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July 3 1998 3:30 AM

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Rx: Take a Brill Pill, and Call Me in the Morning

In response to "Brill, Mote, and Beam": Much of the criticism of the "Pressgate" piece and the magazine in general has been from people in the mainstream media who were clearly part of the system I was writing about and, thus, responded accordingly. Because Slate and Jacob Weisberg don't in any way fall into that category and deserve to be taken seriously, I thought I should try to respond seriously to some of the factual stuff. (I'll let readers decide for themselves if the magazine is "boring," a knock that reminds me of lawyers' wishful thinking when I started the American Lawyer.)

First, I didn't "leak" the piece to the New York Times--a semi-important point for a magazine like ours. We blast faxed the piece to every major (and minor, I think) press organization, after first faxing it to Kenneth Starr. Everybody got it at the same time. So, the Times' decision to put it on the front page was not based on having any kind of exclusive.

Now to take Jacob's points in order:


l) Whether I prove Starr leaked grand jury information depends on one's definition of grand jury information. I used the one used by the relevant court with jurisdiction. Starr disagrees with that. No mistakes? How about the stained dress? Or the president testifying that he never was alone with Lewinsky? (I never say the Times made mistakes, by the way.)

2) Yes, Sue Schmidt disputes that quote. That happens with reporters a lot. But, interestingly, she didn't dispute it the first time she was asked about the story--by Howie Kurtz for his first story. My notes have her saying exactly that and then saying it again later on in our interview (at the Madison Hotel coffee shop) in almost the same language.

3) No self-contradiction here. She volunteered that item about Jordan and where she had got the story in the course of narrating that first weekend of the "scandal." When I later asked her directly about sources for her first-day story (and stories beyond that) she declined to comment.

4) My point was that Lewinsky's "No" answer was the thing that stood out the most to Mike Isikoff when I talked with him about the tapes. And it's a big part of why Newsweek held the story. I simply pointed out that this is something Newsweek might have remembered to put in and quote when it went online with its first story. In retrospect, though, it would have been fairer and fuller to note that Newsweek did, indeed, say the evidence was not at all clear that the president had instructed her to lie. Nonetheless, I think Newsweek should have included this important quote if it had wanted to be fair.


5) To take one example, let's look at the first-day reports from the networks.

What did I know? a) Starr's top deputy had spent "much of the day" briefing these people. Starr told me that, and Bennett confirmed it but would not tell me specifics. b) The network reports included material from tapes that could only be the tapes that Starr's people had made (because these tapes allegedly have Lewinsky saying that Jordan and the president told her to lie--which was not on the tapes Newsweek heard, and Newsweek had supposedly heard the most incriminating tapes). Neither Tripp's lawyers nor anyone else (even Tripp, though she might obviously remember what was on them--but she was not accessible to the press at this point) could have heard those tapes or briefed reporters about them. So I don't think it's "intellectually dishonest" to say that this information must have come from Starr's office. Remember: He says his guy briefed them for these reports, and the crux of the reports was what was supposedly on these tapes.

By the way, this criticism is kind of refreshing in the sense that it's so different from the "everyone knows prosecutors leak" criticism that I've got.

6) Jacob is just plain wrong. There are no court decisions in the relevant jurisdiction that support Starr on the notion that leaking what people tell investigators before they testify about what they will testify to is OK. Sure, there are some from other courts elsewhere, but they are few and far between, and Starr really wouldn't be able to cite them properly in a brief in the District of Columbia.


7) Oops, forget my last paragraph under Point 5.

8) My point about anonymous quotes is made by Jacob. I'm against totally blind uses of phrases such as "sources" that don't say how many sources or what ax they might have to grind. (Example: Jackie Judd's citing of "several sources" to substantiate her witnesses-interrupted-the-president-and-Lewinsky "scoop.") When a source can't be named, enough identification should be supplied so that the reader knows the source's potential bias. This clearly worked here; Jacob can see that I'm using a Times person as the source and correctly identifies the potential bias. Now, go back and read my description of all the truly blind "sources" in the article, and see if you can tell the difference.

9) Conflict: Yes, I should have disclosed that in 1995 I gave 1,000 bucks to the Clinton campaign. (I've also given money to Republicans, like Rudy.) But how could I prohibit anyone, even myself, retroactively from making contributions? That was 1995; this is 1998, and since I sent out the initial direct mail for this magazine (which I knew would cover political stuff and politicians), I haven't made any contributions to anyone, let alone the president (to whom, again, I made one contribution in 1995). The only "political" writing or editing I did around the time of that Clinton contribution was the Paula Jones piece by Stuart Taylor in the American Lawyer, which I instigated and edited and proudly published--and which, as you know, made the case against the president.

I'm proud of our magazine and proud of this piece. Prouder, in fact, now than when we published it, because nearly two weeks later everyone who could take a shot at it has, and so far I can see that I've misspelled one name, screwed up one sequence (the Journal decided not to wait for comment from the White House on its incorrect steward-witness story after hearing the White House wanted a half-hour to comment, not before), and included two or three gratuitous adjectives that I now wouldn't. There may be more, and if there is I will be the first to concede it. But I hope my willingness to admit mistakes isn't misread as being so much more fallible than others--but only being more willing to admit it.


--Steve BrillBrill's ContentNew York City

Jacob Weisberg responds: I appreciate the tone of Brill's letter, which is nicer than my piece was. Several of his points, however, demand a reply.

1(a) My criticism stands. The only thing that's clearly illegal is leaking out of the grand jury room. Brill doesn't prove that Starr has done that.

