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CLINTON UNDER FIRE

Magazine Let Scoop Slip Away

January 22, 1998|HOWARD KURTZ | THE WASHINGTON POST

Newsweek's top editors, after a day of frenetic meetings, sought Wednesday to explain why they failed to publish the story that stunned the nation, an exclusive piece about allegations that President Clinton encouraged a 24-year-old former White House intern to lie about whether they had an affair.

As the media furor over the charges reached a fever pitch, the magazine planned to belatedly post Michael Isikoff's story on its America Online site, four days after top editors pulled the potentially explosive piece from this week's issue late Saturday.

Newsweek editors said they delayed the article in part at the request of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr to avoid compromising his investigation.

"On the basis of what we knew Saturday, I am comfortable that we didn't go ahead with the story," Newsweek President Richard Smith said Wednesday night. "Given the time that was left, we had the ability to get some very sensational charges out there, but . . . when the clock ran out, I wasn't prepared to air an allegation that a young White House intern had an affair with the president without more independent reporting on her."

But there are few secrets in the modern media world, and word of Isikoff's suppressed scoop leaked out through an increasingly familiar route: Matt Drudge's Internet gossip column. Reporters across Washington, some of whom were already pursuing the story, kept scrambling for confirmation.

The Los Angeles Times broke the story Tuesday night along with the Washington Post and ABC News. The reports said Starr is investigating whether Clinton and his friend Vernon Jordan encouraged former intern Monica S. Lewinsky to lie to lawyers for Paula Corbin Jones about whether Lewinsky had an affair with the president.

The story detonated in the media with Watergate-like intensity. CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel provided live coverage of White House spokesman Mike McCurry's grilling at the daily media briefing, where ABC-TV's Sam Donaldson asked whether Clinton would cooperate with an impeachment inquiry. Moments later, Rush Limbaugh read listeners the latest Drudge update.

ABC-TV's Peter Jennings, in Cuba for the pope's visit, broke into regular programming at 3:32 p.m. to pick up a live feed of Clinton's interview with PBS's Jim Lehrer, made available by Lehrer's "NewsHour" program. Jennings was followed two minutes later by NBC-TV's Tom Brokaw.

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