Howard Kurtz Cleans Up After the Washington Post ‘s Coverage of Zippergate

Washington Post reporters look out for their own. Case in point: When Post reporter Susan Schmidt came under attack recently from Democratic Party operatives for her coverage of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the paper’s media columnist, Howard Kurtz, quickly produced a story that portrayed her as a victim of a smear campaign directed by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sidney Blumenthal, special adviser to the President. Call it the vast centrist conspiracy. Mr. Kurtz’s piece had a funny feel to it-it was based, in part, on reporting he did over a year ago, and seemed timed only to rebut the criticisms of Ms. Schmidt. And to complicate matters, Mr. Kurtz said that his boss, Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr.-who is quoted in the piece as a staunch advocate of Ms. Schmidt-gave the go-ahead for the story.

The squabble was prompted by a front-page piece Ms. Schmidt wrote on Feb. 11 about Lewis Fox, the retired Secret Service agent who claims he escorted Ms. Lewinsky into the Oval Office in 1995. Mr. Fox had been interviewed a week before by Pittsburgh’s WPXI-TV and by the Washington, Pa., Observer-Reporter , and had given an account that wasn’t particularly damaging to the President. “[Ms. Lewinsky] would come to the Oval Office on weekends and bring documents over for the President,” Mr. Fox told the Observer-Reporter . “It would be nothing unusual for people to show up with papers for the President.” The paper reported Mr. Fox’s contention that the layout of the Oval Office and the foot-traffic in the West Wing would make it “difficult for President Clinton and Lewinsky to have had any type of sexual relationship there.”

Ms. Schmidt’s story on Mr. Fox was spun in a different direction. Headlined “Clinton, Lewinsky Met Alone, Guard Says,” the piece reported that in an interview with the Post , Mr. Fox said that Ms. Lewinsky “spent at least 40 minutes alone with Clinton” while the Secret Service agent was posted outside the Oval Office-damning information because the President has reportedly denied ever having been alone with Ms. Lewinsky. On Feb. 12, a Washington Post editorial suggested that Mr. Fox had “guarded the door” while Mr. Clinton and Ms. Lewinsky were alone.

The Clinton camp responded by going after Ms. Schmidt. They faxed reporters a line-by-line comparison of her story and the Observer-Reporter ‘s, and worked the phones to complain that Ms. Schmidt had left out information that they considered exculpatory to the President. According to one Washington reporter familiar with Ms. Schmidt’s critics, their refrain “is that she puts the most nefarious take on everything.”

This is hardly the first time Mr. Clinton’s allies have attacked Ms. Schmidt; as the Post ‘s lead reporter on its Whitewater coverage, she’s been in the line of fire before. Ms. Schmidt, however, did not want to comment on her Fox story or the White House reaction to it. “Sue’s work stands unchallenged,” said Mr. Downie, “and I don’t know why she’s being attacked in this way.”

But that’s where Mr. Kurtz comes in. In his story on Feb. 14, Mr. Kurtz asserted that in early 1996, at the suggestion of then- New Yorker writer Sidney Blumenthal, Mrs. Clinton had ordered White House lawyers to prepare a critique of Susan Schmidt’s Whitewater coverage. Mr. Kurtz reported that White House press secretary Mike McCurry and then-White House special counsel Mark Fabiani argued against the report, fearing it would create sympathy for Ms. Schmidt, but Mrs. Clinton overruled them. Mr. Kurtz wrote that recent interviews with five current and former White House officials who saw the report said “that it failed to offer compelling evidence that [Ms. Schmidt’s] coverage was less fair than that of The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal. ” Mr. Kurtz also quoted his boss, Mr. Downie, as saying that Ms. Schmidt, “through extremely hard reporting work,” was “able to find things out that I felt were significant for our readers to know.”

Mr. Kurtz denied he was going to bat for his colleague. “I don’t view myself as rushing to the defense of Sue Schmidt,” he said. “What’s interesting here is what it tells us about the mindset of the First Lady in terms of her sensitivity to criticism on the Whitewater affair.”

Both Mr. Kurtz and Mr. Downie said that the piece was not timed to rebut the Clinton partisans’ view of Ms. Schmidt’s Lewis Fox story. Mr. Kurtz said that he uncovered news of the White House’s Schmidt report in 1996 while researching his upcoming book, Spin Cycle , due out next month. In the wake of the Fox piece, he said, “The story was bouncing all around town and looked like it was going to pop somewhere … Since I had already done all this reporting, I asked the editors if they would be interested in running something, and they said Yes.”

Mr. Downie called the timing “coincidental.” “This is the normal time to do something that’s newsworthy from the book,” he said.

