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Introduction: Scandal in the News, Then and Now
IT IS NOW ACCEPTED HISTORY THAT KENNEDY JUMPED CASUALLY FROM BED TO BED WITH A WIDE VARIETY OF WOMEN. IT WAS NOT ACCEPTED HISTORY THEN -- DURING THE FIVE YEARS THAT I KNEW HIM.
-- Ben Bradlee, A Good Life
Late September in New York is a traffic and protocol nightmare. From all over the world, presidents and prime ministers, accompanied by foreign ministers and their many minions, arrive for the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. Their limousines crisscross mid-Manhattan, adding to the usual, suffocating traffic. Aided by the FBI, the police provide the necessary protection. They are everywhere, standing in front of UN missions or sitting on horseback or in patrol cars looking at the passing parade for anyone or anything even slightly suspicious. Often, in triangular squadrons of motorcycles, they escort the VIPs from one corner of central Manhattan to another. It's an urban symphony of horns, sirens, and shrieking tires that, no matter the time of day, never seems to lose its urgency. The worst bottleneck, of course, is always near the United Nations, where cabs join the battle for every inch of maneuverable space. It's really quite a sight.
On September 20, 1963, two months before he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, President John F. Kennedy decided that he would not stay at the Waldorf-Astoria, temporary home for so many of the other world leaders. For reasons of his own, he fancied the more fashionable Carlyle Hotel, farther north, which conveyed the comforting impression that it was situated on another planet, light-years removed from the midtown mess. During the president's visit, the usually elegant main entrance on East 76th Street was -- for reasons of security -- flanked by wooden barricades, holding back television crews, reporters, onlookers eager for a glimpse of Kennedy. Around the corner on Madison Avenue, an unobtrusive side entrance was generally ignored.
For easy and quick identification, reporters who covered the president wore White House press badges. They were able to enter the Carlyle without much trouble. Some of us, with the help of the White House travel office, even managed to get lodging there. After filing our stories, a number of us in those years would usually gather late in the evening for some journalistic braggadocio -- who got the better picture of the president? who got the better scoop? who wrote the best lead? -- and a drink or two at the hotel bar off Madison Avenue.
After the president finished addressing the Eighteenth General Assembly, the principal purpose of his visit to New York, he returned to the Carlyle for a round of bilateral talks, a formal dinner, and, much later in the evening, a clandestine rendezvous with an unscheduled visitor. I, in the meantime, had returned to the headquarters of CBS News, which was then located on Madison Avenue at 52nd Street. Not too many months before, I had finished an absorbing, if somewhat exhausting, three-year assignment in Moscow, and -- as a reward of sorts -- I had been transferred to Washington and named diplomatic correspondent, the first ever appointed by a network. My assignment on this occasion was not so much Kennedy as his diplomacy, which focused on mending relations with the Soviet Union after the terrifying missile crisis in Cuba the year before. What I reported that evening in a couple of radio and television spots about Berlin and arms control has vanished, and deservedly so, into some distant archive; but what I remember about my brief encounter with the president's late night visitor underscores how dramatically American journalism has changed in the last thirty to forty years, particularly in its coverage of the private lives of public officials.
After dinner with a few CBS colleagues at a favorite restaurant, I jumped into a taxi for the ride up Madison Avenue to the Carlyle. I remember the ride and the time -- just past 11 p.m. -- because the driver was then listening to an hourly newscast featuring one of the spots I had taped earlier in the day at the United Nations. I got out at the side entrance and walked into the hotel. To my left was the bar, my ultimate destination, and diagonally to my right were two doors leading to the main lobby. Though I didn't see it on a recent visit to the Carlyle, I recall that there was also a private elevator just to the right of the entryway. Immediately, as I entered, I felt as if I had barged into a private party -- the wrong person arriving at the wrong time.
I recognized two of the Secret Servicemen usually detailed to protect the president, one standing right in front of me and the other to my right. They knew me, and I knew them. We had been on a number of the same trips, and I had seen them around the White House. I smiled at one of them, but he not only did not return the smile -- his face froze into a mask of sudden panic. He looked past me at someone who was just then being escorted into the small lobby. As I turned to see who had caught his eye, he pushed me and I fell hard against the door to the bar, ending up in a painful crouch on the floor. I looked up just long enough to see the back of a woman with stunningly attractive legs entering the elevator. I heard the clicking of her heels. I saw two other men from the president's Secret Service detail with her, one in front, the other behind, as the doors slowly closed. I looked up for an explanation, but the agent who had knocked me to the floor had by this time vanished. So too had his colleague. The entire episode took no more than ten seconds.
I joined a few reporters at the bar. I must have been more than just a bit shaken, but I didn't tell them anything. After a few minutes of stories about scoops and counterscoops, I looked back at the door and saw the agent beckoning to me. I excused myself and went back into the lobby. "I'm sorry," the agent whispered. "I'm really sorry." The agent, barely audible, said that he should never have pushed me, that he had made a terrible mistake, and he hoped that I would forgive him. "Of course," I muttered, "but, my God, what happened? Why did you push me? Who was that woman?" The agent did not answer. He looked up at the ceiling, as if appealing to higher, perhaps presidential, authority, and shook his head. He seemed totally flustered and embarrassed. Again, he said only, "I'm sorry," and left.
In my room a while later, still hurting from the fall, I thought about complaining to Pierre Salinger, the president's spokesman. The Secret Service's job, after all, was to protect the president, not to push or bully a reporter. I decided to do nothing. I thought it would be better for me and CBS News to store this grievance in a future file -- one day, that agent might be able to help me with a story. He owed me.
As I write about this incident more than thirty-seven years later, I am amazed not by my decision to do nothing but by the fact, quite undeniable, that never for one moment did I even consider pursuing and reporting what I had seen and experienced that evening: that U.S. Secret Service agents, normally detailed to protect the president, had escorted an attractive woman into the Carlyle, presumably for a rendezvous with Kennedy (who else but the president would concern them?), and then, to protect their embarrassing secret, one of the agents had for a moment panicked and pushed a reporter to the floor only to apologize later for his inexcusable behavior.
