The Media Mudslide-Led by Matt Drudge-Into the Clinton Muck

On Jan. 12, The New York Times ran a business feature on the new, supposedly subdued Washington Post . The subheadline: “Seeking ‘Cruising Speed,’ Washington Post Editors Prefer Stability to Sizzle.” Many at The Post detected a patronizing tone in the article-that the Washington paper was a nice, successful city paper, but when it came to breaking news of national import, the days of Watergate were long gone.

Revenge came quickly. On Jan. 21, The Washington Post became the first mainstream media outlet to follow the Drudge Report in breaking news of the Monica Lewinsky-Bill Clinton tangle, followed quickly by the Los Angeles Times and ABC radio. The Times was nowhere to be found.

“I’m sorry to say that we were flatfooted Wednesday morning,” said Times executive editor Joe Lelyveld. The Times did not pick up on the “hint,” as Mr. Lelyveld put it, in either the original Drudge Report item on Jan. 17 about Newsweek holding its story, or the mention of it the next morning on ABC’s This Week. “We should have, and we didn’t,” he said. “The people who missed these signals know who they are and aren’t going to do it again,” he added. Mr. Lelyveld declined to name names.

Although one Times reporter claimed the sexual details of the story made the paper “a little queasy,” Mr. Lelyveld disputed that take. “We made a deliberate choice back when the Troopergate thing happened not to be aggressive on Clinton’s Arkansas philandering … partly because the country had voted on it,” he said. “We have a distaste for investigating consensual sex. But it was always clear that given his alleged history, reckless philandering in the White House would be a story.”

Mr. Lelyveld said he thought that by Jan. 23 The Times was up to speed. Since then, he said, it has broken several stories, including the Jan. 27 article about Ms. Lewinsky’s late December meeting with President Clinton.

Nonetheless, The Washington Post has owned this story more than any other newspaper in the country, and the feeding frenzy that has accompanied the scoops has resulted in some celebration. Ben Bradlee, the executive editor during Watergate who passed on his mantle to Leonard Downie seven years ago, dropped by the newsroom on Jan. 21. He headed over to Mr. Downie’s office on the fifth floor, where the executive editor was meeting with managing editor Robert G. Kaiser. Outside the glass partition separating the office from the newsroom, Mr. Bradlee held up a sheet of paper, upon which he had written one word: “Sizzle!”

“He gave us a big thumbs up, and we felt good,” said Mr. Kaiser.

The Times article on his paper was “no big deal,” insisted Mr. Kaiser, who still couldn’t resist a friendly jab. “I confess, it was great fun to read in the Sunday Times all the stories we had run in our Friday and Saturday papers.”

Of all the players to appear in the first act of the latest Presidential tragicomedy, Vernon Jordan-Clinton confidant, grade-A schmoozer and media executive buddy-has received the most gentle handling by his friends in the Beltway press corps. Indeed, some have gone out of their way to practically absolve him of any alleged misdeeds.

Roger Cossack, of CNN’s Burden of Proof , spent part of the Jan. 22 show offering up puffball questions that were more like encomiums. “Vernon Jordan is a man, like Caesar’s wife, above and beyond reproach,” Mr. Cossack said while posing a question to Martin Pollner, a former deputy associate attorney general. “And when he gets up and says, ‘Look, I spoke to her and this is what she said,’ it’s almost like, you know, hearing the absolute truth.”

The Wall Street Journal ‘s Al Hunt quickly rushed to his longtime friend’s defense, popping up on Nightline and other TV venues, and writing in his regular Thursday column on Jan. 22 that “even some Washingtonians who felt the story could be the end of this President didn’t believe the published charge against Mr. Jordan, an exceedingly careful and cautious lawyer.” During his TV appearances, Mr. Hunt neglected to mention that Mr. Jordan is also a director of Dow Jones & Company, which just happens to own the paper; the connection was made in the newspaper.

