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

A Scandal Unfolds    

Continued. A behind-the-scenes look at the reporting that triggered the most serious crisis of the Clinton presidency.

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

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MONDAY, JANUARY 19: At 11:52 p.m. Drudge made Monica Lewinsky's name public, posting a report that she had denied a "sexual relationship with President Clinton" in a sworn affidavit in the Paula Jones case.

"By Monday, we found out that Starr was negotiating with Monica Lewinsky and her lawyer all weekend long," Whitaker says. "We learned that Monica genuinely had a story. She wasn't a flake. That would have been enough to run a story, but we are not a daily."

By this time, Washington media circles were buzzing. Something was out there, but no one was quite sure what. At the Post, Whitewater sleuth Schmidt was madly trying to find out but getting nowhere. "I first heard about the Starr investigation on Sunday, the day after the Paula Jones deposition," says Post White House reporter Peter Baker. "But we were not getting very far, and I was spending more time writing followups on Jones."

Jackie Judd of ABC was working the story too, and Time reporters were also trying to nail it down.

Isikoff was still reporting, although he was completely frustrated by his magazine's decision and irritated by the Drudge Report. It marked the second time Drudge had scooped Isikoff on his own story. Last July, Drudge revealed that Newsweek was about to report that Kathleen Willey, at the time a White House volunteer, had come out of the Oval Office disheveled, with her lipstick smeared, and said Clinton had made a pass at her.

Tuesday, January 20: Around 5 p.m., Schmidt, by now on her fifth day of chasing the elusive development, approached National Editor Bill Hamilton and other editors. "I have this," she told them. "I need to get some confirmation and stuff, but I think I can get it." She knew then that Starr had obtained authorization to expand his investigation. "That's when it was clear we'd have a story for the next day's paper," says Leonard Downie Jr., the Post's executive editor. Schmidt, Baker and U.S. District Court reporter Toni Locy were fully mobilized. "Sue came up with the obstruction of justice stuff," Baker says. "She's an amazing reporter. We spent the rest of the evening until one or two in the morning chasing it down, running it by everyone we could."

The triple-bylined story didn't make the first edition, which goes to press at 9:45 p.m. But it was ready by the time the presses started rolling on the second edition around midnight. "It just took a while to reach everybody," Downie says. "What I was pleased with was our on-the-record responses from lawyers, particularly Monica Lewinsky's lawyer, which clearly confirmed the story."

As it does with all stories, the Post kept its account off the Washington Post-Los Angeles Times News Service and the Post's Web site until it went to press. About three minutes after midnight, the story appeared online, according to Douglas Feaver, the Post's Webmaster. That, says Baker, is where many at the White House first saw it.

At 12:19 a.m., the news service issued an advisory, and the story itself moved five minutes later.

"I didn't feel a bit nervous," Schmidt recalls. "I knew it was going to be huge.... But I wasn't nervous about the story being wrong."

(A few days later, Schmidt, whose first job at the Post was as a copy editor, got a high-five and a hug from former Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, who came into the newsroom to congratulate her. "That," Schmidt says, "means more to me than almost anything else.")

Only a few blocks away from the Post, things were also hopping at the Los Angeles Times Washington bureau. Neither paper knew that the other was working on the Lewinsky story, but the Times was moving ahead on it as well. Late Tuesday afternoon, Times investigative reporter David Willman showed up with the essence of the scandal, McManus says. Willman and reporter Ron Ostrow pushed their sources. "I had reason to suspect that something very important was up," says Willman, who has broken several Whitewater-related stories. "Based on those suspicions, I kept trying to develop information to get the story."

McManus decided to see how much the reporters could confirm before determining whether they had enough for a story. "Within 45 minutes, Willman and Ostrow have multiple sources confirming it, and we have the name of the young woman," McManus says. "I decided we have to go with the story about Starr's broadening mandate and suborning perjury, and we have to explain the sexual relationship."

