Revisions on the fly: Two case studies

Part two of Internet journalism and the Starr investigation

According to news accounts, the sequence of events involving the Wall Street Journal report unfolded as follows: Shortly before 4 p.m. on Wednesday, February 4, 1998, Joe Lockhart, the White House deputy press secretary, said a Journal reporter approached him for a reaction to accusations that a White House steward had once seen Clinton and Lewinsky alone in a study next to the Oval Office. The reporter said he needed the information quickly because the paper planned to publish the story on its web site. Lockhart said he and the reporter agreed that Lockhart would get back to the reporter within 30 minutes unless the reporter paged him to say he had less time. A few minutes later, the reporter paged him to say the story had already gone up on the Wall Street Journal Interactive site.

The Journal’s online story reported that Bayani Nelvis, a White House steward, had testified before Starr’s grand jury that he had seen Clinton and Lewinsky alone together. The story claimed the steward “found and disposed of tissues with lipstick and other stains following a meeting between Mr. Clinton and Ms. Lewinsky,” and that he had recounted the episode to the Secret Service because he was “personally offended” by it. The report was attributed to “two individuals familiar with” the steward’s testimony. Within minutes after the story was posted, the paper’s Washington bureau chief appeared on the cable news channel CNBC — the Journal’s new television partner — discussing the scoop. His remarks were later picked up by MSNBC and posted on the MSNBC web site.

Less than 90 minutes after the Journal first posted the story, Nelvis’s attorney issued a statement calling the report “absolutely false and irresponsible.” Late that afternoon, the Washington Post and other news organizations sought to verify the original allegations, but the Post said its sources close to the grand jury strongly denied that Nelvis gave any such testimony.

At 6:40 p.m., the Journal posted a revised version of the story in which it added the strong denials from the steward’s lawyer, who had originally refused to comment when the Journal was preparing its initial report. The softened story contained a second change as well: The steward reportedly spoke to Secret Service personnel, and not necessarily the grand jury, about what he had seen. Meantime, both the original report and revised version had flashed to news outlets across the country.

Why rush to publish the exclusive on the Web site rather than wait for the print publication? Brian Duffy, who shared a byline on the story, said, “We heard footsteps from at least one other news organization and just didn’t think it was going to hold in this crazy cycle we’re in.”

The following morning, February 5, yet another version appeared in the Journal, this time in the print edition. The story, with a few small modifications, ran on page A24 under the headline, “Controversy Erupts Over Testimony to Grand Jury by White House Steward.” Hours later, at his daily press briefing, Lockhart noted that in its haste to post the story, the Journal did not wait for a response from the White House. “The normal rules of checking or getting a response to a story seem to have given way to the technology of the Internet and the competitive pressure of getting it first,” he said. “I understand the competitive pressure that everybody is under. But I do think it’s a significant lowering of standards when getting it first supersedes getting it right.”

Richard Tofel, a spokesman for the Journal, denied the White House’s assertion of declining journalistic standards and said the newspaper had merely updated a breaking news story, a standard practice for news organizations. “In the wire service business, this happens all the time,” Tofel said. Paul Steiger, the paper’s managing editor, released a prepared statement saying, “We stand by our account of what Mr. Nelvis told the Secret Service.” He also said the Journal posted the story when the editors “felt it was ready.” The Journal didn’t wait for a response because the paper felt the White House had made it clear it wouldn’t answer questions about the case.

On Monday, February 9, the Journal reported that, contrary to its earlier story, the steward had not told the grand jury he had seen Clinton and Lewinsky alone. In fact, far from seeing something, Nelvis turns out to have never seen the two alone and to have testified to that before the grand jury. “We deeply regret our erroneous report of Mr. Nelvis’ testimony,” the Journal quoted Steiger as saying.

During the week, while several wire services filed reports about the Journal story and its later retractions, the Associated Press did not. Darrell Christian, the managing editor, said, “We went to our own sources and tried to check it out and were pretty much convinced that there were enough doubts about the accuracy of the report that we would not go with it.”

