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Tabloid’s Story on Strategist Was Timed for ‘Maximum Effect’

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The story about White House advisor Dick Morris and an alleged prostitute that rocked the final session of the Democratic National Convention was no accident. Instead, it was the result of successful planning by the weekly Star tabloid, which timed the release of its bombshell for maximum effect, the newspaper said Thursday.

Nonetheless, even the 15,000 journalists here who have been searching hungrily for news this week might not have given the Star’s report the universal circulation it is now receiving if Morris had not resigned hours before President Clinton’s renomination acceptance speech. For most in the media, the resignation lent credence to the account.

The story began in July when Sherry Rowlands, 37, went to the Star with claims that she was a prostitute and that Morris was her client.

“Quite a few of us here said, ‘Dick who?’ ” editor Phil Bunton said Thursday.

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“There was some skepticism” about whether Morris was the type of celebrity favored by the tabloid, Bunton said. “He is not really a tabloid personality.”

The paper soon decided, however, that Rowlands was providing “gossip and secrets from the White House,” he said. Rowlands said she was given a glimpse of White House political strategies by Morris--including, eventually, a peek at what she believed were drafts of convention speeches planned for First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.

“The fact that he was spilling secrets made it a big story,” Bunton said. “If it was just ‘Dick Morris slept with a hooker,’ I don’t think it would have gone anywhere. It would have been a non-story.”

Reporter Richard Gooding said Rowlands eventually provided him with videotapes, audiotapes of phone messages and even her key to Morris’ room at the Jefferson Hotel in Washington. The images and access helped convince the paper’s editors and lawyers that she was telling the truth.

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Gooding and Bunton decided that Rowlands knew little about the world she claimed to have entered. Bunton said that in her diary, well-known names of White House figures were spelled phonetically.

The tabloid also checked staff members into the Jefferson for 10 days. During that time, the newspaper said, Rowlands arranged for Morris to come out with her on the balcony so the tabloid could secretly photograph the couple.

Bunton acknowledged Thursday that the tabloid paid Rowlands for her information and cooperation, but refused to disclose the amount. In 1992, the tabloid broke the story about Clinton’s alleged affair with nightclub singer Gennifer Flowers. The paper reportedly paid her $150,000 for her story.

Most major news organizations in this country do not allow journalists to pay for interviews, citing the possibility of sources embellishing on or inventing facts to make their story more salable.

Asked about the payments to Rowlands, Gooding said: “The rest of the press turns up their noses about this kind of thing, but we don’t care. They say if you pay somebody, they don’t tell the truth. But people who can’t write get paid all the time for a book contract. How is that different from giving an interview and being paid for it?”

“This is a woman who has never had any money, and now she has given up her major source of income,” Gooding said, referring to the money she claims Morris paid for her services.

Last week, the newspaper decided it had enough information to publish. The issue rolled off the presses Tuesday and is to hit the supermarkets next week. But the tabloid wanted the story out before the convention ended.

Gooding, a veteran New York tabloid journalist, said he and his editors wanted “to give ourselves the best possible publicity, with the convention going on there in Chicago.”

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Their solution was to persuade another newspaper to print the allegations and credit the Star. So the paper’s editors began shopping their exclusive to two dailies--the Chicago Tribune and the New York Post, a tabloid.

The Chicago paper’s reaction was one of restraint. James O’Shea, its deputy managing editor for news, said that after the newspaper received a faxed copy of the article on Wednesday, “basically we treated it like we treat any tip on any story and that is to begin pursuing it, which we did [Wednesday] night.

“Our decision was made that without any response from Morris, we couldn’t run it until we determined whether the facts were right,” O’Shea said. “We weren’t going to run with a supermarket tabloid story.”

The New York paper chose a different path. After learning of the story Wednesday morning, “Post editors were provided with convincing evidence” and decided to publish, editor Ken Chandler said in a statement Thursday. The newspaper would not describe that evidence.

The paper’s account featured a front-page headline that said “Bill’s Bad Boy” and a photo of Morris.

The controversial advisor promptly resigned. Although he refused to comment on the specific allegations, Morris issued a statement calling them “sadistic vitriol” and “yellow journalism.”

The resignation opened the media floodgates, sending even any lingering skeptics in pursuit because regardless of the accuracy of the charges, they had led to the resignation of someone in Clinton’s inner circle.

Some Democrats quickly accused the Post, owned by conservative media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, of engaging in a political ploy. If the newspaper had ignored the charges, they said, the story might well have entered the nether world of supermarket-tabloid sensationalism.

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In response, Chandler said in his statement: “Any suggestion that the New York Post was aware of the Dick Morris story and delayed reporting it is absolutely false, as is [Morris’] claim that this was yellow journalism.”

Network news shows brought out an array of analysts Thursday. Some recalled other sex scandals and their political fallout. Others interpreted how well Clinton would fare without Morris’ advice.

Clinton advisor James Carville, who usually has an easy quip and is quick to laugh, looked grim and angry in an interview with CNN’s Larry King just hours before Clinton’s speech. In 1992, Carville was called upon to defend Clinton against Flowers’ charges.

Carville criticized the Star for paying for the Morris story, but did not try to deny the allegations. “I hope we take this entire thing and put it in perspective,” he said.

Many reporters suggested that the Morris story is mostly a sideshow--a sudden firecracker that jars the political landscape only briefly.

“I think this a one- or two-day story,” said CNN political reporter Bruce Morton. “But it’s exploded in a town full of reporters who haven’t had anything to write for three weeks. So we pounce on it. . . . But I don’t think it has any long-term effect. . . .

“In every paper in America tomorrow morning, the lead story will still be Clinton’s speech. The Morris story will be right under there, but Clinton will be the lead.”

ABC-TV’s Brit Hume called the story a “body blow to the president,” but he marveled at how Clinton gave his speech without appearing affected by the resignation.

“Nothing seems to sap his energy or get him down for very long,” Hume said after the speech.

Gooding started his career as a copy boy for the New York Times and once worked as a clerk for former Executive Editor Abe Rosenthal. Gooding served as an editor at the New York Post and the New York Daily News before he went to the Star last year.

Editor Bunton said he hoped to have Rowlands answer questions from the media sometime next week.


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