Who had the story first? The Post's version went out on the wire at 12:24 a.m., the Times' at 2 a.m. "We had the story the same day they had the story," McManus says. "We had it independently, without any help from them. To be fair, their story had some details that ours didn't."

McManus had some trouble selling the story to editors in Los Angeles, he says. "I got on the phone that night and had to walk them through the story," he says. "I said, 'I think this is an atom bomb.' It was striking to me how that was something self-evident to us here and not out there."

ABC News' Judd, a general assignment reporter who has covered Whitewater, was also in hot pursuit. By 12:45 a.m., Judd and a number of investigative producers had gathered enough information to report on ABC radio and on ABC's online service that Starr had expanded his investigation to include the possible perjury and obstruction of justice charges. The story made its TV debut at 2 a.m. on the overnight news program "World News Now." Judd had hoped to air her report on "Nightline" late Tuesday, but it wasn't quite ready. "Our primary goal was to absolutely have confirmation," says ABC spokesperson Eileen Murphy, who was taking calls for Judd. "Honestly, it was more important to get it right than get it first."

Meanwhile, editor Bill Reed, trolling the wires at the Philadelphia Inquirer, saw the Post story. He alerted Sandra Wood, associate managing editor for production and the person in charge at the time, just as she was about to go home for the night at around 1:30 a.m. They read the story closely and decided not to run such an explosive piece based on another news organization's unnamed sources containing allegations the Inquirer couldn't substantiate.

"If another news organization has sources that we do not know and cannot evaluate, it makes sense that we not publish such a story, especially when it deals with possible criminal behavior by the president of the United States," said Inquirer Deputy Editor Gene Foreman.

Newsweek knew the Post was going to print a story. It toyed with the notion of putting something online. "Since we didn't know what people had and what they were going to run with," says Whitaker, "we decided to wait and see." McDaniel went to sleep around 11:30 p.m. At about 1:30 a.m., a colleague from the Post called McDaniel at home to tell her the bad news.

McDaniel stayed up the rest of the night planning Newsweek's strategy. She didn't bother to call any of her colleagues; she wanted them to get a good night's sleep.

Wednesday, January 21: Washington Post subscribers woke up to a front page story in the upper right-hand corner: "Starr Investigates Whether Clinton Told Intern to Deny Affair." The Los Angeles Times was more subdued; it ran its account below the fold.

The frenzy had officially begun. Journalists began what would become a 10-day period of reporting at levels of unimaginable intensity. Reporters became instant celebrities, and any pundit with five free minutes could take his or her pick of television venues.

The Post's Peter Baker got his first page at 3:30 a.m. from a TV network trying to book an appearance. He'd walked in the door an hour and a half earlier. "Actually I did not go to sleep right away," Baker says. "It was a weird evening. Obviously the gravity of what we were writing about hadn't hit me. We'd been so busy just trying to fill in all the holes."

It hit him when he got home: This was a story that might bring down the president of the United States. Baker declined the television request. He and Schmidt chose to stay off TV and concentrate on their reporting. (In fact, several at the Post were delighted to see Newsweek reporters on television. It meant they weren't working the story.)

On Wednesday morning, ABC's "Good Morning America," thanks to Judd, owned the television story. Five of its 11 segments were devoted to the latest Clinton scandal, according to Andrew Tyndall of The Tyndall Report. NBC's "Today" had to settle for news updates. All across Washington, the troops were being marshaled to catch up to one of the biggest stories of the decade.

Michael Oreskes, the New York Times' Washington bureau chief, had seen the Post's Lewinsky-free first edition. "If it had been in there, we would have found a way to match it," Oreskes says. His deputy, Adam Clymer, called him at home Wednesday morning to tell him about what the Post had. Oreskes began lining up reporters.

The Times hadn't known about the story before it broke. But it quickly got into the game, breaking stories about Lewinsky visiting the White House three dozen times after moving to the Pentagon in April 1996 and about what Clinton's personal secretary was said to be telling investigators.