Mr. Blumenthal denies some of Mr. Kurtz’s account. “I had no idea that anyone produced a report or any analysis of Sue Schmidt’s reporting, and I’ve never seen it,” Mr. Blumenthal said. White House sources contend that the report was not a sinister undertaking but was intended to inform their letters to the editor of The Washington Post ; apparently some consideration was given to submitting the entire critique to The Post.

Clinton partisans aren’t the only ones fuming over Mr. Kurtz’s piece. In the same story, Mr. Kurtz reported that the President’s attorney, David Kendall, “has been helping [conservative] author David Brock research an article on Starr’s Whitewater probe for Esquire magazine,” which “the Administration hopes will criticize the coverage of the scandal.” Mr. Brock and Esquire editor in chief David Granger both said that no article had been formally assigned, but that, through another editor, a story about the Whitewater coverage of The New York Times and The Washington Post had been discussed. At any rate, both objected to Mr. Kurtz’s suggestion that they were White House dupes. “It seems like some kind of pre-emptive strike,” said Mr. Granger. “They seem to be defending themselves against the thought of having anyone look into the integrity of their Whitewater coverage.”

“Not only do I think people should examine The Post ‘s Whitewater coverage critically, I’ve done it myself,” said Mr. Kurtz.

The larger question posed by Mr. Kurtz’s piece is whether it’s possible for a media reporter-even one of his stature-to write fairly about his boss. Since Mr. Downie became executive editor of The Post in June 1991, Mr. Kurtz has mentioned him roughly 50 times in his column-twice as often as he has mentioned New Yorker editor Tina Brown during the same period. Some of those stories have been tough. In 1995, he quoted journalist Ruth Shalit as saying Mr. Downie was “Nixon-like” and “denying reality” about racial problems in his newsroom. But on numerous occasions, Mr. Downie is sought out as a kind of journalistic sage to issue opinions about the ethics of “off the record” social events, for example, or of reporting indictments before they’ve been issued. In the case of the Susan Schmidt story, a Post insider said that Mr. Downie is “heavily invested” in Ms. Schmidt and her Whitewater coverage.

For his part, Mr. Kurtz insists, “I cover The Post like I do any other paper.”

“Usually, editors who are involved in a controversy I write about don’t get involved in the editing of the piece,” Mr. Kurtz said. “I can’t tell you that Len Downie didn’t read this piece before publication, but he certainly didn’t make any suggestion to me about how to change it.… Obviously, the editors of The Washington Post have the final say about what goes in the paper, but I’m very comfortable with the independence I’ve been given to criticize them when warranted.”

Creativity has cost one New York Post copy editor his job. Roger Franklin, an Aussie who has worked at the Post for 10 years, according to colleagues, was fired on Feb. 16 by editorial page editor John Podhoretz for altering the text of a reader’s letter to the editor. When the reader, Scott Pellegrino, a producer of WEVD-AM’s The Jay Diamond Show , called to complain, Mr. Franklin called him a “dickhead.” Mr. Pellegrino got it on tape.

Mr. Pellegrino’s letter criticized the Kennedy family, but when it appeared in print, the missive contained vitriol Mr. Pellegrino hadn’t intended: “They are a bunch of really, really swell guys-despite the odd drowned blonde, seducing the baby-sitter, etc.,” the final version read.

In his search for justice, Mr. Pellegrino also called Mr. Podhoretz, who initially told him that the changes were a normal part of the editing process. Mr. Pellegrino got that on tape, too. He then turned the tapes over to the Daily News , which was all too happy to excerpt them. That was Friday, Feb. 13. On Saturday, the Post published an unusually contrite apology, which read, in part, “the letter … was unacceptably amended with the addition of phrases and sentences Mr. Pellegrino did not write.” And by Monday, Feb. 16, Mr. Podhoretz was no longer standing by the copy editor. With the blessing of Post editor Ken Chandler, he fired Mr. Franklin.

Mr. Pellegrino is not placated. “John Podhoretz seemed to agree with this policy last week and changed [his opinion] only in light of the torrent of media attention,” he said. “He’s just trying to save face.” Mr. Pellegrino added that he will not rest until his letter is published in its original form.

“When I was able to do my own independent investigation, I was heartsick to discover that this had gone on,” Mr. Podhoretz told Off the Record. “We’ve taken the most serious disciplinary action we can against someone we genuinely liked.” Mr. Franklin could not be reached for comment.

You can reach Off the Record by e-mail at wstjohn@observer.com.

Howard Kurtz Cleans Up After the Washington Post ‘s Coverage of Zippergate