For a few days, the Clinton sex scandal overwhelmed even Matt Drudge. During the entire weekend, America’s speediest gossip columnist did not update his now-famous Web site (www.drudgereport.com), credited by many as the crowbar that forced Newsweek to publish. The weekly had been investigating for months the details surrounding the alleged affair between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.
The Web site informed visitors that Drudge was ”in the field,” and that his report would return when he did. What this really meant was that Drudge, who normally works out of his Hollywood home, was in Washington, D.C., all weekend. The Internet maven who accuses the media of ”sleeping” while he put out the big story looked quite pleased to be swimming in the mainstream, appearing with more-typical suspects in the studios of CNN’s Reliable Sources and NBC’s Meet the Press.
Drudge used the TV spotlight to praise his work over that of Newsweek. Copping his best Tom Paine posture, Drudge said on Reliable Sources: ”That Newsweek editors felt that the people weren’t ready to hear this story, and/or the special counsel needed more time to build a case that they’d been involved with for more than six months, I think is very disingenuous, and something of this seriousness should have been brought to the people immediately.”
Drudge deserves some credit for bringing the story to the surface, but is his characterization of Newsweek‘s actions fair? Newsweek editor in chief Rick Smith does not think so. Asked by the Voice about charges that his magazine has hewed too closely to prosecutor Ken Starr’s agenda, Smith said: ”That’s the criticism that pisses me off the most.” While acknowledging that Newsweek paused its reporting at Starr’s request, Smith insists: ”We didn’t have the story at that point.”
With its reporting complete, however, Newsweek has fought back hard. On top of the lengthy account that Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff posted on the Internet in the middle of last week, the February 2 issue features the longest breaking-news story Newsweek has run in its 65-year history. Take that, Drudge.
The political impact of the Clinton sex scandal has yet to be fully felt; as of the Voice’s Monday deadline, the president continued to insist that ”I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”
But a powerful media subtheme to the story has been the emerging animosity between old media and new. Did dinosaur Newsweek cave into the power structure? Or is Matt Drudge, as Isikoff calls him, a ”sleazeball”?
With this subject, the stakes are higher than usual. As a Washington Post writer put it to me about his sister publication: ”How long did you think one of the largest news magazines in the country [would] sit by and watch some cyber pipsqueak steal its story, the story that might bring down the last president of the 20th century?”
The feud started within hours after Newsweek withheld Isikoff’s account of the latest twists in Starr’s investigation. Early Sunday morning, January 18, Drudge posted: ”At the last minute, at 6 p.m. on Saturday evening, Newsweek magazine killed a story that was destined to shake official Washington to its foundation: A White House intern carried on a sexual affair with the President of the United States!”
Given the popularity of Drudge’s work among those in the media–especially, but not limited to, those on the right and Web heads–Newsweek took severe body blows for not running Isikoff’s story. Drudge’s assumption that the magazine chickened out–for which he offers no evidence–has been accepted uncritically. National Review editor Rich Lowry told the Washington Post that Newsweek‘s decision ”really looks as though it was a mistake.” Slate claimed that Newsweek ”spiked” the story because of ”cold feet” (which is simply wrong: holding and spiking are not the same thing).
Almost all criticism of Newsweek, however, has been made by people with little to no knowledge of how the magazine reached its decision. Upon closer inspection, the account given by Newsweek editors does not seem at all unreasonable.
The Newsweek group that debated whether or not to run the Lewinsky story was a roomful of those known in the magazine’s lore as ”flying Wallendas” (because they float so high on the masthead). It included editor in chief Rick Smith, managing editor Mark Whitaker, Isikoff, Washington bureau chief Ann McDaniel, and assistant managing editor Evan Thomas–the last three via speaker phone from D.C.
During the Saturday, January 17, meeting, there was no clear line between those who wanted to print the story and those who didn’t. ”Arguments were made back and forth,” recalled Smith in a Voice interview. ”There were moments when I was advocating an argument to print it.”
Isikoff led the argument to publish, with Thomas one of his strongest supporters. His position was that the magazine was obligated to publish news, and that because his colleague Dan Klaidman had learned Saturday morning that Starr had sought Justice Department approval to expand his inquiry, the magazine had an official action on which to peg its story.