Oreskes saw the story in two parts. First, there was Starr's investigation and the White House reaction; the political story. But he also needed a team to find out what had transpired at the White House while Lewinsky was there. He immediately assigned his premier investigative reporters: Jill Abramson, Jeff Gerth, Don Van Natta Jr., Stephen Labaton.

He had one crucial rule for all his reporters, he says: If they didn't know something as a result of their own reporting, they couldn't use it. He knew as soon as the story broke there would be a torrent of gossip, rumor, innuendo and misinformation. "The hardest and most important thing about this story was not putting rumor or hearsay or secondhand reporting into the newspaper," he says. "We certainly left a lot more out of the newspaper than we put in."

At the Wall Street Journal Bureau Chief Alan Murray saw his paper beaten once again on a story involving sex. That didn't trouble him unduly. "We decided some time ago that we weren't going to devote our limited investigative resources to the sex story," Murray says. "You look at all the big sex-related stories in the last six years and we were slow. We were slow on Anita Hill. Slow on Gennifer Flowers. We didn't write about Paula Jones until she actually took legal action. That's a fairly consistent reaction and one I'm proud of."

The Journal, instead, had decided to put its resources into aggressively pursuing campaign finance abuses.

Nonetheless, when he read that Starr was investigating the president and had wired Linda Tripp to tape Lewinsky, he knew this was hardly something the Journal could ignore. "We jumped on it and confirmed it with our own sources," Murray says. "It was pretty easy to find out it was true." But where to go next was another matter. "When you have other media outlets willing to print based on second and thirdhand sources, it's hard to compete. It's inevitable that the people with looser sourcing standards will get into print first. We decided to take a deep breath and realize that maybe we would not be first on this story."

(Less than a week later, the Journal would rush a story onto its Web site without comment from key principals. It subsequently had to retract the story.)

Time magazine's Duffy also had concentrated his bureau's investigative resources on campaign finance. But he gave the burgeoning sex scandal a full-court press after it broke. In its first issue after the story erupted on the Clinton scandal, the magazine was forced to credit rival Newsweek six times.

PBS' "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" had a long-scheduled interview with President Clinton the day the story broke. Lehrer had intended to ask the president about the Pope's visit to Cuba, Iraq, the Asian financial crisis and the upcoming State of the Union address.

Initially set for noon, the interview kept being pushed later in the day as the White House absorbed the punishing news. By 3:30, Lehrer and Clinton were talking, and the first 10 minutes were devoted to Lehrer's questions about the Lewinsky allegations. "NewsHour" had run an ad in the Washington Post that morning promoting the Clinton interview and had sent out faxes to television columnists the day before. By early Tuesday afternoon, says director of communications Bruce Lott, "NewsHour" had notified most of the major news organizations and had made tentative arrangements to feed taped video to the TV networks. All, of course, before the scandal had taken off.

The initial arrangement was that no one could air more than a minute of the interview before 7 p.m., when it would appear on PBS. But ABC broke into its regular programming at 3:35 p.m. to go live with the Clinton interview for longer than a minute. Back at "NewsHour" headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, at public television station WETA, a court reporter was transcribing the interview via a live feed. "NewsHour" put it on its Web site and began faxing transcripts to media organizations around the country. The Associated Press had moved a story before the 45-minute interview had ended. The "NewsHour" Web site had a record day, attracting three times as many visitors as usual.

"It was very hectic, very intense," Lott says, "as you can imagine it would be in any newsroom when you have an entire day of knowing the biggest story in the country, if not the world, has basically just fallen in your lap."

The story that had fallen into Lehrer's lap that Wednesday was the same one that had slipped out of Newsweek's hands. "Initially, I felt like shit," says Managing Editor Whitaker. "We all felt that way, in a way as much for Mike as for Newsweek. We all felt we'd acted responsibly on Saturday and it was just a question of our deadline. But Mike deserved to get credit for breaking the story since he'd been on to it." Whitaker says he was annoyed on Isikoff's behalf that ABC was doing a promo bragging about breaking the story.

