May/June 1999, Columbia Journalism Review, Active Reporter or Passive Conspirator? by Anthony Marro,
Anthony Marro is the editor of Newsday. He was a reporter for the Rutland (Vermont) Herald, Newsday, Newsweek, and The New York Times
It wasn't until right at the end, right as Lucianne Goldberg and Linda Tripp were starting the triple play intended to push the story of the president and the intern into the Paula Jones civil suit, the Kenneth Starr criminal probe, and the pages of Newsweek all on the same weekend, that Tripp told Michael Isikoff, the Newsweek reporter working the story, that she was trying to negotiate a book deal as well.
This shouldn't have come as a surprise. Goldberg was a book agent, and Tripp had been planning a White House scandal book as far back as 1996. But it sent Isikoff into high dudgeon, angry that it might compromise her credibility and jeopardize the story he was still trying to write, causing him to think: "You're . . . going to muck up my story, you idiot."
And so he set out to persuade them not to do this, later coming to realize that two important things had been happening.
The first was that he had crossed the line from reporter to participant. "I was trying to influence the actions of the players," he writes. "As a reporter, that's not my job. But I didn't realize something else: I was at this point too involved to avoid influencing the players."
The second was that while the book plan shouldn't have been any surprise, it had been "well off my radar screen." He had been too focused on Clinton and Lewinsky to pay full attention to Goldberg and Tripp. ìI could not have cared less about their motives or their ultimate goal,î he now says. "My interest in them was quite simple and fairly well focused: Was the stuff they were telling me true? Could it be corroborated? Would it make a story for Newsweek?"
If information is accurate it probably doesnít matter where it comes from. Reporters everywhere and forever have been passing along information without sharing the enthusiasms or goals of their sources. But not understanding goals can backfire dangerously. Not warning readers about motives can make stories seriously incomplete. And one of the lessons in Isikoffís book is that sometimes reporters can focus so intensely on the core of the story that they can miss some of the radar warnings blinking off to the side.
What was on his radar right from the start, from back when he was covering the Justice Department for The Washington Post, was the belief that Paula Jones had a story that deserved serious reporting, not something to be discounted just because the anti-Clinton far right was peddling it. Some of his editors were nervous and some were openly scornful of the whole project. In the end he blew up in anger, was suspended for insubordination, resigned in a huff and in May 1994, moved on to Newsweek.
The subtitle is "A Reporter's Story" and it's pretty much that. It's not to any large degree the story of the broader Starr investigation or the impeachment process or the performance of the press in covering the scandal. Isikoff gives more attention to the supposedly distinguishing characteristics of the presidential penis than to a serious examination of Starr's many probes. Henry Hyde doesn't appear in the index at all. Those looking for an assessment of Steven Brill's complaint that reporters were co-opted and corrupted by leaks from Starr's office will merely get eyestrain from trying to read between the lines.
Uncovering Clinton is the story of Isikoff's own attempts to document a pattern of sexual recklessness on the part of the president, and of the "culture of concealment" that he says inevitably flowed from it. This began when he came across Clinton aides in the 1992 presidential campaign who were trying to squash the reports of adulterous liaisons that they called "bimbo eruptions." His reporting there later made him think that Paula Jones might be credible. A tip from a Jones lawyer eventually led him to Kathleen Willey, who in turn pointed him towards Linda Tripp. And it was Tripp, along with Goldberg, who put him onto the story of Monica Lewinsky.
This was not a quick journey. It was six years from the "bimbo eruptions" to oral sex in the White House, and along the way he built up an extensive network of sources among people who were working in many different ways and through many different means towards the common goal of hurting, embarrassing, or actually ousting the president. He worked these stories for so long and became so well-connected with so many of the people involved that there are places in this book where it's not clear whether he was an outsider looking in, and insider looking out, or both at once.
Isikoff says that he was never interested in writing about sex for its own sake, and one tends to believe him. He says he kept at it because the allegations against Clinton suggested a recklessness and arrogance that was dangerous when combined with great power, and that required so many lies and so much deceit to keep hidden that it corrupted his presidency.
The president's private weaknesses had led to public wrongs, he now writes, including "lies to the public and to a court, the smearing of innocents, the deployment of an army of hardball litigators, private investigators, and spin doctors whose primary purpose was to smash the accusers and destroy the presidentís enemies."
This may be a bit overstated. There's little evidence here of enemies destroyed, and no strong evidence of behavior outside the bounds of well-funded civil suits, which even in the routine of things can become very nasty. And Isikoff acknowledges right up front that many of the Clinton enemies were themselves not pleasant people and not playing softball, but were "mean-spirited and mercenary" as well as zealous.
Isikoff tells his story in a smooth narrative style, with apparent candor and self-deprecating humor. (At one point, having accompanied two sources into a strip club in Dallas and placed a $20 bill inside the panties of one of the dancers, he confesses having started the night imagining himself Seymour Hersh and ending it feeling more like Geraldo.) He also manages to build a certain amount of suspense, which is no mean feat given that virtually every adult American outside of cloistered convents already knows not only the ending but also most of the details.
