A Scandal Unfolds  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   March 1998

A Scandal Unfolds    

A behind-the-scenes look at the repforting that triggered the most serious crisis of the Clinton presidency. Part One

By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.     

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ON TUESDAY, JANUARY 13, Newsweek investigative reporter Michael Isikoff got a tip. It was hot. So hot it caused him to gasp, turned his face ashen and forced him out of his office near the White House to breathe fresh air. Whitewater Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr had opened an investigation of the president of the United States over possible obstruction of justice and perjury in connection with the Paula Jones lawsuit. Starr had set up a sting that very day of a young woman who had indicated on tape that she had a sexual relationship with the president.

``I was totally blown away," says Isikoff, 45, who has been dogging questions about Bill Clinton's private behavior since the 1992 presidential campaign. ``It was clear to me that this thing now had entered a completely different realm."

Isikoff had heard in March 1997 that Clinton was supposedly having an affair with a former White House intern. By October, he had learned her name, Monica Lewinsky. In December, he found out that Lewinsky and her confidante Linda Tripp had received subpoenas to testify in Jones' sexual harassment lawsuit against the president. But even if Tripp were willing to go on the record about a Clinton-Lewinsky relationship, Isikoff knew it still wasn't a story if it was just about sex.

Some news organizations have files thick with allegations involving Clinton's extramarital love life, but few have been deemed worthy of printing, absent a lawsuit like Jones' or a very public disclosure like Gennifer Flowers'. The charges often are relegated discreetly to the ``he said-she said, it's Clinton's private business" category.

This was different. Isikoff knew that Tripp, a source he had been cultivating since the winter of 1997, had gone to Starr and turned in her ``friend" Lewinsky. He knew that Starr's office and FBI agents had set up a sting operation aimed at the 24-year-old former White House intern. ``A sting of the president's girlfriend is pretty wild in and of itself," Isikoff says. ``At that point I thought it was as much a story about Ken Starr as a Bill Clinton story."

On Thursday, January 15, Isikoff went to Starr's downtown Washington, D.C., office. Starr's deputies, Isikoff says, asked him to wait until 4 p.m. the following day before calling Lewinsky or Vernon Jordan, presidential First Friend and Washington power broker nonpareil. Starr was investigating whether Jordan or the president had encouraged Lewinsky to lie about her relationship with Clinton.

Isikoff was willing to wait.

Friday, January 16--early Saturday, January 17: January 17: Four p.m. came and went, but Starr's people weren't ready. They still wanted more time, Isikoff says, because they hoped to ``flip" Lewinsky, to get her to cooperate with the investigation. Starr had tapes of conversations in which Lewinsky intimated that the president and Jordan encouraged her to lie in her sworn affidavit in the Jones case, as well as other evidence. But he wanted more.

``At that point the prosecutors had said to Mike: `If you call anybody for a comment, it's going to blow our case. We haven't had a chance to interrogate Monica,' " says Mark Whitaker, Newsweek's managing editor.

It wasn't, say many at Newsweek, a case of working too closely with the special prosecutor. Initially, say Isikoff and Whitaker, Starr indicated there was a real possibility that Lewinsky could be brought on board by Newsweek's Saturday night deadline.

But while Isikoff was pushing Starr's office that Friday, he says, he was getting mixed messages from Newsweek editors, who were divided on how to handle the story. ``The first signal I got that the story might not go was when I was told we need a backup story on Clinton's Paula Jones deposition [scheduled for Saturday, January 17] in case we don't go with the story," Isikoff says.

Shortly after midnight, Isikoff got access to a copy (he won't say how) of one of the 90-minute tapes that Linda Tripp had made of Lewinsky. At Newsweek's Washington bureau, Isikoff, Bureau Chief Ann McDaniel, Assistant Managing Editor Evan Thomas and correspondent Daniel Klaidman huddled around a tape recorder. They were stunned by what they heard.

