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From AJR,   May 1998  issue

A Big Exclusive — And a Big Backlash   

In an appearance on"60 Minutes," former White House volunteer Kathleen Willey charges President Clinton with sexual misconduct.

By Kelly Heyboer
Kelly Heyboer is a reporter at the Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey.      

In an appearance on"60 Minutes," former White House volunteer Kathleen Willey charges President Clinton with sexual misconduct.

It should have been a grand slam for "60 Minutes."

The granddaddy of TV newsmagazines had once again taken the lead by snagging the first blockbuster interview of the Clinton sex scandal. It had a woman ready to accuse the president of the United States of groping her in the Oval Office — someone "60 Minutes" Executive Producer Don Hewitt called "very believable" who might finally put a human face on all the legal briefs that had made up much of the scandal coverage.

What followed was anything but a home run. While 28 million Americans sat riveted as former White House volunteer Kathleen Willey told her tale to Ed Bradley March 15, the White House was preparing to suck "60 Minutes" into the spin machine.

The next day the cornerstone of respectable TV journalism found itself on the defensive. Did the show know Willey was negotiating a book deal and talking about selling her story to a supermarket tabloid? What about letters she sent to Clinton after the adleged incident? Was the piece edited to make the president's lawyer, Robert Bennett, look shifty?

People seemed more interested in how the show put the story together than the content of the interview itself. "60 Minutes" Executive Editor Philip Scheffler says the talk about the piece went beyond the saturation point. "Under any circumstance," he says, "the story speaks for itself."

Like many other "60 Minutes" segments, the Willey interview came about after weeks of behind the scenes work by producers. Scheffler declined to elaborate on how the newsmagazine landed the interview, but "60 Minutes" reportedly began pursuing the story last summer, after Willey's name appeared in a Newsweek article. Associate producer Katie Spikes contacted Willey's attorney, and segment producer Michael Radutzky then made five trips in seven weeks to meet with Willey's attorney — and at least once with Willey — in Virginia before nailing the interview.

Bradley interviewed Willey on the Thursday before the broadcast with the understanding, Scheffler says, that no questions were off limits. "60 Minutes" was unaware at the time of Willey's talks with a book publisher and an offer from the tabloid Star to tell her story, he says.

After Bradley's talk with Willey was taped, "60 Minutes" requested an interview with the president's legal team. "We approached Mr. Bennett, the president's attorney," Scheffler says. "He declined, rather directly and vociferously."

But on Saturday, the White House called CBS News' Washington bureau and said it had reconsidered and would like Bennett to appear on the show. "Their initial request was for us to give Mr. Bennett unedited time on the broadcast," Scheffler says. The administration also asked for a preview of the Willey interview to help prepare its response.

Both requests were denied per "60 Minutes" policy, Scheffler says. Given time constraints, Bradley stayed in New York and interviewed Bennett in Washington, D.C., via satellite for 45 minutes on Saturday night.

By Sunday night, when the story aired over two 12-minute segments, the audience saw a well-groomed Willey telling her tale in a softly lit hotel suite, followed by Bennett defending Clinton for three and a half minutes in a stark TV studio.

After it aired Bennett said the interview — which included shots of him hunched over, appearing to talk to the floor — was edited to make him look bad. He called the show "a hit job on the president."

The interview's credibility was dealt another blow the day after it ran, when the White House released a series of 15 letters and notes Willey sent the president. All, including those written after the alleged incident, appeared friendly. "Letters, by the way, Mr. Bennett had in his possession or had in his knowledge..Saturday night," Scheffler says.

It appeared that the White House held off on releasing the letters until the day after the interview to get next-day headlines that might undermine Willey's credibility. (Willey declined to return to the show for a follow-up interview, but told Bradley she thought staying friendly with Clinton was the best way to get a job.)

Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association and former Washington bureau chief for CBS News, says "60 Minutes" seemed to have gotten caught up in the story it was trying to cover and thus became the latest victim of the president's very capable spinmeisters.

wI think a lot of the criticism was inspired by the White House," Cochran says. "This is what's happened repeatedly."

Still, she says, the interview had its faults, such as trying to trick the viewer into thinking Bennett and Bradley were in the same room during their satellite interview. Cochran says it would have been better to disclose that Bennett and Bradley were in different cities. "But that is not always done," she adds.