The final print edition of Newsweek hit stands Monday. One of the most (perhaps the most) memorable moments in the magazine’s history is its decision to hold off printing information it had on President Clinton and his affair with then-White House intern Monica Lewinsky in 1998.
The decision led to the magazine being scooped by Matt Drudge of The Drudge Report.
Michael Isikoff, former politics reporter for Newsweek, recounts what happened, how it happened in The Daily Beast (the magazine’s sister company). What it boils down to: Clinton’s affair just didn’t seem more newsworthy than Kenneth Starr, independent counsel who was investigating Clinton on other matters at the time.
Isikoff says it started with a phone call from a tipster:
[W]hile I had briefed Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief, the levelheaded Ann McDaniel, about all of this, neither she nor I were ever clear on how (or even whether) we were going to actually publish any of it. How would we ever prove that this affair actually happened? Or that the president had really told Lewinsky to lie? But the fact that Starr was on the case—that was unquestionably news. The story would turn Washington upside down—and, I immediately knew, would raise as many questions about prosecutorial overreach as it would about presidential recklessness and mendacity. And Newsweek was right in the middle of it. We alone knew what was going on. …
[W]e all reassembled—this time with the senior Newsweek editors on speakerphone in New York. What did we have? The bosses were clearly nervous. “Could we really accuse Jordan of suborning perjury without something harder?” asked Rick Smith, the magazine’s editor in chief. “Could we really accuse Clinton of an impeachable offense?” Klaidman and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes. “Impeachable?” I thought. What does this have to do with impeachment? It’s just one hell of a story—as much about Starr as it was about Clinton, we argued. A little later, Klaidman came back with fresh news. Starr had gone to the Justice Department, and Clinton’s attorney general, Janet Reno, had approved a formal expansion of his mandate to conduct the Monica probe. Now Thomas—who had been on the fence—came around. “If we were The Washington Post or The New York Times, we would print,” he said. But we were coming up against a hard deadline, and the brass wanted more work. The decision was final: Newsweek would hold the story.