would probably have to be reporting. . . .
"I would tell her that I understood that The Post was going to run a story on X and the Times was going on run a story on Y." Not quite Deep Throat, but a godsend to a harried correspondent.
Beyond the salacious details and legal maneuvering in Kenneth Starr's latest document dump are fascinating glimpses of the way journalists do business in a political maelstrom. The grand jury testimony highlights the aggressive, even semi-desperate tactics of reporters and their tangled relationships with presidential advisers.
On the night The Washington Post was breaking the Lewinsky story last January, Shipman's colleague David Bloom was determined to reach presidential pal Vernon Jordan. "David Bloom of NBC awakened me at 1 o'clock in the morning," Jordan testified. "I was staying at the St. Regis Hotel. And asked me for a comment. And, number one, I was stunned that some damn fool reporter would call me at 1 o'clock in the morning to ask me about anything. And I said to him that I was going back to sleep. And that's what I did."
A favorite journalistic technique is to tell someone you are going ahead with a story in hopes of getting him to confirm it. Former White House aide Harold Ickes testified that CBS reporter Scott Pelley and a colleague "called me to say that they had good authority . . . that I had seen the president and Ms. Lewinsky in a compromising position . . . and that they were going to run with that story." Ickes told them he had "absolutely no recollection" of such an incident.
Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon was asked about his conversation with the New Yorker's Jane Mayer, who obtained information about Linda Tripp's confidential personnel file from Bacon's office. He noted they had once been colleagues at the Wall Street Journal. "She knew me, she called me," Bacon testified. But he said he didn't treat Mayer differently than other reporters.
Newsweek's Michael Isikoff was the first on the Lewinsky trail, but White House Deputy Chief of Staff John Podesta heard the rumblings from Newsweek's arch-rival.
Time reporters "started calling virtually everyone on the senior staff in the White House who they had contact with, saying that Newsweek -- we live in a competitive journalistic environment -- Newsweek was working on a blockbuster story, having to do with Ken Starr and some tapes in the grand jury," Podesta testified. ". . . They didn't want to get beat. . . . Their whole bureau was kind of thumb-banging the White House."
(We've never heard of thumb-banging, but it sounds like an impressive medieval torture.)
"And for those of you who are not in the news business, this is the way these people do business," Podesta said. "They kind of chase each other around."
Podesta was worried about being sandbagged: "We were concerned a little bit that Newsweek might wait until the very end of the day, call us for comment just before they went to bed, and we . . . would have to react to it in the last few minutes on Saturday night."
So Podesta called Isikoff, whom he had dealt with for years and who once taught his Georgetown Law School class when Podesta was out of government. Isikoff said he was working on a Paula Jones story, not a Starr story, according to Podesta (although Starr's probe of the Lewinsky affair was the most explosive question Isikoff was pursuing).
Isikoff's name crops up throughout the 4,600 pages. He began dealing with Tripp last year while pursuing allegations by former White House volunteer Kathleen Willey that President Clinton had groped her. Tripp told Isikoff she saw Willey emerge from the Oval Office looking disheveled and happy.
"He met me at the hairdresser's and came in and talked to me while I was having my hair done. . . . It turns out a Washington Post reporter was there and came up to me and said, after Mike left, 'Are you Kathleen Willey?' " (No Post staffer has confessed to being present, but our investigation continues.)
Tripp testified that Isikoff quoted her by name without her permission, saying: "Never once did we go back on the record or off deep background . . . so he chose to use me." (This turned out to be significant, because presidential lawyer Robert Bennett challenged Tripp's veracity, which she says made her fear for her job and helped lead to her taping of her friend Lewinsky.)
"There's no question in our minds the interview was on the record," said Ann McDaniel, Newsweek's Washington bureau chief. "In fact, as part of an agreement with her, a quote was discussed not only with her but with her lawyer before we published it. I just don't find her argument to the grand jury credible."
Tripp never complained about her notion that the interview had been off the record. In fact, she sought Isikoff's advice about getting Newsweek to publish a letter to the editor in which she assailed him in an "inflammatory" way. (Isikoff's advice, says Tripp, was to tone down the part about him.) Tripp says she "did not want to take the chance that he would retaliate against me." Newsweek declined to publish the letter, telling Tripp she was not challenging the story's accuracy.
All reporters make the case that their news outlet is the best possible vehicle for a competitive story. That's what Isikoff did when Tripp threatened to peddle the Lewinsky tale to the tabloids.
"Look, if you don't do this, I have to look at other ways," she recalls saying.
Tripp says Isikoff replied: "Don't do tabloids. You'll have no credibility, and if you do tabloids, they'll be able to throw the whole thing away as Martians-in-space kind of thing."
Isikoff got the exclusive, but Newsweek decided to hold it.
Headline of the Week
" 'That Woman' Creates Moniker Monster" -- the Wall Street Journal, after interviewing many much-ridiculed women named Monica.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company