While the news media have devoted substantial coverage to Newsweek's retraction of an article that the White House says incited deadly riots in Afghanistan, one key part of the Newsweek story has largely escaped scrutiny: the checkered journalistic record of Newsweek investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff, who shares a byline on the story with John Barry. Isikoff's May 9 “Periscope” article cited “sources” who “tell Newsweek” to report that U.S. investigators found evidence that interrogators at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, flushed a Quran down a toilet. Newsweek retracted the article, acknowledging that in fact, only one source actually reported the allegation, and that source backed away from it.
Isikoff's role as a leading reporter on the so-called “Clinton scandals” in the 1990s, including the Paula Jones, Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky cases, has gone virtually unnoticed in broadcast, cable TV and print reports so far on the Newsweek story.
Isikoff was so committed to one story detailing Paula Jones' sexual harassment allegations against then-President Bill Clinton (which formed the basis for a civil suit that was dismissed for a total lack of merit), that he got into an argument with his editor at The Washington Post -- an argument so heated that Isikoff was suspended and left the newspaper shortly afterwards. Meanwhile, conservatives praised Isikoff for his efforts. Fox News host Sean Hannity lauded Isikoff as a “respected journalist” for four straight days in 1998 for his role in the Clinton sex scandal, once the Jones case had set the stage for impeachment proceedings against Clinton [Hannity & Colmes, 6/15/98-6/19/98].
If the news organizations that are spending so much time on Newsweek bothered to look at Isikoff's background, they would find a reporter with a history of relying on unreliable sources -- in addition to Paula Jones, there are such discredited Clinton accusers as Kathleen Willey, Linda Tripp, and Lucianne Goldberg. As author and media critic Eric Alterman wrote on his blog, Altercation:
It's amazing to me that an organization like Newsweek would go to press with so crucial a story on the basis of so little. Think of all the people who had to read this item before it passed into print. Not one of them appears to have guessed at its import and asked the tough questions of Mike Isikoff, who, as we all know, has displayed an extremely unhealthy willingness to be guided by sources of a nefarious nature in the past.
In his book, The Clinton Wars (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), author and former Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal wrote: "[T]he reporter most indispensable to the advancement of the [Clinton sex] scandal from the moment Paula Jones appeared at the conservative conference in Washington in 1993 to the breaking of the Lewinsky story in 1998 was Michael Isikoff" [p. 94].
In his reporting on the Clinton sex scandal, Isikoff relied on sources whose stories were unverifiable, motivated by personal agendas, and often collapsed under later scrutiny. According to Blumenthal, “Isikoff never hesitated in plunging himself excitedly into a wilderness of sex rumors.” Isikoff devoted a substantial amount of time in 1997 attempting to confirm what Blumenthal called the “wild-goose chase” story of Willey, who claimed Clinton sexually harassed her in 1993. After Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr granted Willey immunity, and she responded by repeatedly lying to his investigators and the FBI, the Office of the Independent Counsel indicated in its final report that she would not have been credible to a jury. Given that Starr was willing to base much of his Whitewater investigation on a witness, David Hale, who is a convict and an admitted liar, his lack of faith in Willey's credibility is telling -- and makes Isikoff's judgment in embracing her tale all the more questionable.
Isikoff's leading role in reporting sex stories relied heavily on his relationships with Tripp and Goldberg, who provided leads, testimony, and tapes of secretly recorded conversations. However, Tripp's and Goldberg's actions were motivated by their personal interests: specifically, animosity toward Clinton and financial windfall. As Blumenthal noted in The Clinton Wars, Goldberg had arranged to play for Isikoff taped conversations between Tripp and Lewinsky about Lewinsky's relationship with Clinton, hoping that “playing the tapes would get Isikoff to write something that would provide publicity so that she could sell Tripp's book.” Isikoff declined to listen to the tapes during the period when Tripp was continuing to record conversations with Lewinsky, but eventually quoted from them after the conversations ceased.
