By: GEORGE GARNEAU
A SUPERMARKET TABLOID drops the story of a political scandal ? replete with kinky sex and White House confidentiality violations ? gift-wrapped, with pictures, on your newspaper’s doorstep the day before the president kicks off his reelection campaign.
The Chicago Tribune and Wall Street Journal said no thanks.
The New York Post said hallelujah and plastered the story ? a rewrite of an upcoming Star story ? all over Page One the next day.
The Boston Herald took a middle road and ran the story inside on its gossip page.
Headlined “Bill’s Bad Boy,” the Post’s cover story Thursday, Aug. 29, pictured Clinton adviser Dick Morris looking contrite. Teasers for the Page 7 story said: “Top Clinton aide leaked White House secrets to hooker,” and Morris let her listen in on phone calls to Clinton.
The story brought the Post and the Star national attention.
A tabloid editor’s dream come true, it broke the very day Clinton was to address the Democratic National Convention in Chicago ? sandbagging a president who was leading public opinion polls, at the apex of his first term, and on the verge of outlining his vision for a second.
The scandal was especially tempting because Morris, who is 48 and married, had helped orchestrate Clinton’s new emphasis on family values. A former Republican adviser, he had been featured on newsmagazine covers for his influence. Though the tawdriness did not touch Clinton directly, the alleged violations of presidential confidence ? listening in to phone calls and previewing the first lady’s speech ? raised serious ethical questions.
The Star said Morris had a penchant for being dominated and for feet, details most other papers ignored or downplayed.
Within hours after early editions hit the streets, Morris had quit. The Associated Press moved nothing until noon Thursday when it reported Morris’ expected resignation. At that point, the question of how the rest of the nation’s press would treat the Star’s scandal story became moot. Morris had become a breaking news story.
The networks featured the resignation prominently that night, and most major papers followed on Friday, when the story shared the limelight with Clinton’s acceptance speech.
Of 14 major dailies tracked by the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center, 10 ? the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune among them ? treated Morris as a second lead or sidebar to Clinton.
But you couldn’t report the resignation without mentioning what call girl Sherrie Rowlands told the Star.
In other words, whatever the mainstream press thought of the Star’s methods, Morris’ resignation forced the story to the top of the nation’s news agenda ? including in the Tribune, which refused to run the story a day before.
For the president, the timing could not have been worse. For the Star, it couldn’t have been better.
Widely dismissed among mainstream papers as a source of bizarre and questionable journalism, notably checkbook journalism, the Star had achieved its goal. It was mentioned everywhere.
How the scandal evolved ? from call girl to supermarket tabloid to mainstream press to breaking news ? refocused attention on a growing journalistic phenomenon in the last few years: the tabloidization of mainstream newspapers.
It came into focus four years ago when the Star paid Gennifer Flowers to recount her affair with Clinton, then the Arkansas governor and a White House hopeful.
The latest example dramatically underscores that journalism remains an inexact craft, especially in the context of selling newspapers, and standards vary considerably.
Still, more than a week after the Star story broke, neither Morris nor anybody else had either denied or refuted it.
Here’s how it came about:
To Phil Bunton, Star editor, the story wasn’t so obvious in the beginning. He said Rowlands, a 37-year-old Virginia call girl who met Morris through an escort service, called the Tarrytown, N.Y.-based tabloid out of the blue in mid-July. She wanted to sell her story and “apparently was going to call everyone,” he said, even though she had no lawyer. Only “moderately interested” at first because he questioned whether Morris was tabloid material, Bunton’s ears pricked up when she mentioned White House secrets.
She presented such evidence as diaries of their yearlong affair, and a telephone answering machine with a recording of Morris asking for a date, Bunton said.
She spoke several times to Richard Gooding, a former news executive at the Post and Daily News. After the Star signed Rowlands to a “five-figure” deal, Gooding spent time with her in Washington verifying her account of the yearlong affair, which took place mostly in Morris’ suite in the Jefferson Hotel.
But her words weren’t enough.
“The nail we needed was to catch her together with him. Nobody can argue with a picture,” Bunton said. So the Star rented a room with a patio overlooking Morris’ and spent eight days waiting there for Morris to call Rowlands for a date.
The still and video photographers got the shots Thursday, Aug. 22, a week before the convention, Bunton said. Pictures show the pair sitting on the balcony in bathrobes in daylight, and embracing in the dark. Pictures also show what Bunton said was Rowlands reading Hillary Rodham Clinton’s convention speech.
Entirely by coincidence, Bunton said, the story and pictures were ready to go ? after the usual extensive legal review ? “as soon as we could,” which happened to be just in time for the Democratic convention.
“Was it serendipitous? Absolutely. The timing couldn’t have been better . . . . It wasn’t because we wanted to rain on Bill Clinton’s parade. It was because we wanted to sell papers. It wasn’t political venom. It was pure journalistic greed.”
To boost sales, the Star went publicity hunting in the daily press ? a practice magazines and TV shows often use to promote big stories.