To recover, top Newsweek editors weighed whether to put the story online. Only once before--when the magazine obtained an exclusive interview with a Chinese dissident--had it published something in cyberspace first. Yet the saga of the president and the intern would move with blinding velocity. Others had the outline; Newsweek had the details. "We concluded, 'Look, it's a huge story and we have something exclusive to add, and it's not going to hold,' " Whitaker recalls. " 'Let's do it.' "

Isikoff and Thomas began furiously cobbling together a narrative, taking advantage of months of reporting. "I had drafted a piece the previous week," Isikoff says. "But that's all it was, a draft. But the essentials were there."

The essentials came from Isikoff's tireless pursuit of allegations of sexual misconduct by Clinton. Isikoff had long believed there was more to the Paula Jones story and that it shouldn't be dropped. Newsweek let him keep going. "I just knew that very few people in this town who are not part of the organized right-wing obsessives were going to pursue this," Isikoff says. "Reporters were not going to touch this story. They're all queasy about it."

In March of 1997, Isikoff went unannounced to Linda Tripp's office at the Pentagon, where she was a public affairs spokesperson working closely with Lewinsky. (Isikoff won't say what led him to Tripp.) Tripp, he says, took him out to a courtyard, where she smoked a cigarette. "She was extremely reluctant to talk, but I got enough body signals to know she knew something. But she wasn't going to cough it up right away." He saw her again. Tripp told him that White House volunteer Kathleen Willey had told her that Clinton had made a pass at her.

"Remember, at this time, there had been no credible account of any misbehavior of the president in the White House," Isikoff says. "Here was Linda Tripp, the Pentagon public affairs officer, a career civil servant, by name, on the record saying, 'Here's an account of something I witnessed involving the president.' I thought it would be a big story. But it wasn't. It got no bounce whatsoever."

After Tripp's account was published in Newsweek in August, it was inevitable that she would be subpoenaed to testify in Jones' suit. She also was upset that Clinton lawyer Robert Bennett had raised doubts about her credibility. In the fall she decided to secretly tape-record her conversations with Lewinsky.

In October, Isikoff met with Tripp and book agent and Clinton antagonist Lucianne Goldberg to discuss the tapes in which Lewinsky alleges she's having an affair with the president. But Isikoff refused to listen to the tapes.

"I declined to listen because it was clear to me that this was an ongoing process," Isikoff says. "What I say might influence what happens on the next tape, and I become part of the taping process. I wanted the story. I thought it was fascinating. But I knew one way to blow it up would be to be seen as involved in surreptitiously taping the subject."

Isikoff did check out Tripp's allegation that packages and messages had gone back and forth between Lewinsky and Clinton. Isikoff tracked down the records through a Washington courier service. But he didn't have enough for a story until Starr got involved.

And so, as he and Thomas frantically prepared a story for cyberspace, Isikoff had notebooks full of information to sift through. As they wrote, McDaniel watched closely, looking for holes, adding new reporting and keeping New York informed. "It was as hard work as I've ever done," McDaniel says. "There was so much flooding in.... And the phone was ringing off the hook. Every reporter, editor, librarian and assistant was in some way working on the story." (Newsweek would later send a bottle of Mo't & Chandon champagne to everyone in the bureau who'd worked on the story and give Isikoff a handsome bonus.)

By 8 p.m., after the lawyers had vetted it, Isikoff's story was live on the Internet. It was 4,000 words, far more than would have appeared in the magazine, Whitaker says. "The ironic thing is by Wednesday, because things had advanced and because the story was breaking," says Whitaker, "we were able to be much more authoritative on Wednesday than we would have been on Saturday."

