Former Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker said Sunday he chose not to run the story that former President Bill Clinton had an affair with Monica Lewinsky because he and his staff didn't feel they were on firm enough ground.
"If we had gotten that wrong," Whitaker told CNN's Howard Kurtz on Reliable Sources, it "could have been a mortal blow to Newsweek's reputation" (video follows with transcript and commentary):
HOWARD KURTZ: More now of my conversation with CNN executive, Mark Whitaker.
(on camera) I want to come back to your career. One of the most famous or infamous decisions you made - you were filling in as editor at the time - was in the Monica Lewinsky story. Mike Isikoff basically had the goods or at least it looked that way later. The thing I never understood about the decision to hold the story, then of course Drudge got hold of it and the "Washington Post" broke it, is that you had confirmed that Ken Starr, independent prosecutor, was investigating this.
MARK WHITAKER, EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT CNN, FORMER EDITOR OF NEWSWEEK: Right. Right.
KURTZ: Why wasn't that enough to go on? Well, I'm sure you've asked yourself this a hundred times.
WHITAKER: Right, right, right, right. Well, a couple things is that Mike really knew a lot. It wasn't like Woodward and Bernstein writing a little piece where they only knew about Starr. He knew a lot about it, but he had never met Lewinsky herself. All of his sources were sort of around her. So we didn't know, you know, just how credible she was. And by the time, once when Starr had her, you know, basically under protective custody to sort of, you know, question her, we couldn't get to her.
The other thing which we didn't talk about at the time but I talk about in the book is that I had stepped in for Maynard Parker, who was undergoing treatment for cancer at the time. Maynard had been aware for almost a year that Mike was working on this story, but he had never told me, and he hadn't told Rick Smith, who was the publisher. He hadn't told Don Graham. So -
KURTZ: You were parachuting into this...
WHITAKER: So we only found out about any of this two days before we had to make a decision whether to publish or not. So there was a lot of, during those two days, a lot of discussions and examination going back to the sources, trying to get extra information from them. But frankly, we didn't feel by, from Thursday to that Saturday that we were on firm enough ground to report a story that wouldn't just be a story about Ken Starr, that ultimately would be about accusing the president of having sex in the Oval Office with an intern, which was, if we had gotten that wrong could have been, you know, could have been a mortal blow to "Newsweek's" reputation.
KURTZ: The potential down side must have loomed very large.
In the end, Whitaker's decision was Matt Drudge's gain.
In the wake of the past week's media firestorm concerning the alleged sexual harassment by Herman Cain, Whitaker's decision seems even more curious.
After all, his investigative reporter had been working on the story for almost a year.
How long were Politico's people working on their hit piece that ran without the name of one of the accusers or any specifics about the alleged offenses?
Also of note was how this interview with Whitaker was pre-taped meaning that Kurtz knew he had discussed the Clinton-Lewinsky affair with him.
Yet in the previous more lengthy segments concerning the Cain allegations which totaled 22 minutes, Kurtz never once brought up how the press covered the various Clinton sex scandals by comparison.
Some fine media analysis, wouldn't you say?