It was my judgment at the time that such an incident was simply not "news." Although there has never been one commonly accepted definition of news, it has usually been defined broadly as what's new, what's relevant, what's interesting, what's timely, and what sells. In those days, the possibility of a presidential affair, while titillating, was not considered "news" by the mainstream press -- not when the Cuban missile crisis was still a fresh and frightening memory of the nuclear dangers of the Cold War, not when racial tensions were again clawing at the soul of the nation. Though tabloids existed, those were not tabloid times; 1963 was not a year for stories about Kennedy's sex life, even if rumors persisted that he was engaging in "extracurricular screwing," as Ben Bradlee, the former editor of The Washington Post, spoke of it in his memoirs.
Many years later, my friend R. W. Apple, Jr., recalled a similar experience at the Carlyle Hotel in 1963. He was then a young reporter at The New York Times, and he was assigned to do "legwork" on a Kennedy visit to New York -- meaning in this case that he went to the Carlyle to see what, if anything, was happening, and then to report back to his editor. A "legman" didn't write the story, he just observed and reported it. His information was then included in someone else's story or simply dropped. On this particular evening, Apple saw a "beautiful woman being escorted to Kennedy's suite." Excited by the implication, he returned to the Times office on West 43rd Street and told Sheldon Binn, the chief assignment editor of the Metro desk. Binn listened impatiently. "Apple," he said, "you're supposed to report on political and diplomatic policies, not girlfriends. No story." And so it was.
But even if I had decided to defy the conventional news standards of the day and tried to report that the president had a secret rendezvous at the Carlyle Hotel with a beautiful woman who was not his wife, what exactly would I have broadcast? Did I know for an absolute fact that the agents had escorted the woman to his suite? No. But I'd have bet the kitchen sink that they had. Did I see her face? Did I know her name? No. Was there, possibly, an innocent explanation? Could she have been just a friend, a relative? No. Friends and relatives were not secretly hustled into a back elevator late at night; they would have entered the main lobby at a proper time. Anything was theoretically possible, but at the time, given what I had seen and heard, I knew in my gut that the president was having an illicit affair and the Secret Service was complicit in arranging it and hushing it up.
Let's take the scenario one step further and assume for a moment that I actually had written and submitted the story to my CBS editors. Was there any chance that they would have cleared it for broadcast? I am certain that the answer would have been no. They would almost certainly have questioned my professional judgment. "What's happened to Kalb? He used to be a good reporter."
In other words, the story was not written, and it would not have been approved for broadcast, because it did not satisfy the accepted journalistic standards of the day. Between then and now, these standards have dramatically changed. Now, I suspect, my story would quickly dominate the Internet, provide fodder for radio and television talk shows, work its way into the mainstream media, and then assault the front page on the strength of an ensuing string of allegations, presidential denials, White House cover-ups, and journalistic investigations.
How is this change in journalistic standards to be explained? How could the press have ignored Kennedy's escapades but blasted Bill Clinton for his? The answer is that journalism has changed dramatically in this forty-year period, just as the nation has changed. The business of the news has been radically recast. The technology has been revolutionized. And many journalists have been transformed into national celebrities and political players -- all in step with a succession of crises that jolted the nation beyond recognition. Kennedy was assassinated. African Americans went into the streets and demanded equal rights. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., were both murdered. Richard Nixon won twice but still was forced to resign, one step ahead of almost certain impeachment after the Watergate scandal uncovered the lies and deception in his administration. In a small country called Vietnam, half a world away, the United States lost the first war in its history. These two factors in particular -- Watergate and Vietnam -- combined to sour popular attitudes toward the presidency. Trust in government (and other large institutions) declined in the public and in the press.
Reporters came to assume that officials lied routinely. Nixon once felt the need to tell the American people that he was not "a crook." Presidents were no longer held in especially high regard. They became more human, more accessible. By 1987, a reporter crossed a once uncrossable line by asking a presidential candidate if he had ever committed adultery. Within twenty-four hours, Gary Hart had to withdraw from the race. Only five years later, during the 1992 campaign, adultery blossomed into a major story when a tabloid disclosed that Clinton had had a long-running affair with a woman from Arkansas. And once the story was "out there," it was quickly everywhere. Even Nightline discussed it, an indication of changing public attitudes toward personal privacy.
By the mid-1990s, media mergers flowered in an expanding economy. Huge corporations continued to acquire news companies and networks and create global conglomerates more interested in the bottom line than in public service. By the turn of the century, AOL and Time Warner capped this trend by concluding a $182 billion deal, combining the older business of news with the new demands of cyberspace. The new news cycle was now a twenty-four-hour-a-day challenge. There was an endless demand for talk -- filling time was the burning need. Accountability seemed nonexistent. Competition among the cable channels became ferocious. The maximization of profit drove the news business, and old worries about standards fell by the wayside. As a governing concept, journalistic integrity suddenly sounded quaint.
It could be argued, of course, that for most of American history, except for the decades of the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War, serious journalism was a rare happening. With a few notable exceptions, most reporters used to wallow happily in gossip, slander, and sensationalism. That was the norm. James Thomson Callender, a Virginia "newsmonger," to quote New York Times columnist William Safire, claimed that President Thomas Jefferson had several children with "the luscious Sally," one of his slaves. Grover Cleveland fathered an illegitimate daughter, and during his first presidential campaign the press gloried in a catchy political jingle: "Ma, ma, where's my pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha." During World War I, Warren Harding, then a senator with presidential ambitions, inspired some gossipy copy when he persuaded the Republican National Committee to send one of his lovers on an all-expenses-paid trip to Japan.
