With a story about "key officials of the Reagan and Bush administration" involved in a "callboy ring," the Washington Times in late June seemed poised to give this town the one thing it adores -- a summer scandal. But as of last week, journalists have been left debating whether the Times published a blockbuster or a "blockbluster," as one critic put it. The story is intriguing -- involving male prostitution and a lobbyist who used parties to promote his business connections and business connections to promote his parties. But is it a government scandal or just a sordid slice of life in a city that happens to be Washington, D.C.? Washington Times Editor in Chief Arnaud de Borchgrave, when asked whether the story is as big as his paper has advertised, says that the scandal is evolving. "This story is going to be much like Watergate," de Borchgrave said. "It will go on for months; each time you shake the tree, something else falls out of it." Numerous Washingtonians in recent weeks have said that the Times's exclusives, many of which have not been reprinted in other papers, are worthy of more effort from the thousands of reporters who work in Washington. "We can get a little too stuffy," said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "In some way, that's a classic story. It's just that the press has become so professional that we have a class structure built in now and we look down our noses at yellow journalism -- the kind that Hearst and Pulitzer made their reputations with." Other journalists in Washington are not so certain. "Where's the beef? I can't figure out what's going on here," said James Glassman, editor and publisher of Roll Call, a twice-weekly newspaper that covers Congress. "I don't think there's much substance to it, but it's a good old-fashioned, sell-newspapers kind of journalism." The story began, many journalists say now, on Feb. 28 with what appeared to be a routine raid by D.C. police and the U.S. Secret Service on a house in the 6000 block of 34th Place NW. Sources have told reporters that the primary purpose for the raid by D.C. police was to investigate a male prostitution call service. The Secret Service, which investigates most credit card fraud, was there to determine whether operators of the prostitution service were using customers' card numbers illegally. After the raid, the house remained cluttered with stacks of documents, furniture and an odd variety of carved, stuffed and miniature elephants -- believed to be the collection of one of the tenants. When U.S. marshals came to evict the tenants' belongings, the owner and her lawyer, Marc Moskowitz, promised some reporters a chance to rummage through the debris. In many cases, Moskowitz agreed to give reporters access to the house if they would not mention the owner's name. Three months after the raid, after U.S. marshals swept furniture and belongings onto the sidewalk, Moskowitz gave reporters the walk-through. When the journalists saw documents -- pages from ledgers, a diary, pornographic pictures or toys -- he said they could take them. Reporters hauled paper away in boxes, he said. "It was like a garage sale. It was like a carnival atmosphere," Moskowitz said. Among news organizations that had reporters carting away ledgers and documents from the house, according to Moskowitz, were The Washington Post, Regardie's, Channel 9 (WUSA) and Channel 4 (WRC). Moskowitz said he did not see a reporter from the Washington Times, but de Borchgrave said, "We had our people there, and we all divided the goodies." The piecemeal distribution of these documents kept many journalists wondering who had what. Rumors proliferated in Washington that the documents revealed names of famous clients of the prostitution service that allegedly was operating out of the house. For example, Moskowitz and a number of reporters who covered this story said they had heard that Regardie's reporter Keith Girard carried out a diary full of "some big names," as Moskowitz put it. "It's more like an engagement book," said Girard. "It's interesting but there's nothing in it, in and of itself, that is particularly revealing about politicians or anything." Girard and other reporters who looked through the data said that they found information implicating doctors or lawyers who could afford the service's steep fees, which started at $150 and rapidly escalated. "We checked into it; we sent reporters out when they raided the house in February and again when they had the eviction," said Jack Nelson, Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times. "We never did turn up with anything that looked like a national story. "To tell the truth, the reason editors in L.A. weren't interested in it was that the New York Times and The Washington Post hadn't been interested in it," said Nelson. "If they had, our editors would have said, 'Where's the story?' " Howell Raines, the New York Times's Washington bureau chief, said his paper ran a short story on the resignation of a Labor Department aide who quit after he was named by the Washington Times as being part of the scandal. "I don't take the Washington Times seriously as a journalistic entity, so I view with suspicion almost anything that they do," said Raines. He said he is watching the story to determine whether it actually involves high officials or public policy. "I don't deny a raid on this house and that there's obviously some kind of investigation going on," said Raines. "But so far I haven't seen any evidence that it means what they say it means." For The Washington Post, the treatment of the Times story is more complicated because, at the very minimum, this was a local story. The Post had written stories on the raid a month before the Washington Times broke its story on June 29 with the large Page 1 headline reading "Homosexual prostitution probe ensnares officials of Bush, Reagan." The first reaction at The Post was to decide that the Times story was interesting but not worthy of the all-out assault given other breaking stories -- such as the unfolding scandal at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. "I initially looked at it and I thought, my God, big headline and all that," said Leonard Downie Jr., managing editor of The Post. "And I was struck by two things: Number one, we'd already reported about this raid and we wondered what more there was in this story that we would want to publish. And secondly, I was struck by the fact that there was an awful lot of speculation in it, including this long speculation about whether or not there were national security problems here. It struck me as odd and not supported by the facts of the story." Other reporters around Washington said they were interested in pursuing the story but decided against it when they checked with the Secret Service and other investigative agencies and were told that the raid was relatively routine. The Washington Times wrote that intelligence authorities had been concerned that " 'a nest of homosexuals' at top levels of the Reagan administration may have been penetrated by Soviet-backed espionage agents posing as male prostitutes." A Secret Service spokesman said of the national security aspect: "The Times has drawn a lot of conclusions in their