Isikoff himself lamented his relationship with Tripp and Goldberg in his book Uncovering Clinton: A Reporter's Story (Crown, 1999), citing both the book deal and what he described as Tripp's “anger” and “disgust” with Clinton:
What happens when you become beholden to sources with an agenda? ... I was chagrined to discover, while reading the transcripts of the Tripp-Goldberg conversation on the evening of September 18, 1997, that they had been talking about a book deal from the start. [pp. 356-357]
The tapes show precisely how these two women created and then sought to manipulate the very situation Tripp claimed was “not of her own making.” They also reveal a far more complicated and somewhat less flattering portrait of Tripp's motives. Tripp was moved, it appears, not so much by fear and a desire to protect herself as by anger, even disgust, at Bill Clinton. As a parent of college-age children, she thought the president's behavior with her young friend was “appalling,” and she wanted it exposed to the world. “It's so sickening,” she told Goldberg during the first few minutes of their conversation. “He has got to get his comeuppance,” she added later. [pp. 190-191]
In his book A Vast Conspiracy (Random House, 2000), legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin criticized Isikoff for allowing himself to be used by Clinton's attackers. According to a January 2000 Salon.com article:
Toobin accuses Isikoff of being an uncritical water-carrier for the anti-Clinton forces. He reminds us that there were “three important moments in the case when Clinton's enemies used Isikoff to launch attacks about the president's purported sexual behavior: First, [Arkansas attorney] Cliff Jackson had given him the exclusive with Jones; second [Jones attorney] Joe Cammarata had set the reporter on the trail of Kathleen Willey; now, finally, Tripp and Goldberg were giving him the biggest story of all [Lewinsky].”
Toobin writes caustically that “Politically savvy journalists might have discounted the allegations, or, more likely, have exposed the motivations of those who had tried for so many years to use sex to bring down this president. But Jackson, Cammarata, Goldberg and Tripp had invested wisely in Michael Isikoff.”
Isikoff's credulity in dealing with Clinton's accusers wasn't limited to allegations about Clinton's personal life; on at least one occasion, he bought into conservative claims that former White House counsel Vincent Foster's suicide was something more sinister: a January 16, 1996, Newsweek article co-written by Isikoff claimed that “it is Foster's suicide that lends Whitewater its aura of menace.”
Isikoff also floated the claim, which later proved false, that the Clinton legal team had been involved in suborning perjury in the creation of a “talking points” document that Lewinsky gave Tripp in advance of her filing an affidavit in the Jones case. As journalist Joe Conason and political columnist Gene Lyons noted in their book, The Hunting of the President (Thomas Dunne Books, 2000), Isikoff later expressed regret at his role in advancing that story, claiming to have simply forgotten that the “talking points” closely mirrored a letter Tripp herself had written to Newsweek long before. [p. 356]
Despite Isikoff's own frequent reliance on questionable sources, he was blistering in his criticism of CBS' 2004 story about President Bush's National Guard record (or lack thereof). Appearing on the September 26, 2004, edition of CNN's Reliable Sources, Isikoff said: “I have to say, if you look at what happened here, this wasn't a mistake. This was a complete meltdown of basic, minimal journalistic standards.” Isikoff went on to suggest to host Howard Kurtz that everyone involved in the story should have been fired:
KURTZ: Michael Isikoff, Time magazine poll, 43 percent say what CBS did was an honest mistake; 40 percent say CBS was deliberately trying to mislead the public. Not the greatest vote of confidence. How much of all this is Rather's fault?
ISIKOFF: Well, look, he is the managing editor of the CBS Evening News, and they -- they featured this on the Evening News. So, I mean, he has to take responsibility, clearly. He is the lead guy in charge.
KURTZ: And just to be fair, he has taken responsibility, and we saw his apology at the top of the show. He's not blaming it on the work of others, but it's a collaborative enterprise.
ISIKOFF: Well, right, but if somebody gets fired, can somebody else be fired without the top guy who is responsible for the broadcast not getting the axe? It's hard to imagine. If this had happened at a college newspaper, and they made -- published a story about fraudulent documents about the college president, and it turned out to be that the documents themselves were completely phony, it's hard to imagine that the entire college newspaper staff wouldn't be fired.
Articles in the May 17 Boston Globe and the May 16 Washington Post noted Isikoff's involvement in the Clinton sex scandal. A May 17 New York Times article titled “Reporter on Retracted Newsweek Article Put Monica on the Map” provided greater detail into Isikoff's role in reporting the scandal.