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Lewinsky arrives Thursday at the courthouse in Washington. (AP)

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Previous Post Stories About Lewinsky Media Coverage

A Stream of Anonymous Sources

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 8, 1998; Page C01

Just over an hour after Monica Lewinsky left the federal courthouse, NBC's Lisa Myers was on the air with the details of her grand jury testimony.

"A legal source says Lewinsky told of a sexual relationship with the president, . . . encounters in the White House and late-night calls characterized as phone sex," she said.

Forty minutes later, CNN's Wolf Blitzer was citing "two sources familiar with her testimony" in reporting "she only had a certain kind of sex with the president more than a dozen times . . . including in his private study off the Oval Office."

Once upon a time, grand jury witnesses did their thing in secret. Now their accounts are leaked before, during and after they testify.

In this hyper-competitive media environment, the major players seem willing to provide whispered descriptions of each turn in the Lewinsky probe in time for the evening news and the morning papers. Events that transpire behind closed doors almost feel like they're out in the open. And that affects not just journalists but the proceedings themselves.

Clinton adviser Lanny Davis, for instance, has urged the president to go public after his own Aug. 17 deposition, or lose control of the spin. "It is inevitable in this atmosphere that his testimony will be leaked, not necessarily by people sympathetic to him and not necessarily completely and accurately," the former White House lawyer said yesterday. "That's why it's in his interest to tell his version of his story immediately after the testimony." Davis said he is speaking on his own but that his argument "is viewed sympathetically by my former colleagues at the White House."

Media analysts, however, are troubled by the ubiquity of unnamed sources. "You'll never know what someone really said to the grand jury," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "It's not immoral to use anonymous sources, but only a small fraction of the time do reporters describe the allegiances or potential biases of the sources. We're cheating readers in some ways."

Bill Kovach, a former New York Times and Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor now at Harvard, said he was "stunned" by the speed of the leaks. "You are telling your readers Monica Lewinsky is going to testify to X and you don't know that," he said of news organizations. "It's just a lack of restraint."

Reporters, naturally, disagree. ABC's Jackie Judd, who also reported details of Lewinsky's Thursday testimony, said: "We've always had a problem on this story giving a very full description of who the sources are. Our viewers have to trust us that what we've reported is solid. We act as a filter for our sources, and while some may have a point of view, it's up to us to put it in the right context."

While refusing to discuss her sources, NBC's Myers said: "You do have to worry about agendas, but mostly I worry about whether the information is correct."

Yesterday's front pages also carried details of what the former White House intern is said to have said to the grand jury.

USA Today: "Her testimony included descriptions of oral sex in the White House, and, at times, Lewinsky was embarrassed by the intensely intimate questioning," according to "a person with knowledge of Lewinsky's six-hour session."

New York Times: "Ms. Lewinsky testified to having had sexual encounters with Mr. Clinton in his small, private study," according to "a lawyer familiar with her account."

The Washington Post: Lewinsky "told a federal grand jury yesterday that she engaged in numerous sexual liaisons with President Clinton at the White House," according to "a source familiar with her testimony."

On CNBC, Geraldo Rivera provided a very graphic description of the alleged encounters between Clinton and Lewinsky, attributing his account to "a source very close to the Lewinsky family."

That candid attribution suggests who is doing at least part of the leaking. Other than the grand jurors themselves, there are only two possible groups of sources for what Lewinsky told prosecutors and the grand jury: her lawyers and friends, or independent counsel Kenneth Starr's team. A federal judge, in a ruling unsealed yesterday, found enough evidence of improper grand jury leaks to order a hearing on whether Starr's office was responsible.

While it is illegal for prosecutors to disclose grand jury information, such restrictions do not apply to witnesses or their lawyers. What's more, Lewinsky's attorneys could talk to lawyers for other witnesses, who in turn could guide reporters.

"Starr's office obviously cannot breathe a word about any of this," Myers said, "but there are other people with knowledge of what was expected to happen who can then get a sense of what did happen."

It is hard to imagine why Starr's prosecutors would want Lewinsky's account known before they question Clinton. But Lewinsky is said to be worried about damaging Clinton, and her allies may be trying to help provide a road map for him. One of Lewinsky's lawyers, Plato Cacheris, is an old friend of Clinton's attorney, Robert Bennett.

Cacheris and his colleague Jacob Stein have denied leaking confidential details of her account. But they have been talking to reporters; Cacheris was quoted in yesterday's Los Angeles Times.

In fact, Cacheris and Stein gave a series of on-the-record briefings (to Time, the New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times) about Lewinsky's negotiations with Starr's prosecutors.

Recounting the immunity discussions in New York, Time said the meeting began at 10:15 and that Cacheris opened with a joke: "We're going to be on the 2 o'clock shuttle [back to Washington]." After describing the questioning, the magazine said: "The group broke at noon for lunch -- salads and sandwiches -- then continued until 3:30." The specifics of what Lewinsky was offering to tell the grand jury were cited. A "Starr official" was also quoted.

A Washington Post account pinpointed the lunch as roast beef and tuna salad sandwiches. The Associated Press even disclosed that Lewinsky "cried during her preparation sessions with prosecutors."

For that kind of inside information, reporters say, they have to bargain with people who don't want their names used.

"Do I like using anonymous sources? No," Blitzer said. "Do I have a choice? No. If everyone were on the record, I'd be out of business. They wouldn't tell us what's going on."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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