Similar sentiments were echoed the same day by Tim Russert and Tom Brokaw, also friends of Mr. Jordan, when NBC broke into regular programming. That afternoon, Chip Reid, a White House correspondent for NBC’s weekend newscasts, showed up on MSNBC to tell viewers that he had just gotten off the phone with a Washington power broker who’d been on the phone with other Washington power brokers all day. Their verdict: Mr. Jordan could never do such a terrible thing as coaching someone to lie.

Even the second- and third-day backgrounders in many papers and on TV failed to mention easily accessible information, the sorts of tidbits the media displayed no reluctance to run when they were writing about Ms. Lewinsky or the President. For example, The New York Times made no mention, on Jan. 22, of Mr. Jordan’s 11 directorships, or the conflicts they’ve raised when those companies benefit from decisions he helps the President make, or his affinity with Mr. Clinton for lewd and sometimes crude bantering with and about women.

There have been some half-baked attempts at balance: The Washington Post and ABC did cite one black leader, Randall Robinson of the Trans-Africa Forum lobbying organization, complaining that Mr. Jordan had forgotten his roots. But there have been no references to an anecdote recounted in a 1993 Vanity Fair article by Marjorie Williams, in which Mr. Jordan leaned over to his hostess at a dinner party in the mid-1980′s and said, “You look like a woman who likes to fuck.” Or to a scene in Michelle Cottle’s June 1997 Washington Monthly story, in which President Clinton, seated next to an attractive blonde at a state dinner, told Mr. Jordan to keep his hands off her because “I saw her first.”

Mr. Jordan’s relatively easy treatment is testament to his standing in the Washington Establishment. He’s enormously well liked, and offers connections to A-list parties and the White House that Beltway inhabitants-especially journalists-find irresistible. He’s also been known to dispense gossip, what he calls “dead men’s talk.”

“Jordan has this great value in Washington, which has a very lily-white Establishment,” said Ms. Williams. “People in Washington talked to me very un-self-consciously about what a relief it was to have a friend who was black who understood all the same cultural signifiers they had.” Added Ms. Williams: “He’s really benefited from being a mystery. People are covering up the lacunae of their own reporting in the coverage of Vernon Jordan.”

“Vernon Jordan’s role in Washington society is one that would only be exalted in a culture that is somewhat debased,” said Michael Kelly, the recently deposed editor of The New Republic who is now a senior writer at National Journal . “He is not a traditional Washington wise man, offering sage counsel to the President on grave matters of statecraft. He is a very high-level fixer.… It is, on the face of it, neither illegal nor improper. But it is not a great, noble calling. To hear of Saint Vernon the Generous, dispensing acts of kindness to all classes, to all races who walk the streets of Washington, is pretty funny stuff.”

But the decision-makers Off the Record spoke to dispute the charge of playing favorites. “I don’t think anyone has been getting an easy ride,” said Frank Sesno, CNN’s Washington bureau chief.

“I think what happened is the charge [against Mr. Jordan] didn’t seem to stick,” said Tom Bettag, executive producer of Nightline . Mr. Jordan is viewed as too slick for tactics as crude as telling someone to lie, Mr. Bettag added, and with so many allegations aimed at the President, “Jordan was a sideshow.”

However, Mr. Jordan’s role was key to Kenneth Starr getting authorization to expand his independent counsel investigation into the Lewinsky affair. Mr. Starr had been investigating Mr. Jordan’s role in funneling a $100,000 consulting contract to Webster Hubbell, an Arkansas crony of President Clinton’s who was forced from the Justice Department and ended up in jail for fraud. The goal: to prove a pattern of buying the silence of potential witnesses against the President.

A more nuanced view of Mr. Jordan’s role in the crisis, however, is starting to emerge. The Feb. 2 editions of Time and Newsweek provide more rounded pictures of the President’s chief fixer. And given the X-rated tenor of the scandale , both magazines reported the two men’s fondness for the ladies. Asked what they talked about on the golf course, Mr. Jordan is said to have replied, “We talk pussy.” Newsweek ran the word sans the two s’s. Time did away with all the letters, expect p.

