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Monica Lewinsky Monica Lewinsky outside federal courthouse in August. (Reuters file)

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  • Committee of Concerned Journalist's report, The Clinton/Lewinsky Story: How Accurate? How Fair?

  • Report Faults Lewinsky Coverage

    By Howard Kurtz
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, October 21, 1998; Page D01

    From the first day of the Monica Lewinsky story, news organizations reported that Lewinsky was heard on secret tapes saying that presidential pal Vernon Jordan had told her to lie.

    When the tape transcripts were released eight months later -- oops -- it turned out that Lewinsky had made no such comment about Jordan.

    This is among the case studies in a report released yesterday by the Committee of Concerned Journalists, a group holding forums around the country on media standards, that casts some of the Lewinsky coverage in a harsh light. "In some important cases, the press leaned on the suspicions of investigators that did not hold up and downplayed the denials of the accused," the report says.

    The study took pains to point out that the press "usually relied on legitimate sources and often was careful about the facts." But although many allegations in the sex scandal turned out to be true, "it is an oversimplification to say the press has been vindicated."

    Tom Rosenstiel, the committee's vice chairman, said some mainstream news outlets appeared to serve as a conduit for independent counsel Kenneth Starr. "Is it our job to print what an investigator suspects, or should we be publishing what we know to be true?" he asked. "There's a risk in publishing prosecutorial suspicions. The special prosecutor is not the disinterested prosecutor; he's there to make a case."

    But the report did not deal with White House lies, from President Clinton on down, that were routinely carried by news outlets. Rosenstiel said that on the half-dozen subjects examined by the committee, administration officials often declined to discuss the details of the grand jury investigation.

    Journalists, of course, routinely report on authorities investigating charges they ultimately can't prove. Sometimes, as in the case of falsely accused Olympic bomber Richard Jewell, they get burned.

    The committee's massive Nexis search turned up some wrong-headed declarations, as when NBC's Geraldo Rivera said on July 8: "There is, ladies and gentlemen, absolutely no possibility that a so-called semen-stained dress exists."

    More problematic was the spate of early reports on Jordan, the Washington lawyer who was helping Lewinsky find a corporate job -- and whose actions provided the legal basis for Starr's inquiry into the Lewinsky matter.

    In breaking the Lewinsky story on Jan. 21, The Washington Post reported what the former White House intern was said to have told Linda Tripp on the tapes: "Lewinsky described Clinton and Jordan directing her to testify falsely in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case against the president, according to sources."

    That same morning, ABC's Jackie Judd reported on the Lewinsky-Tripp tapes on "Good Morning America." One source, said Judd, "says Lewinsky is later heard saying Jordan instructed her to lie."

    Five days later, also on "Good Morning America," Newsweek's Evan Thomas said: "We understand from very reliable sources that when Monica Lewinsky was talking to Tripp . . . Lewinsky did say some very damaging stuff about Jordan; that Jordan said, 'Deny it, say it never happened,' that he had basically told her to lie. Now, that doesn't mean Jordan did do that."

    That same week, Time magazine said: "Lewinsky reportedly told Tripp that Jordan said to her, 'They can't prove anything. . . . Your answer is, it didn't happen, it wasn't me.' If that turns out to be true, Jordan could be on the hook for suborning perjury and obstruction of justice."

    Starr's report last month made no mention of alleged obstruction of justice by Jordan, and Lewinsky testified that no one had told her to lie under oath. In a taped conversation with Tripp, the strongest thing she said about Jordan is "what he has showed me is there's no way to get caught in perjury in a situation like this."

    The ultimate source here appears to be Tripp, who told investigators and perhaps others, who in turn told reporters what Lewinsky had supposedly said about Jordan. According to summaries of Tripp's first interview with investigators, she said that "Vernon Jordan told Lewinsky to lie" and that when Lewinsky expressed concern about perjury, Jordan offered "words to the effect, 'It never happened.' "

    Karen DeYoung, The Post's assistant managing editor for national news, said that "if The Post was misled, the independent counsel was misled" by Tripp's interview with investigators. "The basic question is whether it is legitimate for us to report lines of inquiry the prosecutor is pursuing without having access to the primary information. . . . I think it is legitimate. When we find out otherwise, we have an obligation to report that, which I believe we did."

    In hindsight, said DeYoung, "it certainly would have been more accurate to have said Tripp told the FBI one of the tapes contained Lewinsky describing Jordan telling her to lie." But, she said, the paper had no way of knowing this at the time.

    Robin Sproul, ABC's Washington bureau chief, said the network's sources had "mischaracterized" Lewinsky's comments. "Based on the two unrelated sources we had, we were confident we had a straight-ahead account," she said, adding that Jordan and his attorney had declined to comment to ABC.

    Said Newsweek's Thomas: "We reported what we knew then and we were careful to qualify it as what we were hearing, and we've reported since then on what the Starr report did show."

    The committee also examined coverage of the famous "talking points" that Lewinsky gave Tripp, urging her to deny knowledge of any extramarital affair involving Clinton. The issue first surfaced in Michael Isikoff's Jan. 22 Newsweek report: "Starr believes that Lewinsky did not write them herself. He is investigating whether the instructions came from Jordan or other friends of the president."

    Eight months later, the Starr report did not challenge Lewinsky's testimony that she had written the talking points herself. Along the way, though, journalists said the chief suspect was White House aide Bruce Lindsey; others aimed even higher.

    On Feb. 2, Time reported that "potentially the most damaging questions for Lindsey will concern the list of 'talking points' that Lewinsky allegedly gave Linda Tripp. . . . The origins of the talking points remain a big mystery, but Starr may have good reason to press Lindsey under oath."

    On Feb. 4, NBC's Claire Shipman said: "Sources in Starr's office and close to Linda Tripp say they believe the instructions came from the White House. If true, that could help support a case of obstruction of justice."

    On Feb. 23, Fox News cited sourc- es as saying that Starr's team was "considering the possibility that President Clinton helped Monica Lewinsky write the so-called talking points memo."

    On May 18, the Washington Times reported that "Mr. Starr, according to lawyers and others close to the grand jury probe, wants to know what White House deputy counsel Bruce R. Lindsey and senior aide Sidney Blumenthal know about the source of the summary, or 'talking points' . . . which prosecutors are convinced was not written by Miss Lewinsky."

    On June 17, CNBC's Chris Matthews said that "the person who may have given her the talking points may in fact have been the person who had the closest relationship with her, and that's the president."

    Now, of course, the press has moved on.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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