``Everybody who heard the tape concluded that at the end that this was a real conversation between two people," Isikoff says. ``That Monica was speaking spontaneously. That she was distraught, was emotional and genuinely concerned that what she clearly described as a sexual relationship with the president was going to be publicly disclosed through the Paula Jones lawsuit. No, we didn't have four converts, but everybody agreed that the tape was genuine."

Around 4 a.m., someone from Starr's office called. ``They were freaking out, wanting to know if I was going to do a story," the reporter recalls.

Isikoff didn't know. Newsweek editors had yet to decide, and the deadline for doing so was little more than 12 hours away. Exhausted, the four left at about 4:30 a.m. and headed home.

Meanwhile, other members of the hypercompetitive Washington press corps were panicking. ``On Friday we'd realized Newsweek had something big coming," says Michael Duffy, Time magazine's Washington bureau chief. ``By Friday, I heard Newsweek had something that wasn't just about Paula Jones. We worked like mad to try to figure out what it was."

Duffy concedes that Newsweek virtually owned the story of Jones' allegations against the president. ``Paula Jones was practically a subsidiary of Newsweek's," says Duffy, referring to Isikoff's unrelenting coverage. The veteran investigative reporter had been on the Jones case since she first surfaced in early 1994, when he still worked for the Washington Post. In fact, Isikoff jumped from the newspaper to Newsweek after he got into a shouting match with a Post editor when the paper refused to run a lengthy investigative piece he'd done on Jones' allegations.

At the Washington Post, reporter Susan Schmidt, a mainstay on the Whitewater beat, also had learned that Newsweek was on to a big story. On Friday Schmidt ``heard Starr had something about Clinton and coaching a witness," she says. ``So I started rushing around working all weekend trying to figure out what it was. I started hearing Vernon Jordan's name."

Saturday, January 17: Isikoff returned to the office at 7 a.m. after about two hours of sleep. He was pumped.

McDaniel came into the office around 9 a.m. Isikoff was pushing the magazine to publish. McDaniel had reservations, as did Managing Editor Whitaker and Editor in Chief Richard M. Smith in New York. At about 9:30 a.m., Isikoff says, he walked into McDaniel's office and said: ``Look, we need to make a decision real fast. There's no way we can publish this story unless we make a real effort to contact Monica Lewinsky and Vernon Jordan. If we are going with the story, I need to start calling them now. If we're not going with the story, then I don't want to call them and disrupt a law enforcement investigation."

For the rest of the day, McDaniel says, speaker phones connecting D.C. and New York City were in constant use. There were tense discussions and raised voices, but no screaming matches, she says. The magazine was on to a great story, Smith says, but it knew so little about Lewinsky. And it would be thrusting her, a young private citizen, into the maelstrom. Was that fair?

Also, says Smith, while Newsweek knew that Starr was looking into obstruction of justice charges, ``nothing we had heard or seen at that moment provided any basis for this charge." The tape editors had listened to, after all, was a secondhand conversation. And, as Isikoff points out, it is hardly definitive.

``There were references that Monica makes on the tape to conversations with the president and Vernon Jordan," Isikoff says. ``But it is ambiguous. It neither confirmed nor undercut the most serious charge, that the president and Vernon Jordan instructed her to lie. That was the serious federal crime that Starr was investigating. The tape that we heard, which was only one tape, did not prove that."

McDaniel says she ``was troubled by the ongoing nature of the Starr investigation and how little we knew about Monica."

Whitaker was bothered, too. ``If Starr's people had come back in 24 hours and said, `We confronted Lewinsky and she admitted everything,' we would then have known this is a very serious investigation that will go forward. And clearly Monica has a problem."

But what if it went the other way? ``Let's say they came back and said, `We talked to her, she denied everything. We believe her.' Or they said, `We questioned her. She sounds like a flake. We are dropping the whole investigation.' Then we would have been irresponsible to write a wildfire story about sex in the White House."

