By Howard Kurtz
In an interview with Steven Brill, founder of the media magazine Brill's Content, Starr said there was "nothing improper" about such discussions with reporters "if you are talking about what witnesses tell FBI agents or us before they testify before the grand jury or about related matters."
"I have talked with reporters on background on some occasions," Starr said, adding that his deputy, Jackie Bennett Jr., "has spent much of his time talking to individual reporters." In fact, he said, on Jan. 21, the day the Lewinsky story broke, Bennett spent "much of the day briefing the press."
In an apparent reference to the White House, Starr also said granting such interviews is justified in "a situation where what we are doing is countering misinformation that is being spread about our investigation in order to discredit our office. . . . I think it is our obligation to counter that kind of misinformation"
Starr's disclosures follow months of charges and countercharges between his office and the White House, each side blaming the other for alleged leaks in the sex-and-perjury probe involving former White House intern Lewinsky. The administration wasted little time in seeking to capitalize on Starr's remarks.
White House spokesman James Kennedy said the article "raises grave concerns about Mr. Starr's entire investigation." He said that an "independent investigator" must be named to "not only evaluate how Mr. Starr has conducted this investigation but also address his pattern of violating grand jury secrecy laws."
Brill, the founder of American Lawyer magazine and Court TV, charges that Starr's investigation constitutes an "abuse of power" and says there have been court decisions which hold that the criminal prohibition against leaking investigative material applies to prosecutors providing information about prospective witnesses who might testify before a grand jury.
In a statement released by his office last night, Starr said that Brill had "recklessly and irresponsibly charged the Office of Independent Counsel with improper contacts with the media. These charges are false."
Starr said his office "does not release grand jury material directly or indirectly, on the record or off the record," and that "news reports purporting to disclose grand jury or other investigative matters often rely, with or without attribution, on witnesses, their attorneys or their confidants."
Starr said his office's contacts with reporters "have been legal, appropriate and consistent with Department of Justice policy," and he quoted Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder as saying in 1995 that "in cases involving well-known people, the public has a right to be kept reasonably informed about what steps are being taken to pursue allegations of wrongdoing."
In the interview with Brill, Starr said that Bennett has talked "extensively" to Newsweek's Michael Isikoff, Susan Schmidt of The Washington Post and ABC correspondent Jackie Judd.
Starr acknowledged that he met with New York Times reporters Jeff Gerth and Stephen Labaton the day before they reported that President Clinton had discussed his deposition in the Paula Jones lawsuit with his secretary, Betty Currie, who had already been debriefed by Starr's prosecutors.
"My understanding was that they knew the substance of it. . . . I only wanted to talk to them about its timing," Starr said. But he said his deputy, Bennett, "talked more extensively with the Times for the story."
Bennett refused to discuss his conversations with individual reporters, telling Brill: "I don't think it is any of your business."
Isikoff says in the article that on Jan. 16, as he was preparing to write what would have been the first story on the scandal, Bennett begged him not to call the White House, presidential friend Vernon Jordan or Lewinsky until the next day. Bennett confirmed that he told Justice Department officials repeatedly that Newsweek was working on an article that would be public by that Sunday. "This was meant as a way of explaining why we had to act fast," an unnamed Justice official is quoted as saying. Newsweek wound up holding the Isikoff piece, and the story was broken the following week by The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and ABC radio.
The 28-page article in the debut issue of Brill's monthly magazine (to which this reporter will be an occasional contributor) contains considerable criticism of the press as a "cheering section" for Starr and for unsubstantiated reporting.
Lucianne Goldberg, the New York literary agent who encouraged former White House aide Linda R. Tripp to secretly record Lewinsky and take the tapes to Starr, told Brill that she was the source for a controversial ABC report by Judd.
In that report, Judd said: "Lewinsky says she saved, apparently as some kind of souvenir, a navy blue dress with the president's semen stain on it." Goldberg said she was not sure that Tripp said Lewinsky had saved the dress, and that she "might have added the part about it being saved."
The ABC report followed a similar claim by Internet gossip columnist Matt Drudge, which he repeated on NBC's "Today" show. No such dress was ever found, and the media were widely criticized for circulating the unconfirmed report. Judd would not comment to Brill on her source.
Brill criticized another Judd report that in 1996 "the president and Lewinsky were caught in an intimate encounter in a private area of the White House. It is not clear whether the witnesses were Secret Service agents or White House staff." No such witness has yet surfaced publicly.
Asked about the story, ABC anchor Peter Jennings told the magazine: "We have not yet retracted it, and I am still happy she's had no reason to think we should retract it. . . . Overall, ABC has done a fabulous job."
Brill was equally harsh on NBC anchor Tom Brokaw for breaking into regular programming for what he described on the air as "an unconfirmed report" that "someone caught the president and Ms. Lewinsky in an intimate moment."
"I guess it was because of ABC's report," Brokaw is quoted as saying. "Our only rationale could be that it's out there, so let's talk about it. . . . But in retrospect we shouldn't have done it."
Turning his fire on other journalists, Brill said The Post's Schmidt "does stenography for the prosecutors" and NBC's David Bloom does "lapdog-like work" as "a virtual stenographer for Starr."
Bloom responded yesterday that Brill "has forgotten that part of being a good reporter is being a stenographer. Accurately reporting what people say and do doesn't make one a 'lapdog,' just as a willingness to hurl insults shouldn't be mistaken for sound journalism."
Schmidt dismissed Brill's comments. "It's a commercial enterprise; he's got to take some whacks at people," she said. She also disputed a quote attributed to her when she was asked about her story on former Secret Service agent Lewis Fox, who said he saw the president meet alone with Lewinsky in the Oval Office in 1995. Asked why she didn't press Fox about what could have happened inside, Schmidt was quoted as saying: "I wasn't interested in his opinion . . . Clinton testified that he was never alone with her, and this guy makes him a liar. Period."
"That is not the type of thing I would ever say, and I never said that to Mr. Brill," Schmidt said yesterday. Brill said Schmidt "absolutely" made the remarks in two interviews.
Brill also criticized The Post for a Jan. 23 report that Clinton, in his deposition in the Jones case, had acknowledged an "affair" with Gennifer Flowers, which he denied during the 1992 campaign. In the deposition later released, the president admitted having had one sexual contact with Flowers.
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