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.
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.
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.
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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.