The post-Cold War period of the 1990s has seen a return to this earlier tradition. With old-fashioned abandon now buttressed by new technologies that make possible virtually instantaneous communication, many reporters seem to revel in the rebirth of scandal and sensational coverage. The O. J. Simpson trial, Princess Diana's life, loves, and death, and the Lewinsky scandal defined the news of the nineties. New York Times columnist Frank Rich labeled these "dramatic 24/7 TV miniseries" as "mediathons" or "total national immersions." He thought of these stories as being "played out in real time before a mass audience." In this way, a mediathon was seen as different from other big stories; it was all-consuming and inescapable, it affected the viewer just as the viewer's reaction fed back into the mediathon in a modern variation of the Heisenberg principle. A mediathon changed the flow of history.
When the story broke on January 21, 1998, that President Clinton had had an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, the press plunged into the scandal, disclosing every tasteless detail. Its self-justifying explanation was that it had no choice: a criminal investigation had begun against the president of the United States and "the story" had to be covered.
How did this mediathon unfold? That is the central question in this book, which focuses on thirteen days of scandal coverage in January 1998. Many other books have examined the role of the independent counsel, the White House spin doctors, the president's friends, the combative lawyers, the "vast right-wing conspiracy," the Whitewater land deal in Little Rock, the tale of Monica Lewinsky, the congressional impeachment proceeding, and, no doubt, many more books will be written and published in the years ahead. The Lewinsky scandal stained the presidency, the country, and the Clinton legacy, which seriously damaged Vice President Gore's 2000 campaign. It is not a surprise that it has spawned a literary industry. Until now, though, the role of the journalist, a key player in this drama, has not yet been the subject of serious analysis. Whether it was Michael Isikoff or Susan Schmidt or Jackie Judd, the journalist was the indispensable messenger carrying the story from one side of the Washington battlefield to another. The journalist informed and inflamed the public. The journalist saw old standards fall and new ones created for the occasion. The Lewinsky scandal marks an important chapter in the history of American journalism.
I have chosen to examine the recent history of Washington journalism through a sharply focused lens: thirteen days in the life of a story that would preoccupy the nation for the next thirteen months. The thirteen days can be divided into three parts: the buildup from January 13 to January 20; the breaking of the story on January 21; and the aftermath from January 22 to January 25, 1998. I have basically devoted a chapter to each day, hoping in this way to X-ray the Washington press corps. Several questions emerge:
There are no easy answers to these questions, which cut to the very heart of contemporary American journalism. I have tried to answer them by taking the reader into the journalistic process during a hot and demanding story. I have read the literature, done the research often based on content and script analysis, and I have interviewed hundreds of Washington reporters who covered the scandal.
Journalism is too important, too crucial for our democracy, to be left unexamined. I know from personal experience that Washington reporters have notoriously thin skins. They don't take criticism easily. Who does? If they read my analysis as criticism, I hope they will understand that it is rendered with continuing admiration and affection.
For all other readers, concerned about the media's growing power and impact on society, wondering about its value system, its sense of responsibility and ethics, and genuinely baffled about how this eight-hundred-pound gorilla works, here is my report on one scandalous story.
Copyright © 2001 by Marvin Kalb
Chapter 5: Enter Mr. Drudge: January 18, 1998
"IF KRISTOL WANTS TO GO WITH SOMETHING BASED ON DRUDGE, THAT'S HIS PROBLEM."
-- Michael Isikoff, Newsweek
"IF THAT'S THE KIND OF STORY ISIKOFF IS WRITING, THEN HE'S WELCOME TO IT."
-- Doyle McManus, Los Angeles Times
The two-tiered, bold-faced headline on the Drudge Report's "**World Exclusive**" read:
NEWSWEEK KILLS STORY ON WHITE HOUSE INTERN
BLOCKBUSTER REPORT: 23-YEAR-OLD,
FORMER WHITE HOUSE INTERN
SEX RELATIONSHIP WITH PRESIDENT
As with other Drudge exclusives that might trigger lawsuits, the young "scandalmonger," to borrow William Safire's word, framed his story as a report on the media. Drudge began: "At the last minute, at 6 P.M. on Saturday evening, 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!" He continued, "The Drudge Report has learned that reporter Michael Isikoff developed the story of his career, only to have it spiked by top Newsweek suits hours before publication."
Drudge's rendition had all the elements of a racy television soap opera: a two-year-long romance, an intern's visits to the White House "after midnight," "a small study just off the Oval Office where she claims to have indulged the president's sexual preference," "a secretary named Betty Curry [sic]," "love letters," and "tapes of intimate phone conversations."
Of the hundreds of "**World Exclusives**" Drudge had written and released since he started the Drudge Report in 1995, none had the impact of this hastily composed bombshell.
When Isikoff awoke on Sunday morning, his wife told him that Matt Drudge had called. Suddenly Isikoff understood that his exclusive might no longer be exclusive. The phone rang.
It was his friend David Tell, an editorial writer for the conservative Weekly Standard, who was, he explained, only doing his boss's bidding. Editor Bill Kristol, who was at the time a regular panelist on the ABC show This Week, had asked him to check with Isikoff on a middle-of-the-night item on the Drudge Report claiming that Newsweek had spiked his story about a sexual relationship between the president and an intern. Was that true? And what if anything could he tell Kristol, who seemed intent on mentioning it on the broadcast? Isikoff's finely tuned sense of conspiracy led him to the quick and, for the most part, accurate conclusion that either Moody or Goldberg, frustrated by Newsweek's decision to delay publication of the Lewinsky scandal, had told Conway, the most active member of the lawyers' cabal, and Conway had then leaked it to Drudge, just as he had leaked the Willey story to Drudge the previous summer. "This is going to be ugly," Isikoff thought. "I never imagined they were going to do this. Then again, how could I have thought they would do anything different?"
