Fondlee, Kathleen: Isikoff on the Stand?

Fondlee, Kathleen: Isikoff on the Stand?

Fondlee, Kathleen: Isikoff on the Stand?

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
March 19 1998 5:01 PM

Fondlee, Kathleen: Isikoff on the Stand?

A potentially significant conflict is opening up between Michael Isikoff, the Newsweek reporter who's been a driving force in the Flytrap scandal, and Julie Steele, the erstwhile friend of Kathleen Willey who says Willey told her to lie to Isikoff. As discussed in Chatterboxes for 2/3 and 2/18, Isikoff reported as long ago as last August that Steele initially told him (Version #1) that Willey had told her about an unwanted Clinton pass on the day it happened. Isikoff also reported, in the same August story, that Steele then recanted, and told him (Version #2) that Willey had only "told her about the incident weeks after it happened, saying only that the president had made a pass at her." Now Steele claims that Willey didn't mention anything at all about a pass, wanted or not--Steele has signed an affidavit (Version #3) claiming that Willey "never said anything to suggest that President Clinton made sexual advances toward her." What's more--and this is the key point--Steele, through her lawyer denies telling Isikoff what he reported she told him last summer after her recantation, namely that Willey had still talked of a "pass," if not an unwanted pass.

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This is a direct conflict; the question isn't what Willey told Steele but what Steele told Isikoff. Isikoff says Steele told him Willey talked of a "pass." Steele denies telling Isikoff this. (In effect, she says there was no Version #2) ... But there's more: Isikoff also reported, in the March 9 issue of Newsweek, that Steele had told him a second time that Willey had indeed mentioned a sexual advance. He wrote: "Just two weeks ago, however, Steele repeated to Newsweek that Willey had told her about a sexual 'overture' by Clinton." Does Steele deny telling Isikoff this as well? Presumably yes. (Her lawyer, Nancy Luque, said she would try to reach her client and call Chatterbox back. Chatterbox is still waiting.) ...

Unless Willey's credibility is somehow destroyed, this isn't a petty side dispute. It bears directly on Steele's credibility--has she changed her story to exculpate Clinton?--and Steele is currently the main witness undermining Kathleen Willey. Whom to believe? Isikoff is standing by his story. "We have no intention of printing any retraction," he says. Chatterbox doesn't know Julie Steele; it does know Isikoff. Chatterbox's money is on him. This doesn't sound like something he'd make a mistake about, and he wouldn't print an untruth. ... Could it be a case of confusion and miscommunication? A lot depends on the specifics of just how Isikoff grilled Steele, which he presumably did. Which brings us to ...

A second issue: If Willey remains important, it's hard to see why Kenneth Starr shouldn't try to get Isikoff's testimony regarding what Steele told him. But will Isikoff testify if subpoenaed? ... Chatterbox's unsolicited advice: Spill your guts out, Mike! It's not as if you'll be protecting the identity of a confidential source. Reporters, like other citizens, have an obligation to testify. The alternative view, that reporters have a special role and special rights, is snooty corporatism! (See Chatterbox 2/26) ... But probably Isikoff will resist ...

A third issue: why doesn't the press report Steele's purported change of story? If you read Time you have no idea that there was an issue regarding Steele's Version #2. (Time just reports that Steele says "Willey didn't describe it as sexual.") Maybe Time doesn't want to get into a pissing match with a rival Newsweek reporter. (Oh, go ahead!). But what's the New York Times' excuse? Times reporter John Broder's front page story on the Steele recantation manages to run about 24 inches, not counting a reprint of the Steele affidavit, without mentioning this significant factual dispute .... That's the second time Broder has embarrassed himself in three weeks. (The first? His sophomoric sneering at Sidney Blumenthal. See Chatterbox 3/1) ...