ABC’s Nightline has the reputation of superior journalism and sober news judgment. But on the night of Jan. 22, the show allowed Stephen Enghouse, a self-proclaimed “good friend” of Ms. Lewinsky during her days at Lewis and Clark College, to trash her credibility even though he could not muster one example of her alleged penchant for embellishment and fabrication. Mr. Enghouse also hadn’t talked to Ms. Lewinsky in three years.

“Why do you rank her credibility so low in this instance?” asked host Ted Koppel during Nightline ‘s second night of “Crisis in the White House” coverage.

“Well, just because I know her and I know that she’s kind of young and seeks attention and I believe would be prone to sensationalize or overdramatize or exaggerate specific areas or instances in her life that would lead her to gain more attention,” said Mr. Enghouse.

That was pretty much it in the way of specifics.

Executive producer Tom Bettag concedes that the Enghouse appearance is a legitimate area for complaint. “It was a tough call,” said Mr. Bettag. “We had him and we had to decide what to do with him, so we put him on. But again, we made a point of saying that he couldn’t make a single point to back it up and that he hadn’t seen her in three years.”

In a show filled with reports that weren’t too helpful for the President, Mr. Bettag felt that a segment of 2 minutes 15 seconds would at least show some of the other side. “I think journalism is better off not killing things. You give them [the viewers] enough context to decide.”

For many members of the “responsible” press, the apocalypse arrived on Jan. 25 at 10:30 A.M. on NBC. Matt Drudge was a panelist on Meet the Press .

Mr. Drudge, a one-man operation spreading political, media and celebrity gossip around the World Wide Web, was not there to be grilled for his questionable journalistic practices. No, he was there, sitting next to The New York Times ‘ William Safire, as an esteemed member of the press pursuing the scandal surrounding President Clinton.

“It scares the hell out of me,” Nightline ‘s Mr. Bettag told Off the Record.

Tim Russert, the host of Meet the Press, accorded Mr. Drudge the same respect he gave his other media mouthpieces- Newsweek ‘s Michael Isikoff (who’s done the most reporting by far on the story even though his scoop was upstaged by Mr. Drudge) and Stuart Taylor of National Journal and Newsweek .

“What’s your take?” asked Mr. Russert. Mr. Drudge proceeded to attack the press corps for blowing the story and expressed dismay over the state of the Republic. He also got to throw in an as-yet-to-be-substantiated rumor that another White House staff member “is going to come out from behind the curtains this week. If this is the case-and you couple this with the headline that the New York Post has-there are hundreds, hundreds, according to Ms. Lewinsky, quoting Clinton-we’re in for a huge shock that goes beyond the specific episode. It’s a whole psychosis taking place in the White House.”

Tom Shales, in the Jan. 26 Washington Post , was repulsed. “Drudge, as sleazy-looking a character as anyone involved in the case so far (and that is saying something), has no credentials whatever to serve on a panel with professional journalists or even professional pundits,” he wrote. “His only credential is his computer. Drudge’s sudden rise to fame, and now Russert’s implied endorsement of him, may be but one small sign of the new electronic Tower of Babel that the Internet will become.”

Mr. Drudge, a fedora-wearing gossipmonger who idolizes Walter Winchell, struck back. “He’s calling me sleazy-looking?” Mr. Drudge told Off the Record. “All he does is sit in front of the TV stuffing his face. At least I can fit into my Levi’s.”

But Mr. Drudge, whose breathless reporting is often unreliable but just as often scoops the mainstream media, has an explanation for the grudging reception the journalism club has offered him. “It’s a turf war,” he said. “There’s confusion because there’s a new medium afoot and it sort of blindsided them.” He views himself as the voice of a populist sentiment sweeping the land, “because of a press corps that got a little too close to their sources.”

Of course, Mr. Drudge conveniently left out that he, too, has gotten too close to his (conservative) sources, and his insistence that he is not a journalist hasn’t protected him from being hit with a libel suit. His dispatch last August smearing White House aide Sidney Blumenthal with accusations of spousal abuse resulted in a $30 million defamation suit against him and America Online, which carries the Drudge Report . The suit is continuing.