Poop on the scoop

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

But the Morning News employees in the ballroom were not told what really happened. According to sources in both Washington and Dallas--confirmed in an interview with Carl Leubsdorf--Jackson knew several hours before the story ever went out on the Web or onto the presses that there were problems with its sourcing.

In fact, according to more than one source who spoke to the Observer on condition of anonymity, the original source's law partner--the person who had supposedly been approached about representing the Secret Service agent in question--told Jackson emphatically at 5 p.m. Monday that the story he was planning to write was no good.

Confronted with the fact that the Observer knew about the 5 p.m. call, Leubsdorf conceded it had taken place, but he minimized the reservations expressed by the source's law partner in the call. Even at that, for a single-source story of this magnitude, any shakiness at all would have been enough to warn most serious reporters and editors off the story. For the most part, major media just don't do important stories based only on one unnamed source. As the Jackson story illustrates, single-source stories put the writer and publisher in far too vulnerable a position, especially on stories guaranteed to draw heavy retaliatory fire.

But if the single-source gaffe was bad enough, the News made matters infinitely worse by publishing the second story on January 28 in which it said it had been informed by its original source that the first story was "essentially correct"--a phrase immediately leapt on by pundits and politicians alike as a new form of moral corrosion. That night on CNN, Jim Warren of the Chicago Tribune called the "essentially correct" phrase "a troubling new standard." CBS correspondent Dan Rather asked White House spokesman Mike McCurry, "What is the biggest error, the single biggest mistake you believe has been reported in this case so far?"

"I--well, obviously, it has to be The Dallas Morning News story that was retracted," McCurry said, "because I think that's the only case that I'm aware of in which a news organization has just had to flat-out say, 'What we told our readers simply was not true, and it was based on erroneous information that we had from a single source.'"

The New York Times even devoted a story to the debacle, under the headline: "Retracting a Retraction, Self-Defense and Revelation."

"The Dallas Morning News," wrote Times reporter Janny Scott, "the newspaper that made news by becoming the first news gathering organization to officially retract a front-page story on the White House sex scandal, went itself one better yesterday and retracted the retraction. Sort of."

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the favorite game was guessing who the News' source was. The wisdom of the Washington press corps was that the troublesome source was Joseph di Genova, a Washington lawyer who is carving a career in the lucrative land of TV talking heads. As the Observer has learned, the reporters' grapevine was correct.

The 52-year-old di Genova has sterling Republican connections, as evidenced by the fact that in 1983, Ronald Reagan appointed him U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. While there, he was responsible for launching the investigation that eventually snared D.C. Mayor Marion Barry in a hotel room with a crack pipe. In 1992, he was appointed special counsel in charge of investigating whether the Bush administration broke any laws when it ordered up the passport records for then-candidate Clinton. In 1995, di Genova issued a report concluding no criminal conduct had occurred.

Di Genova is half of a Washington power couple. His wife, Victoria Toensing, is also a politically connected lawyer turned legal analyst. The former head of the Justice Department's anti-terrorism squad under Reagan, Toensing is, if anything, more famous than her husband. In 1991, following her successful prosecution of Palestinian Ur-terrorist Mohammed Rashid, she graced the cover of The New York Times magazine. Before her four-year stint as the highest-ranking woman in Reagan's Justice Department, she had served as special counsel to the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Toensing and di Genova practice law together, in between appearing on TV shows.

Toensing and di Genova refused to speak to the Observer on the record and would neither confirm nor deny details the Observer had learned elsewhere. "We have no comment," Toensing said. But multiple sources familiar with what happened that Sunday and Monday gave the Observer this chronology:

One of the pair, probably Toensing, was contacted by someone acting or claiming to act as an intermediary for a Secret Service agent who feared he or she might be subpoenaed to appear before the special prosecutor. Di Genova gleaned some version of what his wife had been told and repeated it to reporters, including on-the-air remarks he made that afternoon to television reporter Geraldo Rivera.

Shortly before 5 p.m. Monday, while di Genova was out on the talking-head circuit, Jackson called his office. Toensing answered, according to two sources. As soon as Toensing understood that Jackson intended to use the sex witness story in the next day's Morning News, she told him emphatically that the story was not true.

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