It will make a good movie.
The 46-year-old reporter at the center of A Reporter's Story comes across as aggressive, persistent, admirable in many ways, difficult to manage and very proud of it, admittedly not above overstating evidence while pitching a story to his bosses, cautious at important points and quick on the trigger at others, careful in documenting his stories and yet capable of playing down things that might undercut his basic reporting. After building his case that Paula Jones should be taken seriously, for example, he then takes the fact that she later changed her story in order to strengthen her lawsuit and relegates it to merely a footnote.
Many reporters who read this will applaud his tenacity, his talents, his feisty manner, and his drive. Many editors will applaud all these same things and then indulge themselves in thinking that editors will always be in demand. Non-journalists might come away understanding that reporting stories isn't as easy as it looks, and that in some of the most intense newsroom debates no one is clearly wrong and everyone has a good point.
This last was true of the debate within Newsweek over whether to print Isikoff's initial story about Clinton, Lewinsky, and Starr. Ann McDaniel, the Washington bureau chief, was concerned publication would disrupt an ongoing criminal investigation, something news organizations generally try not to do. Richard Smith, the editor-in-chief, was worried that they still had no real evidence that Vernon Jordan had done the things Tripp claimed, and that Lewinsky---who they hadn't yet interviewed---might be wandering around in some sort of fantasy world. Mark Whitaker, the then managing editor, later said he felt that he had a "fiduciary responsibility" to insure the credibility of the magazine, and he surely did. Even a magazine as strong as Newsweek would have a hard time explaining two "Hitler's Diaries" in one generation. Holding the story probably was the right call.
But Isikoff also was right. The independent counsel had expanded his investigation from land deals in Arkansas to sex and lies in the White House. His agents were trying to wire Lewinsky to run a sting on the president. By any definition this was serious and legitimate news. "Washington will go nuts," he warned his editors. And very quickly, thanks not only to Matt Drudge's Internet alarm system but also to The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, ABC News, and some others, the story was everywhere, and Newsweek was scrambling to put out its own version via the Internet.
Looking back, that initial Isikoff report holds up fairly well, although it may have given too much weight to Tripp's account of Jordan's involvement and raised almost no questions at all about whether the expansion of Starr's investigation was warranted to begin with. Nor was there any hint of Tripp's role as puppeteer, pulling Lewinsky's strings and virtually writing the script for much of what later would be the obstruction of justice charges.
This brings us back to the question Isikoff raises of himself: Had he become too much of an active player and strayed too far over the line?
On November 21, 1997, Tripp had called him and said that Lewinsky had sent another package to the White House, addressed to presidential secretary Betty Currie but intended for Clinton. By this point Tripp and Goldberg had arranged for Isikoff to get receipts of these deliveries from a messenger service Tripp had persuaded Lewinsky to use and that just happened to be owned by a relative of Goldberg. The package, Tripp said, contained a tape "for phone sex."
It was at this point, he writes, that he realized with more clarity than he had in the past that he "was in the middle of a plot to get the president."
"I was only covering it, of course," he now writes. "Or so I told myself. But I was covering it from the inside, while it was unfolding, talking nearly every week with the conspirators as they schemed to make it happen." Some of these were the kinds of conversations reporters have with sources routinely, he says, but in this kind of situation "the lines between aggressive reporter and passive conspirator can get awfully blurry."
It's true that Tripp and Goldberg saw him as their vehicle for exposing the president. But reporters find themselves in these situations all the time, albeit on much smaller stages and for much lower stakes. It's true that he had forced Starr to move quickly by threatening to interview Jordan and Lewinsky before they even knew they were being investigated. But this isn't unusual either. It happens quite often. And it's true that he was chagrined to discover that he had been relying on anti-Clinton lawyers as sources "even while they concealed from me their role in bringing the Lewinsky allegations to the Jones lawyers and later to Ken Starr." But a reporter who hasn't been misled by sources hasn't worked many stories, and the important issue for himself and his editors is whether the journalism he produced was accurate and fair or whether he had become so beholden to his sources that things ended up tilted their way.
In the end, Isikoff's own book doesn't entirely answer Isikoff's own question, but it suggests that if he had done more aggressive reporting on the active "conspirators" as he now calls them, the question of passive conspiracy probably wouldn't be an issue. This leads to the question of just what, to use his own phrase, was and was not on his radar screen.
The story about Clinton and Lewinsky was potentially so explosive that it's hard to fault him for not focusing on other matters that may have seemed peripheral at the time. But he may have jammed his own radar concerning the work of the "elves," which is the term he now uses for the network of conservative lawyers that worked secretly to help keep the Jones case alive and eventually steered Tripp to both the Jones lawyers and to Starr. The network included George Conway, a New York lawyer active in the conservative Federalist Society; Jerome Marcus, a Philadelphia attorney who had done legal work in Ronald Reaganís State Department; Richard Porter, a former aide to Dan Quayle and an associate in the Chicago office of Kenneth Starr's law firm; Ann Coulter, the lawyer and Human Events columnist; and others. It was Coulter who first suggested the term to Isikoff, hinting to him that she had great inside knowledge of the strategies being developed by the Jones legal team, and then adding: "There are many of us busy elves working away in Santa's workshop."