Questions for students about the Journal’s handling of the story:

•   Was the Journal right to publish what it knew as soon as it knew it on its web site without waiting for an official response?

•   Was what the Journal did any different from what wire services routinely do when they file updates from the scene of breaking news? If so, how did it differ?

•   Should competitive pressures, such as fear of losing a scoop, come into play when deciding whether to publish an early version of a story?

•   What standards should wire services use when reporting such a story? Is it enough to say that “The Wall Street Journal reported today …” without doing any independent verification?

Eye of the storm

During early press coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky matter, the publication that found itself most squarely in the eye of the hurricane was the Dallas Morning News.

On Sunday, January 25, 1998, ABC News reported on This Week that Starr was looking into claims that in the spring of 1996 the president and Lewinsky had been “caught in an intimate encounter” by either Secret Service agents or White House staffers, according to “several sources.” The following day, David Jackson, a veteran member of the Dallas Morning News Washington bureau, received a tip from a source who put more meat and bones on the story. The source, a well-connected Washington lawyer, said he had knowledge that a federal employee had seen Clinton and Lewinsky in a “compromising situation” in the White House and had agreed to testify as a government witness. The report, if true, dramatically escalated the stakes for the president.

Later Monday, the News spoke with the source again and amended the story to say that Starr’s staff had spoken with a Secret Service agent, a level of detail that added gravity to the charge. The source — it turned out to be Joseph diGenova, a former independent counsel with strong Republican ties1 — seemed to have first-hand knowledge of events because his law partner and wife, Victoria Toensing, had been approached about representing the Secret Service agent in question. The paper’s top editor, Ralph Langer, says the source confirmed the story after it was read to him.

But the source’s law partner called Jackson at 5 p.m. to warn the paper off the story. Bureau chief Leubsdorf acknowledged that he learned of the call around midnight Washington time but minimized the reservations expressed by the law partner.

At a meeting of senior editors early that evening, the story was discussed at length. Cranfill, managing director of the web site, recalls he expressed doubts about the story’s accuracy. “I was skeptical of the story. It raised chill bumps on my arms. I lobbied to wait on the story. But the others felt we had it solid, and the decision was made to run it in the first edition.” The story was then sent out to the Associated Press and Knight Ridder wires and posted on the paper’s web site.

On Monday night, the paper ran in its bulldog edition (which hit the streets that night but carried the next day’s date) and on its web site a story with this lead: “Independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s staff has spoken with a Secret Service agent who is prepared to testify that he saw President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky in a compromising situation in the White House, sources said Monday.”

A short time later, all hell broke loose. Wire services sent the story worldwide. Cable networks, radio shows and local TV newscasts led with the report. Larry King interrupted his program to read the story live. Ted Koppel led Nightline with the news. The story was so explosive that the White House called Nightline and denied the story on the air.

By the end of Nightline, the source called the paper and backed off his claim, saying, “I don’t think I really said what you’re reporting.” (Both Langer and Cranfill suggest that White House pressure led to the source’s turnabout, but it’s more likely that one of Starr’s staff members called diGenova to retract the claim — because it wasn’t true.) A flurry of phone calls ensued. Recalls Cranfill: “At 11:30 p.m. I got a call from the national editor, who said, ‘There’s a problem with the story, Ralph Langer says to take it off the site.’ We put up an explanation that the source had changed his statement.”

Langer pulled the story from the paper’s Tuesday second edition. The paper later subbed in a revised story that said in part, “the source for the story, a longtime Washington lawyer familiar with the case, later said the information provided for Tuesday’s report was inaccurate.”

The Associated Press carried the newspaper’s report on the wire for nearly four hours that night before filing a “bulletin kill” at 1:02 a.m. Tuesday. Christian, the AP managing editor who resisted reporting the Wall Street Journal’s allegations, said the news service tries to be cautious about repeating allegations supported only by unidentified sources but had no reason to doubt the Dallas paper’s account, based on its trustworthy track record. “We take into account the news organization, the nature of the report, and the qualifications they give to the report,” he says. “It’s hard to fault anyone for picking up that report. It passed the smell test.”

