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Saturday is usually an underwhelming news day, even in the high-tempo environs of the Washington Post, but last weekend was an exception. Nestled in the upper-right-hand corner above the fold were two whoppers. The first revealed that the proceeds of the Paula Jones Legal Fund belonged to Paula Jones, not to her lawyers, and the second reported that independent counsel Kenneth Starr had subpoenaed two private detectives hired by the National Enquirer to check into unfounded rumors in 1996 that he was having an extramarital affair.
The stories were different in scope and subject but united by a single factneither story belonged to the Post. The Paula Jones story was the product of an investigative project by the Chicago Tribune, and USA Today broke the Enquirer story.
The Post gave USA Today credit for the story in the third paragraph. But apparently queasy about crediting two competitors side by side on its front page, Post editors pushed the Tribune’s credit past the jump to Page 8. And even though the Post’s version was a very direct follow, it implied that the Tribune had just reported out some documents thrown over the gunwales by White House investigators.
In fact, Tribune reporters William Gaines and David Jackson dug around for three weeks and went through a fair amount of shoe leather before nailing the fact that Paula Jones personally controlled funds that had been solicited for legal expenses. Her fund-raising letter, the Tribune reported, indicated that contributions were needed “not for me. It’s all going to help my legal case.” She was guaranteed a $300,000 windfall when she signed an agreement with a direct-mail firm to solicit on her behalf. Her legal fees are being paid by the Rutherford Institute, a conservative legal foundation that got involved with Jones last November. (The Trib detailed, among other expenses, $2,000 that went to a makeover for Jones. Taking the trailer out of the girl is expensive.)
Cynics might wonder whether the Post’s institutional ego pushed the Tribune’s credit deep into the paper, but national editor Karen DeYoung laughs at the notion.
“I think it was the juxtaposition in the newspaper that makes it even a question,” she says. “Our policy is that you always want to credit another news organization when they break a story that you feel you have to follow up on. Beyond that, I wouldn’t look for a lot of deep meaning in where the credit is given.
“I think [the Tribune] did a fine story. We advanced the story beyond what they had by saying that she had actually gotten money from the fund,” DeYoung says.
The issue of advancing or merely matching the story is how journalists keep score. If a paper gets beaten on a major story and they can’t catch up, it has to put the brand name of another news outfit high up. The Post, which has broken more stories in the Lewinsky affair than any other news organization in the country, didn’t take the Trib’s scoop sitting down. It sent Peter Baker and Amy Goldstein after the Tribune’s exclusive, re-reported the facts, and advanced it a tad.
There’s no telling what the Post would have done if a paper that hits the D.C. streets every daylike the New York Times or the Wall Street Journalhad dug up the Jones story. A long-held tradition in journalism dictates that when you get beat, you smile and wear beige, pretending that the story didn’t matter in the first place. That’s how the Times treated the story. It’s a gambit that preserves institutional face but leaves the reader shortchanged.
The Trib reacted gracefully to getting its pocket picked, deciding that journalistic imitation represented the sincerest form of validation. Jackson suggested that any old credit was good enough for him.
“I’m happy that the story we did held up in all of its details and wasn’t advanced in any significant way. Besides, it’s a rough, tough world out there. We might have done the same thing. If you can get out there and recover all of the documents yourself, you don’t need to spend a lot of time attributing it to some other guy who actually broke the story,” Jackson says.
Washington bureau chief James Warren is less concerned about what kind of mention the Trib got than the implication that his reporters had just burped up a story that had been handed to them.
“The notion that this was somehow some simple leak from one of the parties was complete BS. This was terrific, old-fashioned reporting,” Warren says.
The Trib recently got a big boost from its extraordinarily candid interview with White House press secretary Mike McCurry about the inexplicability of his boss’s relationship with an intern. After that kind of splash, Warren says it might seem churlish to get “exercised over what was a decidedly understated reference.” He does acknowledge that some people around his shop thought the Post could have been more forthright about crediting the story.