A good deal has been written in recent months about these lawyers and their ties to (a) anti-Clinton conservatives, (b) Starr and his investigators, and (c) the Paula Jones legal team. It's now clear that they were major players in helping set the trap that Clinton walked into. But almost nothing was known about them at the time the scandal erupted.
Isikoff says that he now can report on the "elves" and their work, but that interviews back in 1997 and 1998 were obtained with the promise that he not only wouldn't quote them but "wouldn't even refer to them" in his stories. He now describes their activities with great specificity and great detail. But what's not clear is just how much he knew and just when he knew it, and the degree to which he might have handcuffed himself by his early agreement.
This is a question worth noting because back when Hillary Rodham Clinton was charging that there was a right-wing conspiracy out to destroy the president, Newsweek was suggesting something quite different. While it presented a large chart listing many of the known conservatives involved in anti-Clinton activities, it said in the same issue (February 9, 1998) that White House attempts to pull together these connections "strained to make the coincidental seem conspiratorial, the mundane seem sinister." And it went on to compare her charges to those made by Senator Joseph McCarthy back in the '50s, a rather harsh comparison given that McCarthy is widely regarded as having made charges that were reckless and malicious, as well as false.
But in Uncovering Clinton Isikoff tells about a single day, in November 1997, in which Lucianne Goldberg contacted Porter to urge him to arrange for Linda Tripp to be subpoenaed by the Paula Jones lawyers to testify about Clinton's alleged fondling of Kathleen Willey. Porter then phoned Conway and left on his answering machine the astonishing news that a woman named Lewinsky and "a certain Lothario in the Casa Blancaî had been having oral sex in the pantry. Conway quickly relayed that message back to one of the Paula Jones lawyers with the admonition, surely unnecessary, "Listen, you've really got to focus on this."
In describing this flurry of activity and the events that flowed out of it, Isikoff now says: "The conspiracy, thoroughly right wing, may not have been that vast. But it had done its job."
Public knowledge about this network and the depth of its involvement might not have changed anything at all back in February 1998. Clinton did what he did, and the fact that there was a well-laid trap that had been set by Tripp and Goldberg and the various elves doesn't change the fact that he walked into it. But it might have helped broaden the focus of some of the early reporting, causing the press to concentrate not only on the sex and the lies but also on just what forces had been at work and just how all of this had come into play. This, in turn, might have caused more attention to be focused more quickly than it was and more intensely than it was on the Starr investigation itself.
Any high-powered federal investigation has at least two questions for reporters to try to answer. The first is what has the target actually done and how serious is it? The second is what has the government been doing in building its case? The second often doesn't get as much attention as the first, despite the fact that there's a history of prosecutors running out of control. Even colleagues in the Justice Department considered some of Bobby Kennedy's "Get Hoffa" squad, for example, to be torpedoes who paid scant attention to constitutional rights. Parts of the FBI's "ABSCAM" operation, in which operatives disguised as Arab sheiks paid bribes to congressmen, were widely criticized for having crossed the line from sting operations to entrapments. But in the early days of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal so much of the reporting was focused so heavily on what Clinton allegedly had done that little attention was paid to what the government, in the form of Ken Starr, had been doing.
Eventually the criticisms began to build--that Starr had been hauling women and state troopers before an Arkansas grand jury to ask about Clinton's sex life, that his agents had tried to intimidate Lewinsky into not contacting her lawyer by threatening to send her to jail for twenty-seven years and to indict her mother as well, that he had allowed massive leaks to news organizations in an effort to poison public opinion against Clinton, that he had spent four years and $40 million drilling dry wells and then ended up with a charge that, in the words of Jimmy Breslin, "wouldn't hold up in night court."
There is little serious and sustained reporting about this in Isikoff's book, although he concludes in the epilogue that by grabbing Lewinsky and holding her in the way that they did, Starr's agents had used "the awesome powers of the prosecutor in ways that looked disproportionate and even frightening," causing the investigation to be "flawed from the start." One would have liked more. Having reported the Paula Jones story from the beginning, having become intimately familiar with the Starr operation from its Whitewater days, having covered the Justice Department for a good many years, and having had the access he did to Tripp and Goldberg and many of the conservative lawyers in the confederacy of elves, he was better positioned than most---perhaps uniquely positioned---to tell this whole broader story, to do definitive reporting on whether Starr had been running a normal investigation using just the "traditional and appropriate" techniques that he's claimed, or whether he was an obsessed prosecutor with a staff run amuck.
But it may be that his ties to Starr's investigators are simply too many and too close. It may be that he feels bound by confidentiality pledges made in the past. Or it may be that he considers all of this merely a sideshow, and not essential to the "reporter's story" about Clinton's sexual compulsions and cover-ups he's trying to tell. His book is called Uncovering Clinton, not Uncovering Starr, and his position seems to be the perfectly legitimate one that any journalists interested in the latter can go write their own.