1(b) I didn't say there were "no mistakes." I wrote that Brill didn't document any significant error of fact by the Post, Times, Time, or Newsweek. He doesn't.

2) If Brill used a tape recorder, we'd know whether he misquoted Susan Schmidt or not. He doesn't respond to the complaint that he misquoted Jonah Goldberg.

3) Still a contradiction in the article. It would have been consistent if Brill had written that Schmidt declined comment on her sources except for the one she revealed.

4) This is now a point of supernuance, not a major criticism of Newsweek's journalistic integrity, which was how it was billed in the story.

5) I strongly suspect that Starr was the source for stories about what various witnesses have said. But there's at least a plausible alternative explanation for where much of this information could have come from. As I say, it would have been only fair to mention it.

6) This whole argument about the "relevant jurisdiction" is new since Brill's article. Eventually the question of what's illegal is likely to be settled by the Supreme Court, which will consider lower court precedents from various jurisdictions.

7) Brill concedes, I think.

8) Weisberg concedes.

9) Brill concedes.

10) Brill concedes.

Right Back at Ya

The June 23 "Chatterbox" claims that "a kind of machinery" is at work on the right "that doesn't exist on the left today." Actually, similar machinery has existed on the left for years. It runs from the liberals in Congress to the liberals in the statehouse to the liberals on the bench to the liberals on the nightly news. President Clinton plugged into the machinery the moment he was elected.

Examples include the universal use of accepted terms such as "extreme right" to describe any given idea that emanates from the conservative end of the spectrum. It includes broad opposition to the slightest bit of reform that might impact the access of trial lawyers to the money machine of our tort system. It includes attack dog opposition to any and all school reform that does not result in massive amounts of additional money for the teachers' unions. And so on and so on.

The left has for years started opposing things in tandem the moment the handwriting appeared on the wall. Their opposition has always included near uniformity, right down to verbiage. The Sotomayor nomination is an isolated example of conservatives employing this often successful tool perfected by the left.

--David C. KlugHarrisburg, Pa.

Remember Who Lost the World Cup!

I read with interest "Hegemon and Proud of It," by Strobe Talbott. However--and you may choose to call me a smug foreigner who is also sensitive to "smugness" on the part of the superpower--I thought it self-congratulatory, ill-considered, and decidedly anecdotal.

It is certainly true that the United States is the most powerful country in the world. It is also true that its erstwhile rival has collapsed rather utterly. However, even the merest glance at the history books will reveal that Talbott's dominate-but-cooperate scenario has been played out over hundreds of years: The wars were always the exceptions. It is also worth pointing out that the United States has actually declined in relative economic importance since World War II.

In 1950, the United States was responsible for nearly half the gross world product. However, today, even though the United States is far and away the No. 1 economy, the European Union, with its 15 member states, actually has a bigger share of the gross world product. Never mind Japan and Asia, who aren't exactly inconsequential. Then there's the rest of the world.

It seems to me that the world as a whole is an awful lot more interdependent than it ever has been. And I think that's a good thing. So, like, get over the American omnipotence thing.

--Alan McGintyLondon

Fictional Journalism 101

Hats off to Michael Kinsley for "Fictional Journalism for Dummies." Only I would have gone a bit further. Based on the available evidence so far, this abortion of a CNN/Time piece was not just overreaching but a shining example of sheer intellectual dishonesty and reporting at its shabbiest.

--Jim WolfNational security correspondent, ReutersWashington

Cheap Is Good

Regarding Jodie T. Allen's "Living in a Second-Best World": Five years ago, I paid between 20 cents and 40 cents a minute for long-distance service, depending on the time of day. Now I pay 9.9 cents per minute, day or night. In real terms, average airline coach fares are about half what they were 20 years ago, before deregulation.

I own a business that spends several thousand dollars a year on long-distance phone service and airline travel. Sure, finding the lowest rates/fares is more of a hassle now than it once was, and the service may or may not be better, but to me, this is easily worth putting up with to get the cost saving.

Allen may be in a financial position to pay more to eliminate the hassle, but I'm not.

--Ken GrahamDayton, Wash.

Knifepoint Humor

I read Atul Gawande's "Manning the Hospital Barricades" with interest. I understand his premise that we should get along, but my comments as a "meddie" will be much more parochial.

I agree that surgeons generally work very hard. (The question of whether a lot of what they do is really necessary or appropriate is debatable, as it is for all specialties.) The "virtue" and responsibility aspect are more problematic. There is the common ritual of "medical clearance for surgery," where the "meddie" basically blesses the operation and is allowed to share responsibility, despite the fact that the note is rarely read and the recommendations are often ignored.

A less than virtuous practice that is not unheard of is to hustle the patient of a failing operation out of the OR to avoid "dying on the table."

I have a couple of additions for your medical jokes (not original). How do you hide something from an internist (meddie)? Put it under a bandage. How do you hide something from a surgeon? Put it in the patient's chart.

Some of my best friends are surgeons.

--Andrew W. March, M.D.

Flying High

About Kathy Molina's "Diary": It's great that Slate readers are getting some exposure to a segment of society of which few people are aware. Across the nation (and, to a lesser extent, around the world) are a handful of people whose passion for birds in particular, and the magnificence of living things in general, holds them apart from the rest of society. They surrender to years of poverty. They don't watch much television. And the study of animals demands that they go where the animals live and put up with what the animals put up with. (To Molina's list of bugs, sun, and windblown salt, I add cold; rain; thorns; poisonous plants; days or weeks without showers; steep, rugged terrain; snakes; lack of roads; lack of water ...)

--John Martin

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