stories. So far, we don't have evidence to support those conclusions." The Times also stated that this raid was the first time the Secret Service had participated in such a venture in the District, but the Secret Service spokesman said there have been at least four such raids -- with the Secret Service looking for credit card fraud and the D.C. police looking for evidence of other crime such as prostitution. Downie, who said The Post "takes seriously" the Times as part of his competition in Washington, also said he and his editors had other problems with the Times's original story. "There was a feeling on the part of some other journalists in the office -- reporters and editors -- that there was an element of antipathy toward homosexual activity running through the Times's original story that they felt we ought not be party to," Downie said. He also said that when reporters checked into the story, they found it to be "overblown." At about that time, a key law enforcement official came to lunch at The Post and assured the staff that the investigation was primarily on credit card fraud. Elsewhere in Washington, the fact that the Washington Times took a grand swing at the story was mentioned on local television and news radio stations. CBS News carried a brief item, and after the Times broke a story about a Secret Service investigation of one of its agents' giving a midnight White House tour to lobbyist Craig Spence, the story fluttered onto the national stage once again. Because Spence lobbied for the Japanese, the story did well in some Japanese newspapers. "It's a good Washington story, but we're a national newspaper," said Peter Pritchard, editor of USA Today. "We gave it the same space we would give a scandal in some other city." On July 1, The Post wrote a story that primarily recapped most of the reporting from the raid. The next week, after the July Fourth holiday and after the Times wrote about the midnight tour of the White House, The Post moved four reporters to the story -- looking mainly at Craig Spence, the lobbyist whose name had surfaced in the Times's report. And on July 18, The Post published a long profile in the Style section of Spence, the mystery man who concocted an elaborate lifestyle that included salon-style parties where people sat around with his clients and discussed trade policy. It also told how Spence suggested mysteriously that he bugged his friends and worked for an intelligence agency. Downie said that The Post "took the time to get {the story} done the way it ought to be done, and I'm very proud of the story -- a very interesting, sophisticated, classic Style story on a very interesting Washington phenomenon. "I'm sorry we had it second," he added, "but none of us had Craig Spence on our screen." Other stories have followed at The Post, including one on the organizer of the call boy ring, and Post editors said last week that they feel the paper is "up to speed" on the scandal. For those who are beginning to suggest that the Times's story has lost its luster, The Times protests that there is more to come. "There are still a lot of shoes to drop," de Borchgrave said recently. "This story is a centipede." But some troubling questions remain. A number of journalists contacted for this story were concerned that the Times swept several private individuals into the limelight unnecessarily. Downie, for example, said The Post would not have named the individuals in the Times's first story about "key officials of the Reagan and Bush administration" because they were not widely viewed as "key officials." The Times named a former associate director of personnel for Reagan, a political personnel liaison to the White House for the Labor Department, a Reagan aide who prepared the White House news summary (who denied involvement) and a Times editor, who resigned when his name was found on credit card receipts. Times Managing Editor Wesley Pruden said in the first story on this issue: "There is no intention of publishing names or facts about the operation merely for titillation." And Times editors promised in the same story that they would "print only the names of those found to be in sensitive government posts or positions of influence." Jack Shafer, editor of the Washington City Paper, who wrote last month that the Times "has every right to crow" about its story, said "the original headline oversold it because none of those people were VIPs. They were low-level munchkins." In the period since the first Times story, no names of key administration officials have surfaced in connection with the call boy ring, either in the Times or in other newspapers that have had reporters investigating the allegations. De Borchgrave says the big names involved in the call boy ring have yet to emerge. "We will only name people once we are satisfied with the documentary evidence," he said. "The fact that nine male prostitutes tell you that they have slept with so and so, that's not enough." Still, in accusing Spence of being a lavish user of the call boy ring and a key figure in an investigation of a Secret Service officer, the Times has introduced some of Spence's prominent friends into its stories, making it sound as though they too are targets of an investigation. In a July 10 story, for example, the newspaper said that an investigation of a Secret Service officer who took Spence and his friends on a late-night tour of the White House included "inquiries about his friends." The July 10 story named as two of Spence's friends former U.S. attorney Joseph diGenova and his wife Victoria Toensing, a former deputy assistant U.S. attorney general. A color snapshot of diGenova and Toensing at a July 4 party last year was featured on the Times front page above the story. "I have no idea the relevance that Joe and I went to a Fourth of July party with decent, nice people," said Toensing. "It's obvious that Craig Spence was leading a double life, but we were never a part of that other life." DiGenova and his wife said they ended their friendship with Spence in December 1988 after they became worried about his behavior and a friend told them, "I don't want you to be put in a position that you would be embarrassed." Toensing also said that while the Times had spoken to her husband in the weeks before the article, the newspaper did not try to call her, even though the story included the photograph and two paragraphs of biographical data about her. "It's as if I had no being. They didn't even think they had to make a pretense about talking to me," said Toensing, who was former senator Barry Goldwater's chief counsel for the Senate Intelligence Committee before she went to the Justice Department. "I've dealt with the press all the time, and I've never dealt with anything quite like that," said Toensing, who is now in private practice. De Borchgrave, who says that the top editors have given "maybe 70" interviews on this story, said the story has interest around the globe and that Times executives have increased their print run by 10,000, to a total of 115,000 a day, to cover the new interest among readers. "One of the most powerful guys in the city told me, 'If you guys don't get the Pulitzer for this one, then there is no justice,' " de Borchgrave said.