By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Why the story didn't die there, apparently only David Jackson knows. His boss, Carl Leubsdorf, didn't even learn the 5 p.m. call had taken place until a panicky second round of phone calls began at about 11:30 p.m. Washington time. In spite of Ralph Langer's repeated suggestion that the problems all followed some apparent pressure from the White House, it was actually the office of the special counsel that called di Genova screaming about the story, saying it wasn't true.
Di Genova and Toensing immediately called Leubsdorf at home. Toensing told him she had warned Jackson off the story at 5 p.m. It all melted down from there. Leubsdorf told the Observer that there was a 5 p.m. conversation between Jackson and the source's law partner. He said he discussed the phone call with Jackson only late that night. (Jackson didn't respond to a request for an interview.)
"All that happened around midnight, after I had gone home," Leubsdorf says. He adds that Jackson did not tell him the law partner had shot down the story. He says Jackson told him the partner only complained that the source shouldn't have spilled the beans about the Secret Service agent.
Asked if he believed Jackson had a second source for the story, Leubsdorf said, "I have nothing more to say about any of this."
There are other issues in both the official Langer version of events and the follow-up stories the News kept publishing in an effort to show it was "essentially correct."
In an effort to make it appear that the paper had its hands on a variety of sources for the story, the News used obfuscating language: Toensing and her husband--in other words, one bad source and the person who said he was bad--were trotted out in News stories like peas under shells, as if they were three sources saying the story was good.
If it were just a matter of Jackson screwing up, then the whole business probably would have evaporated by now. The view from Washington insiders this week was that the News' worst mistake was admitting its mistake. One of the sources familiar with what happened pointed out that ABC's Jackie Judd had been almost as wrong as the News in her original report on the Secret Service witness. "But ABC just kept walking and talking and did a clarification, so nobody noticed it."
Even a frank admission of error probably would not have hurt morale within the paper beyond the transitory pain of simple embarrassment. Morning News employees, after all, have been led to expect a higher standard of their leaders than walking and talking.
But if there's a lesson in what Morning News managers have said locally and internally about the situation, it may be that walking and talking are simply too many activities for them to attempt at one time: For all of the News' insistence on protecting its source, for example, Ralph Langer effectively outted di Genova when he appeared on KERA on February 1. Langer said, "Our second story quoted the original source as saying that the original story was essentially correct. We attributed all of that."
The person to whom the "essentially correct" characterization was attributed was di Genova.
The Observer spoke to several sources familiar with the "essentially correct" story, including some within the Morning News organization. All agreed that the News brought great pressure on di Genova to provide some kind of endorsement of the first story. What he gave them was watered down almost to the point of absurdity: The second story naming di Genova was notably missing the initial implication that someone had seen a presidential sex act. Nevertheless, Langer asserted on KERA that the News, in fact, had never retracted its story.
First he said he considered that dropping mention of the sex act from the story was a matter of "nuance." Then, asked if the paper had issued a retraction, Langer said, "No." Langer did not return calls from the Observer seeking an interview for this article.
The upshot, however, is that the News is now the only major news outlet in the country claiming that someone has actually contacted Kenneth Starr on behalf of a Secret Service agent or agents. "I can't sit here and tell you that I know, personally, whether the Secret Service agent is going to testify or is willing to or not. There's a lot of scurrying behind the scenes at this point, trying to exempt Secret Service agents from testifying, and my guess is that that effort is not going on because there's not a Secret Service agent out there," Langer told KERA.
There is always the possibility the News' original story will turn out to be, in some degree, true. But that will never be the point. At least among the community of the nation's media people and media watchers, the thing remembered will be not the story but the spin. It was bad. It was probably not honest. It was definitely not smart. A former Dallas newspaper editor and longtime Washington correspondent who was one of the Observer's sources for this piece summed it up: "You know," he said, "being back in town and reading the News again, you notice it all the time. They're just not ready for prime time.