The Star prints 5 million copies a week and sells 2.5 million at the cover price of $1.39. They come off the press Wednesday but don’t get distributed until Friday or Monday.
The Star chose selective “placement” in the daily press ? a decision based on its experience four years ago, when it called a press conference for Gennifer Flowers to publicize an upcoming story about her long affair with Bill Clinton. The event became “a trial of the Star” and diverted attention from the story, according to Bunton.
On Wednesday afternoon, the day before Clinton’s nomination acceptance speech, the Star selected, for maximum impact, the Chicago Tribune, the biggest paper in the Democratic convention’s host city.
From Jack Fuller, president and CEO, and several editors down the ladder, gave no firm answer on whether the Tribune would run the story, despite threats to take it to the rival Chicago Sun-Times, Bunton said.
The Tribune questioned whether Morris had been interviewed for the story ? he refused ? and whether Rowlands could be reached for questions ? she couldn’t by order of the Star.
Next offer went out to the Wall Street Journal ? whose editorial page is famously critical of Clinton.
The Star faxed the story to the Journal, but got a similarly cool reception.
“I’ve never known it to be so hard to give away such a hot story to a newspaper,” Bunton said.
Next came the New York Post, whose conservative editorials and partisan journalism under Rupert Murdoch made it “a sure thing,” said Bunton, himself a former Post executive.
He hit the jackpot, as they played the story with gusto, even running the rewrite with a reporter’s byline.
For extra play, Bunton offered the story to the Boston Herald, where he once worked as Sunday editor.
When it was done, Bunton expressed satisfaction with the publicity, despite “some sour grapes, some sniping,” he said resentfully about news reports suggesting the Star is by nature inaccurate.
White House spokesman Mike McCurry at first advised reporters to beware of the source of the story.
Morris’ resignation statement condemned “the sadistic vitriol of yellow journalism” and he vowed never to respond to the allegations.
The New York Times gave the story better play than it gave the Gennifer Flowers story four years ago, Bunton said gleefully.
If the Star’s account was false, Morris “would still be in the White House suing us for billions of dollars,” Bunton said, maintaining the tab “did nothing unethical.”
He defended the practice of paying sources by comparing it to what book publishers do when they essentially buy the stories of such figures as Newt Gingrich or Colin Powell.
“There’s still the onus of having to prove a story, and we did that, as soundly as the Washington Post or New York Times, except we paid,” Bunton said. “It doesn’t make the story any less true,” he continued.
He said newspapers and TV are becoming tabloidized because it’s getting harder and harder to sell papers, so “you have to grab readers by the throat and give them what they need, not what some Harvard grad thinks they need.”
Caution At AP
Darrell Christian, AP managing editor, said the wire service rousted reporters out of bed in Chicago and Washington in the predawn hours Thursday to check into the Post’s account.
But no news moved on the wire because, “It was questions about the source being the Star tabloid,” Christian said.
“The Star is known for a reputation of paying for information. We consider that to be questionable sourcing. I don’t think we have ever, or ever would, take a story directly out of the supermarket tabloids.”
Only when sources confirmed the impending resignation did AP move a story, about noon.
“It might be a story if you know it’s accurate,” Christian commented, “but because of questionable journalistic practices of the tabloids, you don’t know if it’s accurate.”
Check it out
Jim O’Shea, Chicago Tribune deputy managing editor for news, said the Star faxed its story, including an “enhanced” photo, and wanted a commitment to run it on Page One.
The Star admitted Morris had not been interviewed and denied the Tribune access to Rowlands.
“I told them we were going to check out the story to see if it was accurate,” O’Shea said.
“We treated it as we treat any tip and did start to check on it.
“Let’s face it,” O’Shea said, “these papers put out stories about people from Mars and people losing 42 pounds in two days. No, it’s not a credible news source. We check out far more credible sources.”
When told the New York Post was going with it, O’Shea said he responded, “That’s their business. We don’t operate like that, and I feel very comfortable with that and would do it again.”
The Tribune’s story, headlined “Key adviser resigns in sex scandal,” barely mentioned what was in the Star. It was “not based on what they had in their paper. We just don’t put that stuff in the Tribune without checking on it,” O’Shea said.
Several days after the resignation ? and no denials ? O’Shea said he was “still not convinced” of the story.
What if Morris had not quit?
Without talking to Rowlands, he said, “I’m not sure there’s much of a story there . . . . If Morris is going to a hotel with a hooker, frankly that’s not that interesting to me. If she’s listening to Morris and the president on phone conversations . . . that heightens the profile of the story.”
The Tribune explained itself in an editorial Aug. 31 in which it asked, Did we shortchange the public by sitting on the story?
Editorial page editor Don Wycliff wrote:
“If your journalistic standard is that anything that rides the winds ought to be in the newspaper, then maybe we did. Our notion, however, is that Tribune readers expect ? and deserve ? something better, more rigorous and exacting. An old-fashioned idea, perhaps, but a sound one.”
Why the editorial? According to Wycliff, a lot of people believe newspapers crave nothing but smear and scandal, “and it’s worth pointing out that that isn’t the only thing that impels us, and we don’t yield to that, and there are values at work here.”
Bunton, of the Star, defended the accuracy of pictures, explaining that a video image taken at night was enhanced to bring out Morris’ face. He said the Star tried repeatedly to contact Morris, who hung up when he discovered who was on the line and refused to return other calls. Bunton also defended shielding Rowlands on the grounds of protecting future revelations for the Star, which allowed her to appear for pay on “Hard Copy.”
Wall Street Journal editor Robert Bartley did not return phone calls to discuss his close encounter with a supermarket tabloid.
“When you have a story where a senior adviser to the president is allowing a hooker to eavesdrop on phone conversations with the president, that’s a valid news story,” said New York Post editor Ken Chandler. “Those who don’t think it’s a valid news story may be in the wrong business.”
After reading the story and discussing the Star’s evidence with editors, Chandler “was convinced it was true, and nothing that has happened after it was published has shown otherwise.”
Part of his “comfort factor” with the story stemmed from a 25-year relationship with Bunton, and work experience with Gooding.
“We weren’t dealing with unknown individuals,” Chandler said. “I know the people at Star magazine and in stories such as this ? they have a very good track record. And this story was well researched.”
Did the timing give him pause? “It was a good story any day of the week,” Chandler said.
Likewise, he denied the Post’s conservative politics played any role in the decision.
To papers that turned the story down, Chandler said, “I think they don’t know a good story when it stares them in the face . . . . If I’d passed on a story like that, I’d have been mortified the next day if an out-of-town paper had come along and stolen it.”
The Boston Herald compromised. It ran the story but downplayed it considerably.
Editor Andrew Costello evaluated the story positively, discussed it with staff ? including reporters at the convention who found Clinton staffers taking it seriously ? and put it on the gossip page, following five pages of convention coverage.
He reasoned that Page 6, with less stringent standards than straight news, was a “context” more befitting the story’s supermarket tabloid origin.
But he generally defended his supermarket brethren.
Echoing an opinion shared by a growing number of editors around the country, Costello said some supermarket tabs have developed a credible record on such national stories as William Kennedy Smith, O.J. Simpson and Gennifer Flowers ? despite the practice of paying sources.
“Quite frankly,” Costello said, “there’s a little bit of prejudice going on.”
The irony, he said, is that most papers reported the gist of the Star story the next day to explain Morris’ resignation “because they had to use it and couldn’t check it out.”
” To say we were justified in using it the next day and not the first is a lot of baloney. If it’s not true the first day, then what makes it true the next day?”
Costello predicted that mainstream press attitudes about the supermarket tabloids will continue to change, but denied that the growing crossover of coverage would degrade mainstream standards.
“We don’t have to employ their standards, but ignoring them doesn’t make the story any less true,” Costello said, suggesting a nexus.
“It’s presumptuous for editors to say, ‘Readers shouldn’t be presented this information because it comes from a supermarket tabloid.’… What you’re doing is censoring the truth from readers, and you’re printing it the second day.”
Readers, he said, are intelligent enough to judge the sources for themselves.
Nancy Woodhull, a former news editor and now executive director of the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center in New York, called the Chicago Tribune “very responsible” for holding the story pending confirmation. “That’s what we should be doing.”
In light of the suspicious timing, the Tribune wisely moved cautiously because of the obvious effect on Clinton’s campaign.
“Obviously, the Post didn’t have that concern and rushed out the door with it and put it on the rest of the nation’s agenda,” she said, adding that the New York tab is “not playing by the same rules as other news organizations.”
Had Morris not resigned, however, “I don’t think the mainstream press would have jumped on it the way they did because they have been criticized for letting the tabloids lead them in the past,” Woodhull said.
But such ethical concerns will only increase, she predicted, as new kinds of news outlets erode the gatekeeper role the mainstream media play. With talk radio and the Internet helping to set the information agenda, “once it becomes the talk of the country, the mainstream press has to help the country deal with it. So when your repeat something put out by less-than-mainstream outlets, your responsibility is helping people understand where truth begins and understanding it. It used to be the press was the only gatekeeper. We aren’t anymore.”
The story has worked well for the Star so far. Bunton said sales were running 20% to 25% ahead of the week earlier.
And by Friday, Sept. 6, the New York Post was teasing the next installment in the Star: incredible revelations about Morris’ love child by a former extramarital girlfriend.
?(The supermarket tabloid Star offered various mainstream newspapers a chance to break its scandalous story (right) of presidential adviser Dick Morris’ relationship with a hooker. The New York Post accepted the offer and published its account, including a front-page poto and headline, two days before the Star his the newsstands (far righ).[Caption & Photo]
?(Richard Gooding, former news executive at the New York Post and New York Daily News, wrote the Morris expose for the Star.) [Photo & Caption]
?(“I’ve never know it to be so hard to give away such a hot story to a newspaper.”) [Photo & Caption]
?(-Phil Bunton, editor, the Star) [Photo & Caption]