Newsweek leads pack with amazing non-scoop Magazine made decision not to be first to publish

January 26, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- Until today, none of Newsweek's reporting on the Clinton matter had appeared in Newsweek magazine.

But no one would know that from the way the Clinton scandal has been covered over the past week. Although Newsweek decided at the last minute, on Saturday, Jan. 17, not to go with its scoop on the accusations that are now common knowledge, the magazine has since been cited by just about every news organization for its accounts about Monica Lewinsky, Linda R. Tripp and Vernon E. Jordan Jr. Newsweek has been credited for every reprint of tape transcripts, and staff members have appeared on several news programs.

Indeed, it seems that Newsweek both hooked the big one and let the big one get away.

How Newsweek pulled this off in such an overheated media climate has to do with several important factors: the tapes, the Internet and Michael Isikoff, who became part of the drama even as he was reporting it.

Newsweek appears to be the only news organization with a sample of the 20 hours of recorded telephone conversations between Tripp and Lewinsky. Therefore, Newsweek receives credit when transcripts are reprinted, and this has put Newsweek in the unusual position of being able to control the flow of news to some degree.

In addition, Newsweek appeared to regain some of its advantage Wednesday evening by posting an electronic version of the article on America Online. The report was perhaps the most comprehensive account to date of the accusations under investigation.

Newsweek's edge is largely attributable to Isikoff, who had been aware of the accusations regarding President Clinton and a White House intern for about a year -- although he did not know the intern's name until the fall.

In fact, in Newsweek's cover story this week, Isikoff essentially reports on himself and how he first met Tripp in the spring of 1997, when he was reporting on the Paula Jones lawsuit.

The article explains how Isikoff was present in October when Tripp met with Lucianne Goldberg, a New York literary agent, at the home of Goldberg's son, Jonah, and was invited to hear the tapes thus far. "Isikoff declined to listen," Newsweek reports, "and left Goldberg's house."

In an interview Saturday, Isikoff said: "If I had listened to the tapes that were being made, I would have become party to the process. That made me uneasy."

It appears that Newsweek has weathered -- perhaps even benefited from -- what seemed like one of the most difficult decisions in its 65 years. "It was not," Isikoff said last week, "an easy call."

In an article accompanying its cover article in this week's issue, the magazine offers an explanation for its decision not to go to press with the material on Saturday night, Jan. 17. It says that the tapes "neither confirmed nor disproved" the accusations of obstruction of justice, and that questions remained about Lewinsky.

"It hurt like hell, and I felt especially bad for Mike," said Richard M. Smith, Newsweek's editor in chief and president.

The magazine felt uncomfortable about being the first to print Lewinsky's name. "We would have been the first to out her," Isikoff said.

Pub Date: 1/26/98

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