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Fondling Story: Press Tripped Up by Rush to Be First in Print

Times Staff Writer

It is a Washington journalist’s worst nightmare: an explosive Page One story that rocks the White House, only to have the source turn out to be someone with a history of psychiatric problems.

It happened this week to Washington Post investigative reporter Bob Woodward on a story that an Air Force sergeant had reported drunkenness and fondling of women by Defense Secretary-designate John Tower. The story appeared Thursday not only in the Post but in the Los Angeles Times and numerous other newspapers that subscribe to the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service.

And the credibility of more than that story was called into question. Particularly troubling, both to journalists and to government officials, was the incident’s lesson about what can happen when the nation’s major newspapers compete to be first into print.

False Stories Planted

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Officials in Washington, trading on their high rank, commonly try to plant stories that sometimes are blatantly false, journalists admit. And some journalists believe that, because of the intensity of competition to be first with the news, the nation’s newspapers allow themselves to be used as bulletin boards on which officials signal and manipulate one another.

Especially at the White House, “with so many reporters competing for so few nuggets of news, reporters are more willing to run into print with unsubstantiated and in many cases incredible pieces of information,” said Walter Robinson, White House correspondent for the Boston Globe.

Often, said New York Times White House correspondent Bernard Weinraub, “with the competitive nature of it and the person who is saying it, you go with it.”

The origin of Woodward’s story remains unclear. Robert Kaiser, the Post’s assistant managing editor for national news, refused to disclose how the Post learned that the retired sergeant, Robert Jackson, had told the FBI and the Senate Armed Services Committee that, on two occasions in the 1970s, Tower had appeared drunk and fondled two women at Bergstrom Air Force Base near Austin, Tex.

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Before publishing the story, Kaiser said, the Post confirmed that Jackson had indeed given his account to the FBI and the committee and that the account was in the FBI volume that the Senate was studying in relation to Tower’s nomination.

But, on Thursday, the Air Force issued a report saying Jackson had left the service after being diagnosed as having “a mixed personality disorder” and that he was not assigned to the base in Texas in 1975 on the only occasion that Tower had visited it.

Regardless of how Woodward’s story developed, examples are legion of the impact of high-ranking officials on the Washington press corps.

Former President Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser, Robert C. McFarlane, once leaked a plan to arm Nicaragua’s Contras with Korean weapons, hoping to generate support for the idea. One reporter on the receiving end of the leak--he asked not to be named--thought the plan had little chance of being approved but felt compelled to publish it anyway because of McFarlane’s rank.

In December, 1986, White House sources opposed to then-Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan planted several stories suggesting that Regan was trying to mastermind a cover-up of the Iran-Contra scandal.

Last fall, when President-elect Bush was considering naming John H. Sununu as his chief of staff, Sununu’s rivals planted a story saying Bush was considering a troika of aides to run the White House staff. It was apparently an effort to get Bush to consider that approach, but Bush named Sununu anyway.

In 1984, the Los Angeles Times ran a story from a highly placed White House source that the Administration was actively considering supplying El Salvador with advanced jet fighters. The story was leaked by someone in the Administration who was alarmed by the plan and wanted to derail it.

In truth, the story was false--the official had misunderstood the Administration’s intentions.

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But an even more authoritative source at the National Security Council then confirmed it anyway, knowing it was a mistake, apparently because it served some purpose of his--perhaps to pressure Salvadoran rebels or members of Congress.

“What an Administration’s highest council’s are planning is often not something you can go out and independently confirm,” said Times national security reporter Doyle McManus. “That’s why on that kind of story you have to be as explicit and precise as you can about your sourcing, to make the distinction between what you know to be true and what you’re told.”

Now it is Tower’s confirmation fight that is gripping Washington, and reporters generally understand that those who leak them information from the confidential FBI report on the defense secretary-designate are doing so for a purpose.

Assessing the purpose is not always so easy. Many journalists in Washington this week wondered whether the Post had been set up by Republicans who knew that the story written by Woodward--and thus the entire case against Tower--would be discredited.

The Post took that possibility seriously, prompting Kaiser to question Woodward about the source of the story.

Democratic sources were peddling the story about Tower to other reporters Wednesday, and the New York Times tried to confirm it but could not.

“A couple of our reporters had picked up some pieces of that story, but they didn’t have enough,” the New York Times’ deputy bureau chief, Philip Taubman, said. He said he did not know what the New York Times would have done if its reporters had learned as much as Woodward had.

Kaiser said the Post had not tried to confirm whether others could corroborate Jackson’s account of Tower’s behavior, only that his allegations existed. Nor did it check his reasons for leaving the military.

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“Even the FBI didn’t check out his service record,” Kaiser said.

Why didn’t the Post take more time? Competition was one factor.

“Obviously, the standards (of verifying news) are different with the time constraints,” Post White House correspondent Ann Devroy said. “If you are trying to find out what is in the FBI report, it is not going to do much good if you find out three weeks from now.”


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