As Linda Tripp’s scheduled grand jury testimony swirls through the press this week, you’ll be reading more about the notorious “talking points” that were supposedly drafted for Tripp.
The talking points you’ve read, however, depend entirely on where you read them. Arecently completed academic analysis found that as many as 10 different versions of the infamous memo have been published by seven national news outlets.
Moreover, the Voice has confirmed that at least three of those organizations altered the “talking points” document, even while presenting it as the genuine article. Following Voice inquiries last week, U.S. News&World Report declared it is now “probing” the origin of its memo.
Each of the seven media outfits that has provided an extended version of the talking points–ABC News, NBC News, The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, Newsweek, and U.S. News Online–claims to possess a copy of the document that Lewinsky reportedly gave to Tripp while driving her home from work on January 14.
Yet almost every news organization’s rendition of the document is different; a few outfits have even put out more than one version. Sometimes the discrepancies are small grammatical or stylistic variations; sometimes the meaning of sentences changes depending on which version one reads. Sometimes they’re inexplicable: in U.S. NewsOnline‘s “talking points,” a few paragraphs appear in a different order from every other published version.
But the question is: if reporters simply have copies of the same document, why would there be any discrepancies at all?
There are several possible explanations, according to Willard Fox and John Gillis, both of the University of Southwest Louisiana. One answer is that the document might be a compilation “written” by more than one person at different times; Fox and Gillis suggest it was “most likely drafted by three people.”
This theory would account for some of the quirks. In the fullest version of the document–which can now be found at both www.nytimes.com and www.washingtonpost.com –the final section essentially repeats the first section, except that it switches from the second person to the first person. For example, the sentence “You and Kathleen [Willey] were friends” becomes “Kathleen and I were friends.”
Fox and Gillis say this repetition suggests “that the first [section] was block copied on a word processor and pasted below in a tentative attempt at actually creating an affidavit.” If true, this suggests the published document came through Tripp and was changed by her–which is at odds with published accounts of the Lewinsky-to-Tripp-to-Starr transmission.
Aside from Fox and Gillis’s examination, the most exhaustive attempt to get to the bottom of the talking points was Philip Weiss’s June 15 New York Observer piece; he concluded that White House counsel Bruce Lindsey had written them.
Weiss’s thesis, however, doesn’t square with a portion of the “talking points” he ignored (Weiss did not return a phone message). Part of the middle section uses a tone markedly different from the legalisms that dominate the beginning: “By the way, remember how I said there was someone else that I knew about. Well, she turned out to be this huge liar. I found out she left the WH because she was stalking the P or something like that. Well, at least that gets me out of another scandal I know about.”
Here’s USA Today‘s take: “This paragraph appears to suggest to Tripp what she should tell lawyers in the [Paula] Jones case if she is asked about Lewinsky’s alleged sexual relationship with Clinton.”
Fox and Gillis have a much more persuasive explanation: this voice is not that of an advising lawyer, but is Tripp herself. The paragraph is tacked on to the bottom of the first legalistic portion of the document, as if it were the tag at the end of an e-mail. This, in turn, suggests that the document went through an initial drafting attorney, Lewinsky, Tripp, and someone Tripp sent it to (my gut says Lucianne Goldberg). With all those hands on it, it could easily have been altered, which would then explain why journalists might have different versions.
Indeed, Newsweek‘s February 2 edition published a typewritten page that seemed to be presented as the whole thing–except that it didn’t contain some of the portions that Newsweek‘s Michael Isikoff cited. To Fox and Gillis, that discrepancy implies that Newsweek was working from two different versions of the memo.
Newsweek denies this. Washington bureau chief Ann McDaniel told the Voice that the illustration was “a reprint of selected portions of the talking points,” though it was not marked as having been altered in any way. In this editing, the magazine says it “inadvertently” inserted a word into the graphic version’s first line. Newsweek says the document was “edited for space”–a shaky explanation, given that the magazine devoted more room that week to the Lewinsky story than it has to any topic since the Gulf War.
Newsweek‘s graphic version, for example, omits a sentence that appears to refer to Tripp’s erstwhile attorney Kirby Behre by his first name. The familiarity suggests that a portion might have been written by one of Tripp’s allies, thereby poking holes in Newsweek‘s report that the document passed simply from Lewinsky to Tripp to Starr’s office. (Last week, Newsweek stood by that account.)
The U.S. News version is also hard to explain. It is presented on the Web site as “the text of a document, grammatical errors included,” that Lewinsky gave to Tripp. One sentence–“You have never observed the President behaving inappropriately with anybody”–appears four paragraphs from the bottom, whereas in most other versions it is the last sentence. Similarly, the last sentence in the U.S. News version appears in the middle of most other versions.
U.S. News associate editor Julian Barnes, who handled much of the weekly’s early Lewinsky coverage, said U.S. News had received what it believed to be an authentic copy of the memo “from an independent, non-media source,” and that discrepancies between its version and other versions “are clearly not typos.”
“It’s interesting enough that we are probing deeper,” Barnes said.
ABC’s Web site contains two versions with discrepancies that include using a different word in the same sentence. Despite repeated requests, ABC News failed to provide an explanation.
The Fox and Gillis report and supporting documents can be found at www.ucs.usl.edu/~jfg0701/ essays/tripp.html.
It was intended as an exercise in Time Warner synergy. But the nerve-gas-in-Laos story broadcast and published in early June by NewsStand: CNN & Time may have bombed synergy back to the Stone Age.
After loud and repeated attacks from several quarters–including the resignation of CNN’s military adviser–the supposed sister organizations are now going back to see if they left something important out of their reports that in 1970 a U.S. unit used sarin gas against suspected American defectors.
Last week, CNN announced that it had hired attorney Floyd Abrams to conduct its probe; Time is using its Pentagon reporter Mark Thompson.
Officially, the two organizations say they “plan to keep reporting the story.” But unofficially, journalists feel they’re investigating each other. At Time, staffers gripe that CNN doesn’t know how to do investigative journalism. At CNN, they complain about Time‘s arrogance, pissed off that Time staffers will be poring over work both sides were meant to share.
The stakes are highest for April Oliver–the CNN producer responsible for the segment–and for CNN president Rick Kaplan. CNN has been struggling with ratings-dissipation for more than a year, and if Kaplan’s much-hyped newsmagazine was launched with a bogus story, there will be significant pressure for him to go. (The right-wing monitor group Accuracy in Media has already called for Kaplan’s resignation if the network proves to have flubbed the story.)
Some argue that CNN made a bizarre choice by using attorneys for its investigation. Abrams is a respected First Amendment lawyer, but that doesn’t necessarily give him the skills to reinvestigate a story that has some 200 sources, or make a sound judgment on producers’ decisions. Tapping Abrams, says one CNN staffer, “is like asking your babysitter which nursing home you should put your parents in. They’re just very different roles.” Abrams did not return a call for comment.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 7, 1998