Isikoff asked Tell to read the entire Drudge item to him. It was clear that Drudge had not been given Lewinsky's name, or he would have used it. Nor apparently had he been told about the most significant part of the story: Starr's expanded investigation of the president. At least, Isikoff thought, Drudge didn't have the whole story. "Maybe it could [still] be contained," he thought. Isikoff reacted by playing a game of Washington poker with Tell. "Look," he told his friend disingenuously, "if Kristol wants to go with something based on Drudge, that's his problem." Then Isikoff added with a rhetorical flourish, "How could he rely on anything that guy writes?"
Kristol had indeed gotten the tip from Conway as well as from Richard Porter, his former colleague in Vice President Quayle's office. They were attempting to use Kristol's new position as a television commentator on ABC to amplify and legitimize their leak to Drudge. Kristol did not mind being used, as long as the leak made news and he and his relatively new magazine were quoted.
The phone shattered McDaniel's Sunday morning slumber. She too had been exhausted from the Saturday negotiation and frustrating result. The caller was a reporter asking about the Drudge item that spoke of a spiked Isikoff exclusive. Did she have any comment? The usually unflappable McDaniel, on any other occasion only too eager to help another reporter, on this occasion declined the opportunity. "No comment," she said. "It's what we had feared all along," she later told me. After months of secret legwork and deliberation, McDaniel knew in her gut that it was now only a matter of days, if not hours, before other news organizations would join the chase. Isikoff and Klaidman had warned -- correctly -- that the story would not hold for another week; it was simply too explosive. But their editors made the right decision in delaying publication without further investigation. They had not counted on the fluid borders now separating the old and the new journalism. From out of nowhere, Drudge had struck again: not Time, nor The New York Times, nor any other traditional news operation, but a gossip columnist on the Internet. On this particular story, Newsweek had been light-years ahead of everyone. But now, by way of Drudge and the Internet, they would all become competitors. Newsweek would lose both its scoop and its edge.
Just who was this Matt Drudge?
The young man with the Walter Winchell fedora, the cocked eyebrow and the unshaven chin was born in a Washington suburb in the Nixon years. His parents were liberal Democrats, but Drudge was always a conservative; he loved Reagan. From an early age, he was intrigued by the news. His favorite program was CNN's Crossfire. He was curious, but did not do well at school, and he never went to college. For a time Drudge worked at a neighborhood 7-Eleven food store, but soon decided that he wanted to move to Hollywood. With help from his parents, he rented a small $600-a-month apartment in a seedy part of town. He got a job in the CBS gift shop, which was as close as he could get to the stars and celebrities, and he took advantage of his location. His interest was Hollywood folklore. He accumulated gossip, sometimes by picking through trash bins for discarded trivia. In 1994, his father bought him a computer. Within a few months, Drudge began posting gossipy news items on the World Wide Web, and he began to acquire a modest following. Entrepreneurial and supremely self-confident, Drudge expanded his after-hours hobby into a passionate one-man operation. He established an e-mail distribution service for his hottest Hollywood items, and then he linked his Web site to news organizations, wire services, and columnists, so that if you logged onto his Web site, you also could conveniently log onto a range of columnists, from David Broder of the Post to Maureen Dowd of the Times -- and all for free. He was "fun" for those who didn't take their journalism too seriously, and he attracted hundreds and then thousands of "visitors." He was irreverent and irascible, totally untutored in journalism, and he blossomed on the Internet.
At the beginning, this didn't add up to much money, but it did add up to a "virtual" business in the totally new world of cyberspace. Drudge kept using whatever money he had accumulated to buy new equipment. Brill's Content described his apartment as crammed with "a cheap Sanyo television monitor tuned to CNBC, another to CNN, another to C-Span, a Sony radio purring phone talk, an RCA satellite dish bringing in European news, show tunes, and extra TV channels, a police scanner looking for local action, and, most important, two computer screens linked to chat rooms, e-mail, news wire services and the Internet."
Soon, all this gadgetry produced a few genuine scoops: in 1996, Drudge was first to report that GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole had chosen supply-sider Jack Kemp as his vice-presidential running mate. His scoops ranged from the substantive to the silly. And, of course, each generated more publicity for Drudge and more subscribers for his Web site -- ninety thousand by the time he broke the Lewinsky story.
In April 1997, two years after launching the Drudge Report on the Internet, Drudge was already enough of a celebrity to be invited to the White House Correspondents Dinner in Washington, where Clinton consultant Mandy Grunwald greeted him with a hug and others were drawn to him like moths to a flame. Fans asked for his autograph; journalists interviewed him. Political heavyweights such as Mary Matalin, the GOP operative-turned-pundit, and Susan Estrich, the Democratic Party operative-turned-professor/pundit, claimed to start each morning by going to their computers and reading the Drudge Report. The Independent in London ran a long profile on Drudge. So did the Atlanta Constitution and Journal, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. Drudge had become hot news, especially among Washington conservatives who had tired of Rush Limbaugh and were hungering for another media hero.
In June 1997, Drudge returned to Washington, by now one of the acknowledged darlings of the right. Ann Coulter, the conservative attorney who coined the term "the elves," and David Brock, author of the "Troopergate" article in the American Spectator, hosted a kind of debutante weekend for Drudge. He was guest of honor at a bustling party of young conservatives. Like a visiting head of state, he addressed the National Press Club and then toured Newsweek, creating quite a fuss there. Among many other journalists, he met Isikoff, who inadvertently gave him an innocuous bit of information about a Starr story soon to be released to the public. Drudge converted Isikoff's "tip" into a hyped bulletin on the Drudge Report. Isikoff later acknowledged that he had made a mistake in even talking to Drudge. A week later, Drudge, always on the prowl for tips, called Isikoff, and the Hollywood gossip got the Washington pro to confirm rumors that he was working on the Willey story. Was Isikoff trying to impress Drudge? Was Drudge simply stroking Isikoff's ego? Either way, within a week, Drudge had the Willey sex story on the Internet and Isikoff had egg on his face.
In the course of researching the Willey story, Drudge exchanged e-mail messages with a young White House staffer, or so he wrote. He had such "chats" with many officials who labored in the anonymity of government cubicles but enjoyed the private rush of sharing a secret, of seeming to be in the know. Drudge asked his White House contact about Kathleen Willey. What did the staffer know about her and the president? The staffer, puzzled at first, promised to check; he returned in a panic. "OK, I'll give you this," responded the staffer. "I just asked Podesta about it and he knows what it is and asked me to check to see if Isikoff was writing it for tomorrow's magazine. He's not, but you knew that. You and I did not have this conversation. I just got a lot of people very riled up around here about this Willey thing. We'll talk later. Do not mention this conversation."
Drudge not only "mentioned" the conversation; he published it verbatim on his Web site, proving to his growing audience that although he was not one to play by traditional background rules, he still had real-time access and knowledge of what was happening in newsrooms and government offices. The Internet was innocent, inviting, and insidious -- it took Drudge everywhere, even into private cubicles in the White House, and some officials responded, often anonymously. They couldn't give their names, and Drudge had no way of knowing how reliable their information was -- but he used it. After his Willey scoop in July 1997, Drudge claimed that White House officials logged onto his Web site 2,600 times to read his coverage of the scandal. He had made it. Drudge understood that most people loved gossip. And he was there to provide it.
A month later, Drudge hit a big bump on the road. He published a malicious and totally inaccurate story about Sidney Blumenthal, who was just moving from The New Yorker to the White House as a presidential adviser. Drudge, relying quite often on unchecked tips from anti-Clinton sources, reported that Blumenthal abused his wife. When Blumenthal responded with an angry $30 million lawsuit, Drudge admitted on his Web page the next day that he had made a mistake. Not good enough, Blumenthal replied, the suit stands. According to Lewinsky, Clinton, who supported Blumenthal, began to refer to Drudge as "Sludge." Drudge became persona non grata in the power corridors of the White House, but he remained a popular addiction in the cubicles.
In Washington and elsewhere, a generational and technological divide opened between those who "drudged" and those who didn't "drudge." The younger reporters, raised on the Internet, made it a practice to check Drudge's Web site three to five times a day. Some liked and trusted Drudge; many others did not. The older reporters knew little to nothing about Drudge. For example, ABC's Jackie Judd, who was later to play an important role in reporting the Lewinsky scandal, told me that up until that Sunday, "I don't think I had ever heard of him. I didn't even have the proper computer programs." At The New York Times, several key reporters, even those familiar with the Internet, had no knowledge of Drudge's story. White House correspondent John Broder said that he never saw or even heard about the original story. Investigative reporter Don Van Natta, Jr., said, "I didn't know very much about Drudge." CNN's Wolf Blitzer confessed, "I was basically in the dark until Wednesday morning. I just didn't know anything about Drudge or his report." NPR's Daniel Schorr was typical of many Washington reporters who remembered January 18, 1998, as the first time they had ever heard of Matt Drudge or imagined the Internet as a possible source of news.
Both David Shuster of Fox News and Jim Warren of the Chicago Tribune saw the Drudge item but "didn't believe it" and "certainly didn't pursue it." Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times recalled spotting the Drudge item on Sunday and thinking, "If that's the kind of story Isikoff is writing, then he's welcome to it."
Among the many younger, more Web-savvy journalists was Mark Stencel, editor of OnPolitics, washingtonpost.com's Politics and Election 2000 site, a new and expanding branch of The Washington Post's media empire. Stencel said that his staff of young reporters were attuned to the Drudge culture -- they were very much part of it. They might be called e-journalists. They didn't cover the news so much as collect and collate it from many sources and then disseminate it on the Post's Web site. Bright and eager, fresh from the best colleges, poorly paid, inexperienced, but ready for adventure, they were part of the ever-mutating world of journalism/media/information/entertainment.
They represented for the Post (and for most other major news organizations) an investment in the future. The Post had been pouring money into washingtonpost.com on the assumption that the Internet was a vast marketplace with unlimited potential for profit and power. No matter their reservations, of which there were many, few editors and producers dared stand in the way of that potential. In 1999 alone, for example, the Post invested $85 million in its Web site while earning only $20 million from it. The Post has been prepared to take this loss (and presumably others) for the opportunity to establish itself as an on-line player. "So many people already are accessing information that way; you have to be a part of it," said Kevin Lavalla, managing director of Veronis Suhler & Associates, a New York-based consulting firm for the communications industry. "If you aren't a part of it, you'll lose out." That was the prevailing view anyway until early 2001, when the stock market dropped sharply and economic calculations changed.
On Sunday mornings, when affairs of state were not pressing, President and Mrs. Clinton usually went to church. On this particular Sunday morning, with The Washington Post sporting a front-page photo of Paula Jones and her attorneys raising champagne toasts at a very visible dinner intended to convey a sense of celebratory vindication, they were definitely in need of spiritual comfort -- they didn't want to suggest in word or action that the Jones case was affecting their lives in any way. After services, the president smiled but refused to respond to shouted questions about his deposition from a gaggle of reporters kept behind police barricades. None of the questions concerned the Drudge item. With one hand, he clutched his Bible; with the other, he held his wife's hand -- the picture most appropriate for the television news that evening and the newspapers the next morning.
Later, Hillary Clinton, who rarely gave interviews, chose that day to tell NBC-Mutual Radio that she and her husband had learned to shield themselves from cruel and unpleasant intrusions. "We do box it off," she explained. "You have to box it off, because there is no way you can let people with their own agendas, whatever they might be, interfere with your life, your private life or your public duties. And that's what my husband does every single day." Mrs. Clinton also said that the sermon "just built us up again. And we...came home and actually cleaned closets and did things that we'd been meaning to do....Just a way in which we try to keep our lives as normal as possible, despite what's going on around us."
