Poop on the scoop

DMN editors spin the truth until it wobbles rather than come clean on how they blew their big story

Faced with the single biggest embarrassment in the modern history of their newspaper, top Dallas Morning News editors went to great lengths last week to explain why they had published, then retracted, then reasserted a story about a government eyewitness to sex between the president and a 21-year-old intern.

Unfortunately, in their attempts to tell how and why they had published a shaky story, Morning News management told several stories that were even shakier than the one that got them in trouble in the first place. In particular, they left out a key point:

The Dallas Observer has learned from several sources, both inside and outside the Morning News, that a staffer on the paper was aware of major problems with the White House sex story many hours before it was published, hours before the story ever went out on the World Wide Web, hours before the time top editors noted in their statements to their own employees.

There should have been red flags and plenty of time to kill the story. But it didn't die.

None of these crucial details was mentioned in the elaborately staged presentation that management made to its own employees two days after their Monica Lewinsky story imploded on them.

On the afternoon of Wednesday, January 28, more than 200 editorial employees of the Morning News shuffled into a ballroom at the downtown Hyatt Regency Hotel.

In order to help ease their pain, management went first-class. They rented a good room, brought in lots of state-of-the-art equipment, and made sure everyone was invited.

Less than 48 hours earlier, the Morning News had published a story that looked as if it could bring down the president of the United States.

According to the News' story, "attorneys familiar with the obstruction-of-justice investigation haunting the administration" were claiming that a Secret Service agent had witnessed President Clinton and former White House intern Lewinsky in a "compromising situation." Later that night, the News amended the story to state that independent counsel Kenneth Starr's staff had spoken with a Secret Service agent.

Only minutes after the Morning News had posted the story to its Internet site on Monday night, it went worldwide. Wires moved. Editors huddled. Larry King interrupted his show to read the story live. Ted Koppel led Nightline with the development. The story was so damning, in fact, that the White House called while Koppel was on the air and issued a pointed denial.

An hour after Nightline aired, the Morning News retracted its big scoop.
It was a strange turn of events--one made all the stranger that Wednesday morning, when the paper published a third story, seemingly based on multiple sources, saying the first story was "essentially correct."

This one seemed to stand by the story and undercut it at the same time. Now, the paper reported that two sources were saying an "intermediary for one or more witnesses" had, in fact, "talked with independent counsel Kenneth Starr's office about possible cooperation." At the same time, however, the incident was downgraded from a "compromising situation" to an "ambiguous incident."

It was all terribly confusing. Naturally, the paper's staffers gathered at the Hyatt were eager to hear an explanation. And so the paper's shy, gray, avuncular editor, Ralph Langer, shuffled among the crowd like the world's least enthusiastic talk-show host, fielding questions with the aid of a wireless microphone. From above them somewhere, on a speaker-phone hooked to a public address system, came the disembodied voice of Carl Leubsdorf, the paper's longtime, nationally respected Washington bureau chief, trying to help them understand what had brought them all to this excruciating moment.

No easy task.
Normally the thing that wears on Morning News editors and reporters is the paper's relentless caution. Yet somehow in a span of 48 hours early last week, the very careful Dallas Morning News had set itself up as the national spank-baby of pulp-fiction journalism. The meeting in the ballroom with Langer and Leubsdorf worked. People left feeling better. A veteran reporter said later, "I think it was great the way they bellied up and said, 'We made a mistake.'"

Langer told the assembled masses the same story he would repeat in a formal published statement the next Sunday, February 1, and on a local television talk show. According to Langer, the News had unwittingly relied on only one source to publish its original story; because of a "miscommunication" between Dallas and the Washington bureau, senior editors mistakenly believed a second source existed.

Worse, Langer explained, the single source for the story had inexplicably "bailed" on them late Monday night, after the story was already printed in early editions of the paper. His characterization was that the source confirmed the story after it was read to him but then called back in a panic. Langer made pointed reference to a White House call to Nightline denouncing the story. Langer's version left the clear impression it was the White House muscle-men who had scared off the source.

Notably absent from Langer's explanations was the name of David Jackson, the longtime Morning News Washington reporter who wrote the story.

Langer's version of events was good enough for many in the hotel room that day.

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