There was only one problem with breaking the story online: Newsweek doesn't have its own Web site. Instead, the newsweekly puts its copy on a proprietary site, America Online, which means only paying AOL customers can access it. Jennifer Bensko, senior editor for Newsweek Interactive, and others quickly realized that many Americans would be frustrated if they couldn't read Newsweek's story, especially after it was prominently mentioned elsewhere in the media. So Newsweek decided to put the story up on the Washington Post's site, Washingtonpost. com. (The Post and Newsweek have common ownership, although they compete fiercely for news.)

Meanwhile, Newsweek's public relations team shifted into high gear, faxing press releases announcing publication of the story and calling shows to offer Isikoff, McDaniel, Klaidman and Thomas to television programs that night. It was hardly necessary. Once the Newsweek details were posted on the Internet, producers were begging for magazine staffers to appear on their programs.

Thomas was dispatched to "Larry King Live," and Isikoff, who has a contractual arrangement with MSNBC, appeared on the news channel's "The News with Brian Williams." Although exhausted after only two hours sleep and one of the most intense news days of her life, at 9:15 p.m. McDaniel went to ABC to discuss Isikoff's story on "PrimeTime Live." "I needed makeup badly," she says.

WHAT ENSUED IN THE NEXT WEEK and a half for the major media players in the Clinton drama was a whirlwind of relentless reporting, pontificating and promoting that meant 18-hour days, sleepless nights, adrenaline rushes and cold pizza. "All through the last 10 days, the sort of ethical and source issues we might have spent two days discussing, we've been having to decide in 20 minutes," says the Los Angeles Times' McManus.

Each night editors and reporters throughout the nation had to decide whether someone else's story or the latest tip checked out sufficiently to be published or aired, with very mixed results.

At the Washington Post, the energy level was incredibly high, the hierarchical chain of command flattened a bit, report those in the newsroom. Special "Clinton coverage" meetings were convened each day at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. Post reporter and Clinton biographer David Maraniss, off on a book project, was summoned to active duty.

And the story was good for business. Newsweek upped its press run by 50 percent for the February 2 issue and by 25 percent for the February 9 issue. Time published an extra 100,000 copies of its first week of Clinton stories. USA Today printed an extra 500,000 copies of its weekend edition after the story first broke, although that was partly due to the Super Bowl. Web sites offering news set records for hits.

At the networks, anchors rushed back from Havana, where they thought they already were covering a big story, the Pope's groundbreaking visit to Cuba. ABC's Ted Koppel returned on Wednesday morning, January 21, and for a week focused each "Nightline" on the Clinton scandal. By January 22, ABC's Peter Jennings, CBS' Dan Rather and NBC's Tom Brokaw were on U.S. soil for that night's newscasts.

There are 19 minutes of news on each of the three major network nightly newscasts--a possible total of 57 minutes combined. On Wednesday, January 21, 28.5 minutes were devoted to Clinton, 22 minutes to Cuba. By Friday, the ratio was 46 minutes for Clinton, five for Cuba. "Any time you get over 30 minutes a day combined on the nightly newscast on one story, it's a great story," says Tyndall, who closely monitors network coverage. "In the last 10 years, only one inside Washington story got more coverage than this did during the first week: Clarence Thomas."

At Newsweek, on the Thursday after the story broke, Klaidman, Isikoff, McDaniel, Thomas, chief political correspondent Howard Fineman and columnist Eleanor Clift fanned out, appearing on television or radio 40 times between 5 a.m. and 9 p.m. Isikoff's phone was ringing so much Newsweek hired a temporary secretary to screen calls. "It's been wild," says Isikoff. "I can't even get any work done."

Because of his relationship with MSNBC, Isikoff was limited as to where he could appear. But he did decide to do the David Letterman show on January 26.

"I had qualms about going on," he admits. "You shouldn't be yucking it up about this stuff with the president in public. But at the end of the day, I'm only going to get one chance to be on Letterman."



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