Although Isikoff for his part was upset by the news of the Drudge scoop, he was not totally devastated. After all, he had been able to get his Willey exclusive into the magazine. When Newsweek highlighted the Willey story in its advance publicity kit on Sunday, it proved to be perfectly timed for maximum exposure. The gag order had limited the Jones lawyers to hints about the president's deposition, but there were no details and reporters were hunting for a fresh lead. Isikoff provided one that had the effect of steering reporters away from the essence of the Drudge account and back to the basics in the Jones case.
Washington is a capital of many little wars. One of them is waged every Sunday morning, when Fox News Sunday, NBC's Meet the Press, CBS's Face the Nation, ABC's This Week, and CNN's Late Edition clash on the field of ratings, bookings, and newsmaking. The winner is determined not only by the number of people who watch each program but by the front-page headlines each generates in Monday morning's newspapers. Win the ratings war but lose the battle of the headlines, and if you are a network executive or producer, you still haven't carried the day. Indeed, you are probably in trouble.
On this particular Sunday, the newspapers featured a photo of the champagne dinner attended by Paula Jones and her husband, and the morning talk shows each had a Jones lawyer making essentially two points: first, that he was under a court order not to talk about the president's deposition; but second, that he was going to do his very best to nibble at the edges of the court order, leaving hints here and there, while pushing his client's bitter charge of sexual harassment against the president. Clinton's lawyer, Bob Bennett, could have joined the video slugfest. Instead, he chose to occupy the high ground by affirming his commitment to the court order but telling a few reporters that the torrent of press speculation about the president's sex life was "absolute nonsense -- absolute reckless, irresponsible nonsense."
All of the shows focused on the president's deposition in the Jones case. Only one -- This Week -- mentioned the Drudge story. News from the Internet was still being treated by mainstream journalists as news from an electronic netherworld -- mysterious, essentially uncheckable, and therefore unreliable. And yet this attitude was on the edge of dramatic dissolution. Within a week, not only would the Drudge Report become the source for an endless rush of unsourced stories about Lewinsky's affair with the president, but the gossip columnist himself would be invited by host Tim Russert of Meet the Press to join Broder and Safire for a discussion of the scandal's impact on the Clinton presidency. The new and the old news would meet on the changing terrain being shaped by presidential scandal.
On Sunday, January 18, 1998, it was still the president's problem with Jones, not the intern, that captured the attention of most of the journalists and political pros who gathered around their television sets for the political news of the day. On CBS's Face the Nation, lawyer James Fisher outlined the Jones strategy. "We think it would be highly relevant," he told host Bob Schieffer, "if we were to prove at trial that there were other instances of similar conduct, not only on the part of Mr. Clinton, but the state troopers that guarded him while he was governor." Could he prove such conduct? he was asked. Fisher, who already knew about Lewinsky, Willey, and others, replied: "I think there is a substantial basis for our contention, yes." Another Jones lawyer, David Pike, appearing on NBC's Meet the Press, demonstrated that he and his colleagues were all singing from the same sheet of music. "What we're attempting to prove in this case," he told Tim Russert, "is that he [Clinton] engaged in a pattern of sexual harassment, and that's what we intend to prove." James Carville, the idiosyncratic Cajun defender of the Clintons, lacerated Jones. "It's all about money, plain and simple," he seethed, "and a healthy dose of right-wing politics."
Russert knew about the Drudge Report. His executive producer had informed him of it before the show began. On this Sunday, though, still operating on pre-Lewinsky standards, he opted to ignore Drudge and use the Newsweek story about Willey. "There's not enough there," he told his producer. On the show, he asked Carville about the Willey charge of presidential "groping." "Is there in fact a pattern of behavior that those who support President Clinton are worried about...?" Carville snapped: "The president denies it, and...frankly, I know the president's telling the truth." (Even later in the day, when Russert was again discussing the Drudge story with the executive producer of Today, he again recommended against using it. "We hadn't confirmed anything yet," he explained.)
At the ABC studios, located in the shadow of the historic Mayflower Hotel, the stars of This Week were preparing to go on the air -- Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts as co-hosts, and George Will, George Stephanopoulos, and Bill Kristol as co-pundits. Kristol was a bright conservative who had worked for Dan Quayle, and Stephanopoulos was a bright liberal who had worked for Bill Clinton. ABC in this way attempted to balance the political ticket, but if you added conservative columnist Will to the mix, it gave the conservatives a distinct two-to-one advantage in pundits.
When Kristol told Stephanopoulos about the Drudge story, the former Clinton aide had decided to check with the White House. He called Podesta, who had spoken with Isikoff on Saturday but still lacked details about the spiked Newsweek exclusive. An inside-the-Beltway course named "Spin Strategy 101" would suggest that if you can't confirm or deny an allegation, attack the credibility of the source, which is exactly what Podesta advised his old friend. "The only way you can respond to it is to say, 'This is Drudge, he's a rumormonger...and you can't believe what you read in the Drudge Report.'"
This Week, like the other Sunday morning talk shows, is divided into two parts: first, one to three interviews with prominent figures; then a segment devoted to commentary, in which all five of the show's stars exchange ideas, the more controversial the better. Stephanopoulos, raising a question that seems painfully amusing in hindsight, asked whether the Jones suit could possibly have any additional harmful effect on the Clinton presidency. "What worse can come out than already has been out?" the aide-turned-pundit asked. "He has been accused of murder, my goodness, from Jerry Falwell. What else can come out?" Kristol attempted to answer the rhetorical question. He said: "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 Leon Panetta's..." at which point, unceremoniously, Kristol was interrupted by Stephanopoulos, who scoffed, "And Bill, where did [the story] come from? The Drudge Report. You know we've all seen how discredited that is..." Kristol shot back: "No, no, no. They had screaming arguments in Newsweek 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."
Donaldson broke into the exchange. "I'm not an apologist for Newsweek," he said. "But if their editors decided they didn't have it cold enough to go with, I don't think that we can sit here without -- unless you've seen what they were basing their decision on -- how can we say Newsweek was wrong to kill it?"
