Nearly two years after the press was accused of sensationalism in covering charges that Bill Clinton had cheated on his wife, some reporters found themselves back on the beat.
This time, however, a publication leading the investigation wasn't a supermarket tabloid with a fat checkbook – it was the Los Angeles Times, the same newspaper whose Washington bureau chief, Jack Nelson, had sharply criticized the media's scandal-driven 1992 campaign coverage.
The controversy centered on accusations by four Arkansas state troopers that Clinton used them to conceal extramarital affairs as governor and president-elect, then offered them federal jobs in exchange for their silence. The allegations prompted a lively debate among Times editors over whether they were credible, a dispute Nelson says critics exaggerated in charging that the newspaper held the story for reasons other than its merits.
The troopers' attorney, long-time Clinton nemesis Cliff Jackson, first informed the Times about the charges last August, telling reporter William Rempel that the men were fearful of losing their jobs and would speak only on background. National Editor Norman Miller says he and Rempel agreed that they would investigate but not publish anything unless at least two of the men agreed to speak on the record.
A few days after calling the Times, Jackson also contacted the conservative American Spectator, offering reporter David Brock the same access. Jackson says he wanted to ensure that another publication knew of the charges in case the "liberal" Times decided not to publish a story.
The Times wouldn't make that decision for more than three months, even after two of the troopers agreed to be identified in October, and editors sent reporter Douglas Frantz to Little Rock to look for corroborating evidence. "There was a period of nearly two months where we had this deliberately slow and painstaking reporting to try and check this out the best we could," Miller explains.
In Washington, Jack Nelson says he learned of the allegations in mid-December, a week before the paper published its story, and that the charges sounded a lot like what had already been reported during the campaign. He suggested Rempel and Frantz do more digging.
But the competitive pressure was building. Spectator editors sent advance copies of Brock's 11,000-word piece to select reporters, and an impatient Jackson allowed CNN, ABC and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to interview the troopers. During the 48 hours after the troopers' appearance on CNN, many publications and broadcast news programs repeated the allegations, citing the cable network or the Spectator. "The Times was handed an exclusive, and they fiddle-farted it away," Jackson says.
At the same time, rumors began circulating in Washington that the outspoken Nelson was threatening to quit unless the Times story was spiked, an accusation Nelson vehemently denies. "The thought never even occurred to me," he says. He claims the rumor originated with journalists such as Brit Hume of ABC, who writes for the Spectator. Appearing on PBS' "Washington Week in Review," Nelson alleged "a conspiracy, in my opinion, by right wingers.. to press this newspaper into running this story before it was ready to."
Hume calls Nelson's charges "bizarre" and jokes that "Jack Nelson was seeing the same therapist as Bobby Ray Inman." The White House reporter says he asked colleagues about the rumor and repeated it to his superiors because "if [Nelson] was threatening to quit over something, that might mean there was something terribly flawed about the story."
When Times editors finally decided to print Rempel and Frantz's 4,500-word story on Tuesday, December 21, the White House's weekend denial of the allegations had already received widespread coverage. Miller says the Times wanted to give the White House ample time to respond to questions the paper had submitted the week before. "We had spent months on this story, it was highly sensitive and we just weren't going to be stampeded," he says.
The Times article was carefully crafted to put the accusations into perspective, noting that they were considered by many people to be newsworthy because of the "widening belief that personal character may be as important to a leader's performance as political party or ideology." It also concluded that while similar charges had been covered during the campaign, "the breadth and detail of the troopers' statements.. give their allegations special impact."
Others weren't so sure.
One of the few facts that reporters could substantiate, says Washington Post political reporter Dan Balz, was that Clinton had many phone conversations with women other than his wife. "What did that tell you about Clinton that hadn't already been out there?" he asks.
Some critics cite the troopers' interest in a book deal and Jackson's animosity toward Clinton as reasons to be suspicious. The Wall Street Journal's Washington bureau chief, Alan Murray, says the book contract angle "seems to me to be very questionable circumstances under which to write a story like this."
Miller says he's still smarting from such barbs. "It's ironic to me that the press is now criticized 30 years after the fact for not reporting on these numerous affairs that President Kennedy had," he says. "It's somehow wrong in the view of some people when it's reported contemporaneously – even when it goes far beyond sex and goes into conduct in office."
Regardless, coverage of the allegations all but disappeared within a few weeks.