Retractions, confusion cloud media's coverage Inaccurate information reported on sex scandal

January 28, 1998|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

In an illustration of the hazards of the rush for journalistic scoops on the White House sex scandal, the Dallas Morning News early retracted yesterday a news story claiming that a Secret Service agent had caught President Clinton and intern Monica Lewinsky "in a compromising situation."

But by the time it was withdrawn, the sensational claim that the Secret Service witness had already met with independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's staff had been reported to a national audience by Ted Koppel on ABC television's "Nightline," by Larry King on CNN and by local TV news shows across the country. It was reported in early editions of some newspapers, including The Sun.

Late last night, the Dallas newspaper followed up its retraction with a new story. It said "one or more witnesses" may indeed have seen the president with Lewinsky. But it dropped the most newsworthy and significant allegation -- that they had been caught in a "compromising situation."

The shifting, confusing Dallas story is one example of careless coverage of the scandal, a result of the desperation of newspapers and broadcasters not to fall behind on what is potentially the biggest news story in years, said Jim Naughton, president of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies and former executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

"I think it's a very worrisome development that we're sacrificing care for speed," Naughton said. "I never read the Dallas story, but I saw it all over TV," he added, at 10 p.m. and again at 11 p.m. Monday night on local television in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Media coverage of the Lewinsky affair came under sharp criticism yesterday from the Clinton administration.

In an interview yesterday on NBC's "Today" show, Hillary Rodham Clinton described the headlong reporting as "rumor and innuendo." White House spokesman Mike McCurry said "some of the normal editorial standards that apply seem to have slipped a bit."

Some Washington journalists expressed concern about the breathlessness of much reporting.

In a column yesterday, the Washington Post's David Broder declared that "the public is choking on a surfeit of smut." In the Boston Globe, Thomas Oliphant described "talking heads on television and hyper-ventilating journalists in newsrooms" who were "passing the time by parsing words and phrases like the Kremlinologists of yore."

The Dallas newspaper had posted the original story on its World Wide Web site Monday and printed it in an early edition of yesterday's paper, attributing the report to an unidentified lawyer. It killed the story just four hours later, saying the lawyer who was the source "later told the News that the information was inaccurate."

Ralph Langer, executive vice president and editor of the Dallas Morning News, said in a statement yesterday that the retraction resulted from "a unique situation Monday night when a primary source suddenly reversed field."

The first report of a possible witness in the White House to a sexual encounter of the president with Lewinsky came from ABC news reporter Jackie Judd on the Sunday morning show "This Week with Sam and Cokie."

Citing "several sources," Judd reported that independent prosecutor Starr was "investigating claims that, in the spring of 1996, the President and Lewinsky were discovered in an intimate encounter in the White House."

As of last night, that story had yet to be confirmed.

Pub Date: 1/28/98

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