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DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION '96

Tabloid's Story on Strategist Was Timed for 'Maximum Effect'

Media: Publication of sex allegations against Clinton advisor Dick Morris was keyed to Democratic convention, the Star acknowledges.

August 30, 1996|ELEANOR RANDOLPH and BILL BOYARSKY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

CHICAGO — The story about White House advisor Dick Morris and an alleged prostitute that rocked the final session of the Democratic National Convention was no accident. Instead, it was the result of successful planning by the weekly Star tabloid, which timed the release of its bombshell for maximum effect, the newspaper said Thursday.

Nonetheless, even the 15,000 journalists here who have been searching hungrily for news this week might not have given the Star's report the universal circulation it is now receiving if Morris had not resigned hours before President Clinton's renomination acceptance speech. For most in the media, the resignation lent credence to the account.

The story began in July when Sherry Rowlands, 37, went to the Star with claims that she was a prostitute and that Morris was her client.

"Quite a few of us here said, 'Dick who?' " editor Phil Bunton said Thursday.

"There was some skepticism" about whether Morris was the type of celebrity favored by the tabloid, Bunton said. "He is not really a tabloid personality."

The paper soon decided, however, that Rowlands was providing "gossip and secrets from the White House," he said. Rowlands said she was given a glimpse of White House political strategies by Morris--including, eventually, a peek at what she believed were drafts of convention speeches planned for First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.

"The fact that he was spilling secrets made it a big story," Bunton said. "If it was just 'Dick Morris slept with a hooker,' I don't think it would have gone anywhere. It would have been a non-story."

Reporter Richard Gooding said Rowlands eventually provided him with videotapes, audiotapes of phone messages and even her key to Morris' room at the Jefferson Hotel in Washington. The images and access helped convince the paper's editors and lawyers that she was telling the truth.

Gooding and Bunton decided that Rowlands knew little about the world she claimed to have entered. Bunton said that in her diary, well-known names of White House figures were spelled phonetically.

The tabloid also checked staff members into the Jefferson for 10 days. During that time, the newspaper said, Rowlands arranged for Morris to come out with her on the balcony so the tabloid could secretly photograph the couple.

Bunton acknowledged Thursday that the tabloid paid Rowlands for her information and cooperation, but refused to disclose the amount. In 1992, the tabloid broke the story about Clinton's alleged affair with nightclub singer Gennifer Flowers. The paper reportedly paid her $150,000 for her story.

Most major news organizations in this country do not allow journalists to pay for interviews, citing the possibility of sources embellishing on or inventing facts to make their story more salable.

Asked about the payments to Rowlands, Gooding said: "The rest of the press turns up their noses about this kind of thing, but we don't care. They say if you pay somebody, they don't tell the truth. But people who can't write get paid all the time for a book contract. How is that different from giving an interview and being paid for it?"

"This is a woman who has never had any money, and now she has given up her major source of income," Gooding said, referring to the money she claims Morris paid for her services.

Last week, the newspaper decided it had enough information to publish. The issue rolled off the presses Tuesday and is to hit the supermarkets next week. But the tabloid wanted the story out before the convention ended.

Gooding, a veteran New York tabloid journalist, said he and his editors wanted "to give ourselves the best possible publicity, with the convention going on there in Chicago."

Their solution was to persuade another newspaper to print the allegations and credit the Star. So the paper's editors began shopping their exclusive to two dailies--the Chicago Tribune and the New York Post, a tabloid.

The Chicago paper's reaction was one of restraint. James O'Shea, its deputy managing editor for news, said that after the newspaper received a faxed copy of the article on Wednesday, "basically we treated it like we treat any tip on any story and that is to begin pursuing it, which we did [Wednesday] night.

"Our decision was made that without any response from Morris, we couldn't run it until we determined whether the facts were right," O'Shea said. "We weren't going to run with a supermarket tabloid story."

The New York paper chose a different path. After learning of the story Wednesday morning, "Post editors were provided with convincing evidence" and decided to publish, editor Ken Chandler said in a statement Thursday. The newspaper would not describe that evidence.

The paper's account featured a front-page headline that said "Bill's Bad Boy" and a photo of Morris.

The controversial advisor promptly resigned. Although he refused to comment on the specific allegations, Morris issued a statement calling them "sadistic vitriol" and "yellow journalism."

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