When the televised Kristol-Stephanopoulos debate ended, the speculation in Washington (and elsewhere) began. What in fact did Newsweek spike? Susan Estrich e-mailed Drudge: "Drudge, this better not be true." Karen Wheeler, the head of Newsweek's publicity department, called Isikoff at home and complained that her "phone was ringing off the hook." Isikoff and Wheeler were old friends, who had shared many confidences about their bosses. "Michael," she asked, "what can you tell me about all this? I need to know." Isikoff responded coldly, "Nothing. I can't say anything. You'll have to call McDaniel." There was an angry pause, followed by Wheeler's sarcastic response, "Okay, fine," and she slammed down her phone.
Late that Sunday afternoon, President Clinton conducted an extraordinary "memory session" with his secretary, Betty Currie. He had called her after his Saturday deposition and suggested a Sunday meeting. As Currie later testified, they sat at her desk outside the Oval Office, and Clinton explained that he had had to answer a few questions about Monica Lewinsky. He thought that Currie ought to know about them. Then he popped a string of now memorable statements -- "in a very quick manner, one right after the other," she later testified. "You were always there when Monica was there." "I was never alone with Monica, right?" "Monica came on to me and I never touched her, right?" "Monica wanted to have sex with me and I cannot do that." Currie followed each statement or question with a one-word answer. "Right," she said. The president insisted that his conversation with Currie was simply to "refresh" his memory -- not to coax or coach her into remembering these events in the same way that he did. Possibly, but it precipitated a frantic attempt by Currie to contact Lewinsky, which proved to be difficult. She paged Lewinsky at 5:12 P.M., then again at 6:22 P.M., and again at 7:06 P.M. and 8:28 P.M. Finally, at 10:15 P.M., Lewinsky called and made a fleeting reference to "Hoover," hoping Currie would get the hint that the FBI was on her tail.
A few weeks later, when The New York Times broke this story, it went to great lengths to avoid using the verb "coach," deliberately staying away from a verb that might be interpreted legally as the president engaging in the act of obstructing justice. The Times was trying to be super-careful, yet report an important element of the emerging Lewinsky scandal. But within an hour, the Associated Press and Nightline rewrote the Times account, using the verb "coach," dropping any pretense of subtlety, and suggesting that indeed the president had been trying to influence Currie's testimony and thereby obstruct justice. At the moment of their reports, both the AP and Nightline had no way of knowing the president's true intention; they simply presumed that he was trying to coach Currie, even though later in her grand jury testimony she said she didn't think he was trying to coach her at all.
The evening news on Sunday has always been the stepchild of the networks. If it isn't preempted by a golf match or a football game, it is often shortchanged on personnel, attention, and news. The anchor is either a comer or a goner, but is seldom a weekday star, unless a huge story is breaking, in which case Dan Rather is likely to reoccupy the anchor's chair on CBS, Tom Brokaw on NBC, or Peter Jennings on ABC. Most of the time, the U.S. government is closed, foreign embassies are shut, and news bureaus operate with limited staff. If news is ever made on a Sunday, it is an accident of nature or an unanticipated eruption of war, a coup d'e;tat, a plane crash. And yet, according to the television schedule, there is an evening newscast on CBS, another on NBC, a third on CNN, and a fourth on ABC, and they all must be filled with "news," the definition of which is extremely flexible on Sundays. At least one story, often the lead story, is a reworked rendering of the morning newspaper and the morning talk shows, a headline providing the theme and a talk show a relevant sound bite or two.
On this Sunday evening, the story was still the president's Saturday deposition in the Jones case, a story now twenty-four hours old but still compelling enough for a Sunday. There was the Drudge Report on the Internet, but no broadcast or wire service made any mention of his "**World Exclusive**" about the president's romance with a young intern. Why were most Washington journalists ignoring the Drudge story on this Sunday? Was it because Drudge broke his story on a long weekend (the United States was to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr., Day on Monday) and few reporters were working? Was it because Drudge was not considered a reliable source of information? Was it because even if a mainstream reporter had fastened on to the Drudge exclusive, he or she could not have gotten any confirmation, or enough confirmation, for a major newspaper or network to go with it? Not on a Sunday, when nothing was expected to happen, when no one in a position of authority was reachable anyway. The explanation probably lay in a combination of these factors.
In any case, when it came time early Sunday evening for CBS, ABC, and CNN (NBC was preempted for a sports event) to air their newscasts, the focus was unmistakably on the Paula Jones case. It was legitimate and safe.
CBS's evening news program on Sunday began at 6 P.M. The anchor was Sharyl Attkisson, a recent, still unproven CNN transplant, who began her broadcast with two brief items about the president: the first that Newsweek was running an "exclusive" about how President Clinton "kissed" and "fondled" a "former White House aide" in a "hideaway off the Oval Office" (no confirmation or independent reporting by CBS, no mention of Kathleen Willey's name); and the second that Paula Jones was leaving Washington after listening to Clinton's six hours of testimony on Saturday. Attkisson then ran a sound bite from CBS's Sunday talk show, Face the Nation, showing Jones lawyer Jim Fisher asking for presidential accountability in his client's sexual harassment suit.
Having thus briskly disposed of the lead story in 246 words, Attkisson leaped to bigger things -- "Still to come on tonight's CBS Evening News," she pronounced, "Dan Rather shows us how Cuba feels about the Pope's visit. Also, why some utility companies kept customers in the dark during the ice storm. And the struggle to keep the Olympic flame alive in Japan." Pope John Paul II was not scheduled to arrive in Havana until Wednesday, but Rather went there in advance to do a few pieces on what was expected to be a historic journey, the pope's first to Castro's Cuba.
At 6:30 P.M. on ABC, veteran newscaster Carole Simpson began World News Tonight Sunday with a 448-word story that Paula Jones was leaving town -- again news that was hardly riveting, but it still topped Simpson's agenda. It featured the president in an unprecedented story about sexual harassment, and no anchor could escape its lure.
Sam Donaldson, who covered the White House and also anchored This Week on Sundays, was the correspondent for this story, a classic example of Sunday news. It contained four sound bites and ended with a Donaldson close, filled with sourced and unsourced information. "Behind the scenes, the spinning of the story continued," he boomed. "Paula Jones and her group dined Saturday night with champagne, professing to be pleased with the way things had gone. Friends of the president one-upped that by telling Time magazine the Clinton camp is ecstatic about the way the deposition went. And what did the president say yesterday? That's concealed because of the gag rule. But already leaks have it that he continued to maintain that he doesn't remember Ms. Jones. And questioned about other women allegedly obtained for him by state troopers, he is said to have denied in various ways that he's ever sexually harassed anyone. A messy business, but it's likely to get worse before it's over."
At 7 P.M. on CNN, anchor Laurie Dhue introduced a 622-word lead story by White House correspondent John King. Easily the longest of the three network stories, it contained four sound bites from the morning talk shows -- two by Jones's lawyers, one by her spokesperson, and one by Clinton supporter James Carville -- and it ended with a question-and-answer exchange between the anchor and the correspondent, speculating about whether a financial settlement between Jones and Clinton was likely before the projected May trial. At one point, King concluded that a settlement was still a "possibility." But he added, "for now, all signs point toward a trial that could prove a political and personal embarrassment for the president whatever the verdict."
William Ginsburg, a legal meteor across Washington's media sky, had arrived from Los Angeles on Saturday and spent most of the day reacquainting himself with the twenty-three-year-old woman he had known as a child. He was shocked at Lewinsky's fragile condition. She was, he thought, in a state of near hysteria, possibly suicidal. She needed medical attention, urgently. In fact, she asked to be checked into a psychiatric hospital, but Ginsburg persuaded her to rest, with her mother, in their small apartment at the Watergate. He also found that he was repelled, truly angered, by Clinton's seduction of Lewinsky, as he imagined the relationship. He wanted Clinton to be exposed as a "misogynist," even as a "molester."
But first he had to meet with Starr's prosecutors. On Saturday evening, he had gone to the independent counsel's office, where he had met with Jackie Bennett, Bob Bittman, and Mike Emmick. They still wanted Lewinsky to serve as their agent -- to make "controlled calls" to Clinton, Currie, and Jordan. And they seemed ready to indict her for perjury if she didn't cooperate. Ginsburg was appalled. Who ever heard of prosecuting a twenty-three-year-old for lying about an affair? Later, Ginsburg called one of his Washington friends, a criminal lawyer named Nathaniel Speights, and asked for his help.
On Sunday, while the rest of political Washington, including the White House, obsessed publicly and privately about the Jones case, Ginsburg drove Lewinsky to Speights's home in Chevy Chase, so his new comrade-in-arms could get a raw glimpse of their desperate client. Speights ruled out a plea bargain with Starr's deputies -- he thought they were bluffing. With Ginsburg's approval, he called Emmick and warned him that if Starr was intending to prosecute Lewinsky, he could forget about winning her cooperation in any form. Speights demanded immunity, or there would be no negotiation. Soon Emmick called back -- immunity was a possibility, he said, but Starr and his deputies would first have to hear Lewinsky's whole story. Toward this end, he invited Ginsburg, Speights, and Lewinsky to come to the OIC office on Monday morning.
A small number of Washington reporters were busily pursuing the intern angle.
At Newsweek, Isikoff and Klaidman -- who knew the most about Lewinsky, including her name -- were trying to learn more. Who were her friends? Who would talk?
At Time, Michael Weisskopf called sources at the White House, the Pentagon, and on Capitol Hill: did anyone know about the president coaching a witness? About tapes? About an intern?
At ABC, Chris Vlasto and Jackie Judd were piecing together a complicated puzzle, pieces of which Vlasto had assembled from his Saturday dinner with Jones and her lawyers. They didn't yet know about Lewinsky, Reno, the three judges, and Starr's new pursuit of Clinton.
At NBC, Russert had alerted political reporter Lisa Myers to the Drudge story about an intern. What could she find out? Myers had excellent sources at the OIC.
At The Washington Post, Susan Schmidt had heard whispers on Friday about a presidential scandal having nothing to do with Paula Jones, and she had been calling sources everywhere. She too had particularly good sources at the OIC.
Once again, despite their efforts, it was not these traditional, experienced journalists who advanced the story. It was Drudge, who was in close contact with Goldberg and the behind-the-scenes Jones lawyers. On Saturday night, Conway had been Drudge's principal source. Now, late Sunday night, after calls to Conway, Goldberg, and others, Drudge had another exclusive, in which, for the first time, Monica Lewinsky's name appeared in print.
At midnight, Washington time, Drudge ran the following story:
FORMER WHITE HOUSE INTERN CALLED;
NEW BACKGROUND DETAILS EMERGE
The "Drudge Report" has learned that former White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, twenty three, has been subpoenaed to give a deposition in the Paula Jones case.
About the young woman, this is known...
Drudge then disclosed that Lewinsky had worked as a summer intern and staff assistant at the White House and then as an assistant to the Pentagon's spokesman, Kenneth Bacon. He also disclosed that Lewinsky, a 1995 graduate of Lewis and Clark College with a major in psychology, was proficient in the use of a word processor and had "access to top secret and sensitive information."
Because of their timing and their subject matter, Drudge's reports contributed to the media's preoccupation with sex and sensationalism. They encouraged the publishing and broadcasting of poorly sourced information. And, as much as anything, they highlighted the problems of Internet journalism -- an "Open Sesame" to a world of speeding and colliding fragments of unchecked data fired into cyberspace without any assurance of accuracy or reliability.
Copyright © 2001 by Marvin Kalb