“These discussions tend to be very ad hoc, but a lot of these institutions tend to have a certain arrogance at certain times, a suggestion that it isn’t news until it appears in their paper,” Warren adds.
“At least they didn’t bury it like the [New York Times]. It was an important story. At least give the Post credit for playing it arguably where it deserved to be.”
News From Nowhere While the big stories in the Saturday paper came from elsewhere, Sunday’s Lewinsky dispatch could only have come from the Postand then, solely from the desk of Bob Woodward. Woodward has moved into a realm of metajournalism, a place where disembodied voices share deep thoughts absent any accountability. The freakish front-page storyco-written with Peter Bakerdetailed President Clinton’s “profound rage” over the roasting he’s getting from the independent counsel. “There’s a great deal of anger. But it’s more than anger. There’s genuine concern, even if it weren’t him in the cross hairs…that Ken Starr represents a danger in American life.” Which Clintonite spouted this profoundly self-serving, laughable piece of claptrap? “[O]ne Clinton friend who has spoken with him on the topic.” It was one of countless “friends,” “associates,” and “senior White House aides” who have spun anonymously and outrageously throughout the bashathon on Starr. Woodward, under the guise of extraordinary access, has become an annoying parrot that faithfully repeats cant as if were meticulously mined truth.
The Revenge of the Mummy Howard Kurtz might want to consider doing a story about Howard Kurtz. Arguably the country’s most influential media writer, Kurtz is in the thick of a dust-up over the use of off-the-record material. In his forthcoming book Spin Cyclewhich will be out in a week and has been grabbing big air on Imus latelyKurtz relates a poignant run-in between McCurry and the prez on the 1996 campaign trail. In a speech to a Connecticut audience, Clinton joked that he might be interested in a date with the 500-year-old mummified remains of a 13-year-old girl discovered in Peru. McCurry approached the president afterward and said he might want to cool it on the dating jokes. Clinton told him to mind his own beeswax, and McCurry retreated to the press plane. Kurtz reported that while kicking it with the boys on the bus, McCurry said, “Probably she does look good, compared to the mummy he’s been fucking.” When the quote started making the rounds, McCurry was livid, telling the National Journal that Kurtz had gotten it wrong and the Washington Times that if there’s no such thing as off-the-record, then the rules of engagement are about to change. Kurtz says he was under no formal or informal obligation to avoid reporting in his book what he felt was a clear example of how the presidential press corps protects McCurry.
Besides, Kurtz says, “I never dreamed the mummy joke was going to get as much publicity as it did. I included it to make the point that the press has a fairly cozy relationship with Mike and they cut him slack on a regular basis….If [Reagan press secretary] Larry Speakes had made the same joke, it would have made it into print somewhere, without a doubt.”
Kurtz doesn’t want to make a career of kicking up press controversy instead of reporting on it.
“I am not trying to shrink the zone where people can just be people, but if you don’t want something reported, you probably shouldn’t say it in front of a dozen reporters,” he says.
Which of These Things? Two Post stories about Chinatown were headlined thusly: On Feb. 2”Hear It Roar: Chinatown Springs Back to Life.” On March 1”Neighborhood Isn’t Cheering About Arena’s Impact.” Must have been a rough month.
Hume Rising star and Hill staffer Sandy Hume was offered a job at U.S News and World Report the day before he took his life, according to James Ledbetter of the Village Voice. By phone yesterday, U.S. News editor James Fallows said he tried to reach Hume several times on Feb. 21, leaving messages extending him the job offer.
“We talked for about six months about a position, and we made a deal just before he died….He had an energy and bushy-tailedness that you like in a newspaper person his age. All of the reasons that people felt bad about his death are the reasons that we wanted to have him with us,” says Fallows.
Hume, who had struggled with alcohol problems, reportedly despaired after he was pulled over in the early morning hours of Feb. 22 and charged with reckless driving, driving under the influence, speeding, and running a stoplight. He apparently tried to hang himself with his own shoelaces while in custody and was treated at D.C. General. Hume was sent to the city mental health office, according to reports, and at some point later in the day, he returned to his Arlington home and shot himself. David Carr
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