Early on the editors agreed that they would not let their deadline dictate their behavior. But if they held off, they wouldn't be able to publish for seven more days. Newsweek editors can make changes in a story until late Saturday night. But if they were going to commit to a major piece on Lewinsky, they had to decide by 5 p.m. Saturday.

While the editors agonized, the reporters were still reporting. ``During the day, Danny [Klaidman] finds out that Starr had actually gone to the Justice Department to expand his jurisdiction and the Justice Department had signed off on it, and Starr had gotten an expanded mandate on Friday specifically to conduct this investigation," Isikoff says. ``That pushed Evan over the edge in support of publishing the story." (Ironically, Starr used the threat of a Newsweek story to get a speedy decision from Attorney General Janet Reno about expanding his probe. And Reno's decision made it clear to Isikoff, Klaidman and Thomas that they should publish.)

McDaniel says she felt they were 85 to 90 percent there but just didn't have 100 percent. While the process was collaborative, the final decision was Rick Smith's. He knew if Newsweek were a daily newspaper, there'd be no question: They would wait one more day.

At about 4:45 p.m., Smith made the call: The magazine would hold--not spike--the story, to buy time for additional reporting. He told McDaniel and others via speaker phone, but also asked to speak personally with Isikoff. ``I want to tell Mike myself," Smith said.

Sunday, January 18: Time: 6:11 a.m. Across the country, reporters and editors who subscribe to the Drudge Report got an e-mail marked ``World Exclusive. Must Credit the Drudge Report."

Matt Drudge, the newly ubiquitous Los Angeles-based online gossip columnist with no journalism credentials, had sent the following ``blockbuster," as he called it: ``Newsweek Kills Story on White House Intern."

``At the last minute, at 6 p.m., on Saturday evening," wrote Drudge, ``Newsweek magazine killed a story that was destined to shake official Washington to its foundation: A White House intern carried on a sexual affair with the President of the United States!

``The Drudge Report has learned that reporter Mike Isikoff developed the story of his career, only to have it spiked by top Newsweek suits hours before publication. A young woman, 23, sexually involved with the love of her life, the President of the United States, since she was a 21-year-old intern at the White House. She was a frequent visitor to a small study just off the Oval Office where she claims to have indulged the president's sexual preference. Reports of the relationship spread in White House quarters, and she was moved to a job at the Pentagon, where she worked until last week."

While the Internet report wasn't entirely accurate--the story hadn't been spiked, but held, and Isikoff hadn't completed a story--it was largely correct, and it played a pivotal role in putting the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal in play. But the story was about much more than sex, and Drudge had nothing about the Starr investigation. ``We didn't stop agonizing about the story Saturday," McDaniel says. ``I got the first phone call at 8:30 Sunday morning about Drudge."

Later that morning, William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, appeared on ABC's ``This Week" and gave the story another push. ``The story in Washington this morning is that Newsweek magazine was going to go with a big story based on tape-recorded conversations, which a woman who was a summer intern at the White House, an intern of [former White House Chief of Staff] Leon Panetta's...." That's all Kristol got out before ABC commentator and longtime Clinton adviser George Stephanopoulos interrupted, questioning the credibility of the Drudge Report.

``No, no, no," Kristol replied. ``They had screaming arguments in Newsweek magazine yesterday. They finally didn't go with the story. It's going to be a question of whether the media is now going to report what are pretty well-validated charges of presidential behavior in the White House."

Host Sam Donaldson interjected that he didn't think the talking heads should disseminate the Drudge Report bombshell without knowing why Newsweek had decided to ``kill" its story.

(Drudge did not return eight phone messages and an e-mail message seeking comment on his role in the Lewinsky saga.)

Doyle McManus, the Los Angeles Times Washington bureau chief, saw the Drudge e-mail and blew it off. If it was about a public figure's sex life, he wasn't interested. ``I looked at that and thought, `If Isikoff wants to pursue that story, he's welcome to it.' "

GO TO PART TWO

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