Just a few hours passed between the Morning News’ story and its retraction, but that was more than enough time for the news to travel the globe. Dozens of newspapers, including the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune, carried the report the next day. (The New York Post’s front page headline blared: “I SAW THEM DO IT”; the New York Daily News said: “CAUGHT IN THE ACT.”) The papers were forced to publish an account of the Morning News’ quasi-retraction the next day.

Yet a third version of the story appeared on the Morning News’ web site late Tuesday and in its print edition the next day. This time, the paper partly reasserted its original claim, with diGenova saying the first story was “essentially correct.” Quoting two sources, the paper said “one or more witnesses” had seen Clinton and Lewinsky in “an ambiguous incident” rather than “a compromising situation.” It also said an “intermediary for one or more witnesses” — and not a Secret Service agent — had “talked with independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s office about possible cooperation.”

Later on Wednesday, the newspaper assembled more than 200 editorial employees into a ballroom of the Hyatt Regency Hotel to discuss the fiasco. Editor Ralph Langer fielded questions from staffers with the aid of a wireless microphone while Carl Leubsdorf, the paper’s longtime Washington bureau chief, chimed in from a speaker phone. Langer told the employees the News had unwittingly relied on only one source to publish its original story, violating the paper’s two-source standard. Senior editors mistakenly believed a second source existed because of a “miscommunication” between Dallas and the Washington bureau.

The paper’s backpedaling and flipflop were immediately pounced upon by pundits, politicians and press critics. The New York Times devoted a story to the debacle under the headline, “Retracting a Retraction, Self-Defense and a Revelation.” Reporter Janny Scott wrote: “The Dallas Morning News, 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.”

As it turned out, no eyewitness to an act by Clinton and Lewinsky, ambiguous or otherwise, has ever come forward, and no present or former Secret Service agent has ever been named.

Nearly two years later, it’s apparent that the scars from the episode haven’t fully healed inside the Morning News newsroom. “The conventional wisdom is that the Dallas Morning News really screwed up,” Cranfill says, a bit brusquely. “But it was the witness who changed his story. During those early weeks there was a lot of rumor and innuendo flying around, and a lot of news organizations were put in the position of trying to sort out the truth. We had sources swearing to us up and down that certain events happened, and it turned out it wasn’t true. There was a lot of pressure to put the next revelation up without as much confirmation as we needed.”

While that may sound like a convincing argument to go slow on a big story and not worry about scooping the competition, Cranfill doesn’t see it that way. “News coverage is always sloppy. You don’t have the luxury of being able to pore over the documented facts like a historian and say, ‘Here’s what really happened.’ When you’re in the heat of the moment, you’re at the mercy of what people who step forward tell you. We’re especially vulnerable on the Web.

Cranfill, now the Web site’s news projects editor, adds: “Most Internet-based breaking news stories advance faster than television, much faster than newspapers and at least as fast as radio. Anyone who has had any experience reading wire service bulletins learns quickly that the initial reports on the wire are partly right and partly wrong and only time will tell which is which. Now, if you’re running a news web site, are you going to sit on what you’ve got, or are you going to report it? If you hold off, I’ll guarantee you people will pick up the phone and ask us why we’re not publishing the news.”

Questions for students about the Morning News’ handling of the story:

•   Did the Morning News have enough information to go with its original report, or should it have held off? What were the risks of not running it?

•   What criteria should wire services and news organizations use when deciding whether to report serious allegations put forth by a newspaper, especially when anonymous sources are used?

•   Do you agree with Cranfill’s viewpoint that news web sites have an obligation to report what they know when they know it?

• `  The Internet places a premium on speed and immediacy. Does a different standard for news apply in the online world?

NEXT:  The sourcing problem

In this report

Introduction: Internet journalism and the Starr investigation

Part 2: Revisions on the fly: Two case studies

Part 3: The sourcing problem

Part 4: The Starr Report

Part 5: Speed vs. context and accuracy in covering the scandal

JD Lasica
Written by JD Lasica
JD Lasica is an entrepreneur, author, journalist, photographer and blogger. | CONTACT