By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 29, 1998; Page B4
There wasn't much Monica Lewinsky news yesterday, but at 3:29 p.m. the Associated Press broadcast wire moved the following local bulletin:
"There is a broadcast report that Air Force One was involved in a midair collision over National Airport this morning."
Nine minutes later, before the masses got the word, the wire service carried this update: "WITHHOLD the story slugged Midair Collision. . . . There was no collision." Three minutes after that, the story was killed.
What actually happened is that Air Force One, carrying President Clinton from Andrews Air Force Base to Champaign, Ill., passed within 2.88 miles of a Delta twin-jet MD-88 that was taking off from National. Federal rules require planes to be at least three miles apart in that airspace. The Federal Aviation Administration said a controller at National made a minor "operational error" and that an inquiry is underway. An FAA spokesman said later that the distance was probably greater than 2.88 miles and might not have been a violation at all.
How, one might ask, could the famously reliable AP move the more catastrophic version of the event?
Spokeswoman Tori Smith said the broadcast wire picked up an accurate WJLA-TV report about a "near midair collision" near National, but "we dropped the word 'near,' which was our error." She said the report "made no sense" because the AP had been carrying reports about Clinton making a speech in Illinois and his plane getting stuck in the mud in Champaign.
"Anyone who was paying attention would have known this couldn't happen," Smith said.
Staff writer Don Phillips contributed to this report.
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