”I knew that there was a sting operation involving the president’s alleged girlfriend, and that seemed to be pretty extraordinary,” recalls Isikoff.
There were two major restraining issues. Isikoff had been working on the story for months, primarily on background and on an off-the-record basis, and knew that Starr’s office was investigating possible perjury and obstruction of justice charges. But Newsweek did not have a copy of one of Linda Tripp’s infamous surreptitious tapes until late Friday night. Isikoff and three colleagues listened until 4:30 a.m. Saturday to the one 90-minute tape they had.
”We had expected that the tapes would shed some light on the obstruction of justice charge,” said Smith. ”As it turned out, the tape we had did not.”
The second major concern was over sources’ motivations. Newsweek knew well that Starr had been repeatedly accused of twisting material and overreaching his mandate; the Lewinsky trail might have been a salacious but empty one. To this day, Tripp’s motivations remain murky, and Isikoff knew before almost anyone else in the media that she had made her tapes at least partly in hopes of landing a book deal.
That left Lewinsky, whom no one at Newsweek had ever spoken with; only the sketchiest details were known.
”If she turned out to be a wacko,” asks a top Newsweek editor, ”can you imagine the questions and criticisms we would have received?” (It’s worth noting that there’s still a small chance this could turn out to be the case.)
Wasn’t it possible, though, to run some sort of middle-ground story? A brief, nothing- but-the-facts account that would transmit the gist of what Newsweek knew, but not use Lewinsky’s name or characterize the strength or weakness of Starr’s probe?
”We talked about the middle-ground option,” acknowledges Smith. Of course, Newsweek risked tipping other journalists to the story, who would then have had an entire week to build off Newsweek‘s scoop. Smith says, however, ”it wasn’t a competitive thing–we wouldn’t have been able to print the subtleties that we knew,” especially those about how the magazine’s own involvement affected the pace and direction of Starr’s investigation.
In the end, the Saturday evening deadline was unavoidable, and Smith remains confident that the magazine made the right decision. ”If we had been a daily paper, I’m sure we would have said, ‘Send this back for another day or two of reporting.”’
The magazine’s delay was a vacuum Drudge was only too happy to fill. Drudge embodies much of what people fear about the Web: it is idiosyncratic, often inaccurate, and flouts even the pretense of journalistic ethics. Yet Drudge also epitomizes Web strengths: his product is entrepreneurial, ”unfiltered,” and democratic, bringing the power elite’s inside knowledge to a wide readership, without charge.
And he’s got the lightning ability to force traditional media to choose or lose. Many do not appreciate the tweak; after a very similar encounter last summer, in which Drudge published news of a held Isikoff story about alleged Clinton sexual harassment, Isikoff said Drudge ”not only poisoned the atmosphere of real reporting, he was reckless and irresponsible.”
This time around, Isikoff says, ”I’m not any more pleased.” According to Newsweek‘s account, Drudge’s ”item helped poison some tense negotiations between Starr’s deputies and Lewinsky’s lawyer.”
Isikoff did not want to appear with Drudge on Sunday’s Meet the Press, he said, but did so because ”[host Tim] Russert leaned on me.” (Drudge did not respond to messages left for him over four days.)
In the end, Isikoff was able to capitalize on his months of reporting by placing an authoritative account of his work on Newsweek‘s America Online site. With most of the media relying for several crucial midweek days on that information, most commentators agreed that Newsweek had been scooped by the Net, then saved by the Net.
Ask yourself this: in a week when scooplets by outfits from the San Jose Mercury News to National Public Radio were getting play, did you hear anything before Sunday about what Time or U.S. News & World Report had or were about to have on the nation’s biggest story?
Although it was not the first time that Newsweek used the Internet to push a breaking story, the incident suggests a way for Newsweeklies to elude the tyranny of a weekly deadline in an instant-news world. As Newsweek senior editor David Alpern put it: ”I hope that a more moral, ethical press can [use Web capability] to make a decision based on the story itself, and not based on the fear that if we don’t print it, we’re going to lose it, and lose it for a week.”
Research: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie