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One scandalous story written by Marvin Kalb


One scandalous story written by Marvin Kalb


In 1963 Marvin Kalb observed the Secret Service escorting an attractive woman into a hotel for what was most likely a rendezvous with President Kennedy. Kalb, then a news correspondent for CBS, didn't consider the incident newsworthy. Thirty-five years later, Kalb watched in dismay as the press dove headfirst into the scandal of President Clinton's affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, disclosing every prurient detail. How and why had the journalistic landscape shifted so dramatically?

One Scandalous Story seeks to answer this critical question through the inside story of thirteen days -- January 13-25, 1998 -- that make up a vital chapter in the history of American journalism. In riveting detail, Kalb examines just how the media covered the Lewinsky scandal, offering what he calls an "X-ray of the Washington press corps." Drawing on hundreds of original interviews, Kalb allows us to eavesdrop on the incestuous deals between reporters and sources, the bitter disagreements among editors, the machination of moguls for whom news is Big Business, and above all, the frantic maneuvering to break the story. With fresh insight, he retraces decisions made by Michael Isikoff of Newsweek, Internet renegade Matt Drudge, Jackie Judd of ABC, Clinton-basher Lucianne Goldberg, Susan Schmidt of The Washington Post, Jackie Bennett of the Office of the Independent Counsel, and other key players in this scandal that veered from low comedy to high drama.

Through the lens of those thirteen turbulent days, Kalb offers us a portrait of the "new news" in all its contradictions. He reveals how intense economic pressures in the news business, the ascendancy of the Internet, the blurring of roles between reporters and commentators, and a surge of dubious sourcing and "copy-cat journalism" have combined to make tabloid-style journalism increasingly mainstream. But are we condemned to a resurgence of "yellow journalism"? Painstakingly documented and sobering in its conclusions, One Scandalous Story issues a clarion call to newsmakers and the American public alike: "Journalism can change for the better -- and must."


Late September in New York is a traffic and protocol nightmare. From all over the world, presidents and prime ministers, accompanied by foreign ministers and their many minions, arrive for the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. Their limousines crisscross mid-Manhattan, adding to the usual, suffocating traffic. Aided by the FBI, the police provide the necessary protection. They are everywhere, standing in front of UN missions or sitting on horseback or in patrol cars looking at the passing parade for anyone or anything even slightly suspicious. Often, in triangular squadrons of motorcycles, they escort the VIPs from one corner of central Manhattan to another. It's an urban symphony of horns, sirens, and shrieking tires that, no matter the time of day, never seems to lose its urgency. The worst bottleneck, of course, is always near the United Nations, where cabs join the battle for every inch of maneuverable space. It's really quite a sight.

On September 20, 1963, two months before he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, President John F. Kennedy decided that he would not stay at the Waldorf-Astoria, temporary home for so many of the other world leaders. For reasons of his own, he fancied the more fashionable Carlyle Hotel, farther north, which conveyed the comforting impression that it was situated on another planet, light-years removed from the midtown mess. During the president's visit, the usually elegant main entrance on East 76th Street was -- for reasons of security -- flanked by wooden barricades, holding back television crews, reporters, onlookers eager for a glimpse of Kennedy. Around the corner on Madison Avenue, an unobtrusive side entrance was generally ignored.

For easy and quick identification, reporters who covered the president wore White House press badges. They were able to enter the Carlyle without much trouble. Some of us, with the help of the White House travel office, even managed to get lodging there. After filing our stories, a number of us in those years would usually gather late in the evening for some journalistic braggadocio -- who got the better picture of the president? who got the better scoop? who wrote the best lead? -- and a drink or two at the hotel bar off Madison Avenue.

After the president finished addressing the Eighteenth General Assembly, the principal purpose of his visit to New York, he returned to the Carlyle for a round of bilateral talks, a formal dinner, and, much later in the evening, a clandestine rendezvous with an unscheduled visitor. I, in the meantime, had returned to the headquarters of CBS News, which was then located on Madison Avenue at 52nd Street. Not too many months before, I had finished an absorbing, if somewhat exhausting, three-year assignment in Moscow, and -- as a reward of sorts -- I had been transferred to Washington and named diplomatic correspondent, the first ever appointed by a network. My assignment on this occasion was not so much Kennedy as his diplomacy, which focused on mending relations with the Soviet Union after the terrifying missile crisis in Cuba the year before. What I reported that evening in a couple of radio and television spots about Berlin and arms control has vanished, and deservedly so, into some distant archive; but what I remember about my brief encounter with the president's late night visitor underscores how dramatically American journalism has changed in the last thirty to forty years, particularly in its coverage of the private lives of public officials.

After dinner with a few CBS colleagues at a favorite restaurant, I jumped into a taxi for the ride up Madison Avenue to the Carlyle. I remember the ride and the time -- just past 11 p.m. -- because the driver was then listening to an hourly newscast featuring one of the spots I had taped earlier in the day at the United Nations. I got out at the side entrance and walked into the hotel. To my left was the bar, my ultimate destination, and diagonally to my right were two doors leading to the main lobby. Though I didn't see it on a recent visit to the Carlyle, I recall that there was also a private elevator just to the right of the entryway. Immediately, as I entered, I felt as if I had barged into a private party -- the wrong person arriving at the wrong time.

I recognized two of the Secret Servicemen usually detailed to protect the president, one standing right in front of me and the other to my right. They knew me, and I knew them. We had been on a number of the same trips, and I had seen them around the White House. I smiled at one of them, but he not only did not return the smile -- his face froze into a mask of sudden panic. He looked past me at someone who was just then being escorted into the small lobby. As I turned to see who had caught his eye, he pushed me and I fell hard against the door to the bar, ending up in a painful crouch on the floor. I looked up just long enough to see the back of a woman with stunningly attractive legs entering the elevator. I heard the clicking of her heels. I saw two other men from the president's Secret Service detail with her, one in front, the other behind, as the doors slowly closed. I looked up for an explanation, but the agent who had knocked me to the floor had by this time vanished. So too had his colleague. The entire episode took no more than ten seconds.

I joined a few reporters at the bar. I must have been more than just a bit shaken, but I didn't tell them anything. After a few minutes of stories about scoops and counterscoops, I looked back at the door and saw the agent beckoning to me. I excused myself and went back into the lobby. "I'm sorry," the agent whispered. "I'm really sorry." The agent, barely audible, said that he should never have pushed me, that he had made a terrible mistake, and he hoped that I would forgive him. "Of course," I muttered, "but, my God, what happened? Why did you push me? Who was that woman?" The agent did not answer. He looked up at the ceiling, as if appealing to higher, perhaps presidential, authority, and shook his head. He seemed totally flustered and embarrassed. Again, he said only, "I'm sorry," and left.

In my room a while later, still hurting from the fall, I thought about complaining to Pierre Salinger, the president's spokesman. The Secret Service's job, after all, was to protect the president, not to push or bully a reporter. I decided to do nothing. I thought it would be better for me and CBS News to store this grievance in a future file -- one day, that agent might be able to help me with a story. He owed me.

As I write about this incident more than thirty-seven years later, I am amazed not by my decision to do nothing but by the fact, quite undeniable, that never for one moment did I even consider pursuing and reporting what I had seen and experienced that evening: that U.S. Secret Service agents, normally detailed to protect the president, had escorted an attractive woman into the Carlyle, presumably for a rendezvous with Kennedy (who else but the president would concern them?), and then, to protect their embarrassing secret, one of the agents had for a moment panicked and pushed a reporter to the floor only to apologize later for his inexcusable behavior.

It was my judgment at the time that such an incident was simply not "news." Although there has never been one commonly accepted definition of news, it has usually been defined broadly as what's new, what's relevant, what's interesting, what's timely, and what sells. In those days, the possibility of a presidential affair, while titillating, was not considered "news" by the mainstream press -- not when the Cuban missile crisis was still a fresh and frightening memory of the nuclear dangers of the Cold War, not when racial tensions were again clawing at the soul of the nation. Though tabloids existed, those were not tabloid times; 1963 was not a year for stories about Kennedy's sex life, even if rumors persisted that he was engaging in "extracurricular screwing," as Ben Bradlee, the former editor of The Washington Post, spoke of it in his memoirs.

Many years later, my friend R. W. Apple, Jr., recalled a similar experience at the Carlyle Hotel in 1963. He was then a young reporter at The New York Times, and he was assigned to do "legwork" on a Kennedy visit to New York -- meaning in this case that he went to the Carlyle to see what, if anything, was happening, and then to report back to his editor. A "legman" didn't write the story, he just observed and reported it. His information was then included in someone else's story or simply dropped. On this particular evening, Apple saw a "beautiful woman being escorted to Kennedy's suite." Excited by the implication, he returned to the Times office on West 43rd Street and told Sheldon Binn, the chief assignment editor of the Metro desk. Binn listened impatiently. "Apple," he said, "you're supposed to report on political and diplomatic policies, not girlfriends. No story." And so it was.

But even if I had decided to defy the conventional news standards of the day and tried to report that the president had a secret rendezvous at the Carlyle Hotel with a beautiful woman who was not his wife, what exactly would I have broadcast? Did I know for an absolute fact that the agents had escorted the woman to his suite? No. But I'd have bet the kitchen sink that they had. Did I see her face? Did I know her name? No. Was there, possibly, an innocent explanation? Could she have been just a friend, a relative? No. Friends and relatives were not secretly hustled into a back elevator late at night; they would have entered the main lobby at a proper time. Anything was theoretically possible, but at the time, given what I had seen and heard, I knew in my gut that the president was having an illicit affair and the Secret Service was complicit in arranging it and hushing it up.

Let's take the scenario one step further and assume for a moment that I actually had written and submitted the story to my CBS editors. Was there any chance that they would have cleared it for broadcast? I am certain that the answer would have been no. They would almost certainly have questioned my professional judgment. "What's happened to Kalb? He used to be a good reporter."

In other words, the story was not written, and it would not have been approved for broadcast, because it did not satisfy the accepted journalistic standards of the day. Between then and now, these standards have dramatically changed. Now, I suspect, my story would quickly dominate the Internet, provide fodder for radio and television talk shows, work its way into the mainstream media, and then assault the front page on the strength of an ensuing string of allegations, presidential denials, White House cover-ups, and journalistic investigations.

How is this change in journalistic standards to be explained? How could the press have ignored Kennedy's escapades but blasted Bill Clinton for his? The answer is that journalism has changed dramatically in this forty-year period, just as the nation has changed. The business of the news has been radically recast. The technology has been revolutionized. And many journalists have been transformed into national celebrities and political players -- all in step with a succession of crises that jolted the nation beyond recognition. Kennedy was assassinated. African Americans went into the streets and demanded equal rights. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., were both murdered. Richard Nixon won twice but still was forced to resign, one step ahead of almost certain impeachment after the Watergate scandal uncovered the lies and deception in his administration. In a small country called Vietnam, half a world away, the United States lost the first war in its history. These two factors in particular -- Watergate and Vietnam -- combined to sour popular attitudes toward the presidency. Trust in government (and other large institutions) declined in the public and in the press.

Reporters came to assume that officials lied routinely. Nixon once felt the need to tell the American people that he was not "a crook." Presidents were no longer held in especially high regard. They became more human, more accessible. By 1987, a reporter crossed a once uncrossable line by asking a presidential candidate if he had ever committed adultery. Within twenty-four hours, Gary Hart had to withdraw from the race. Only five years later, during the 1992 campaign, adultery blossomed into a major story when a tabloid disclosed that Clinton had had a long-running affair with a woman from Arkansas. And once the story was "out there," it was quickly everywhere. Even Nightline discussed it, an indication of changing public attitudes toward personal privacy.

By the mid-1990s, media mergers flowered in an expanding economy. Huge corporations continued to acquire news companies and networks and create global conglomerates more interested in the bottom line than in public service. By the turn of the century, AOL and Time Warner capped this trend by concluding a $182 billion deal, combining the older business of news with the new demands of cyberspace. The new news cycle was now a twenty-four-hour-a-day challenge. There was an endless demand for talk -- filling time was the burning need. Accountability seemed nonexistent. Competition among the cable channels became ferocious. The maximization of profit drove the news business, and old worries about standards fell by the wayside. As a governing concept, journalistic integrity suddenly sounded quaint.

It could be argued, of course, that for most of American history, except for the decades of the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War, serious journalism was a rare happening. With a few notable exceptions, most reporters used to wallow happily in gossip, slander, and sensationalism. That was the norm. James Thomson Callender, a Virginia "newsmonger," to quote New York Times columnist William Safire, claimed that President Thomas Jefferson had several children with "the luscious Sally," one of his slaves. Grover Cleveland fathered an illegitimate daughter, and during his first presidential campaign the press gloried in a catchy political jingle: "Ma, ma, where's my pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha." During World War I, Warren Harding, then a senator with presidential ambitions, inspired some gossipy copy when he persuaded the Republican National Committee to send one of his lovers on an all-expenses-paid trip to Japan.

The post-Cold War period of the 1990s has seen a return to this earlier tradition. With old-fashioned abandon now buttressed by new technologies that make possible virtually instantaneous communication, many reporters seem to revel in the rebirth of scandal and sensational coverage. The O. J. Simpson trial, Princess Diana's life, loves, and death, and the Lewinsky scandal defined the news of the nineties. New York Times columnist Frank Rich labeled these "dramatic 24/7 TV miniseries" as "mediathons" or "total national immersions." He thought of these stories as being "played out in real time before a mass audience." In this way, a mediathon was seen as different from other big stories; it was all-consuming and inescapable, it affected the viewer just as the viewer's reaction fed back into the mediathon in a modern variation of the Heisenberg principle. A mediathon changed the flow of history.

When the story broke on January 21, 1998, that President Clinton had had an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, the press plunged into the scandal, disclosing every tasteless detail. Its self-justifying explanation was that it had no choice: a criminal investigation had begun against the president of the United States and "the story" had to be covered.

How did this mediathon unfold? That is the central question in this book, which focuses on thirteen days of scandal coverage in January 1998. Many other books have examined the role of the independent counsel, the White House spin doctors, the president's friends, the combative lawyers, the "vast right-wing conspiracy," the Whitewater land deal in Little Rock, the tale of Monica Lewinsky, the congressional impeachment proceeding, and, no doubt, many more books will be written and published in the years ahead. The Lewinsky scandal stained the presidency, the country, and the Clinton legacy, which seriously damaged Vice President Gore's 2000 campaign. It is not a surprise that it has spawned a literary industry. Until now, though, the role of the journalist, a key player in this drama, has not yet been the subject of serious analysis. Whether it was Michael Isikoff or Susan Schmidt or Jackie Judd, the journalist was the indispensable messenger carrying the story from one side of the Washington battlefield to another. The journalist informed and inflamed the public. The journalist saw old standards fall and new ones created for the occasion. The Lewinsky scandal marks an important chapter in the history of American journalism.

I have chosen to examine the recent history of Washington journalism through a sharply focused lens: thirteen days in the life of a story that would preoccupy the nation for the next thirteen months. The thirteen days can be divided into three parts: the buildup from January 13 to January 20; the breaking of the story on January 21; and the aftermath from January 22 to January 25, 1998. I have basically devoted a chapter to each day, hoping in this way to X-ray the Washington press corps. Several questions emerge:
  • How did the new economic changes in the news business affect copy?
  • How has journalism been changed by the new technology, including the Internet?
  • Was there a journalistic rush to judgment?
  • Was there a surge in copy cat journalism?
  • How could one explain the "blurring of the lines" between reporters and commentators? Between reporters and ex-political operatives?
  • Were sources, generally recognized as the essential lubricant of a free press, used well or poorly during this period?
  • Did many Washington reporters make special arrangements with government sources?

There are no easy answers to these questions, which cut to the very heart of contemporary American journalism. I have tried to answer them by taking the reader into the journalistic process during a hot and demanding story. I have read the literature, done the research often based on content and script analysis, and I have interviewed hundreds of Washington reporters who covered the scandal.

Journalism is too important, too crucial for our democracy, to be left unexamined. I know from personal experience that Washington reporters have notoriously thin skins. They don't take criticism easily. Who does? If they read my analysis as criticism, I hope they will understand that it is rendered with continuing admiration and affection.

For all other readers, concerned about the media's growing power and impact on society, wondering about its value system, its sense of responsibility and ethics, and genuinely baffled about how this eight-hundred-pound gorilla works, here is my report on one scandalous story.

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