Covering the Clintons

6:53 pm Feature Stories

ABC Ink
Headline: Covering the Crisis in the White House
Byline: Dawn Shurmaitis

It’s late Tuesday afternoon, January 20. ABC News Investigative Producer Chris Vlasto has just spoken to a key source on a story his gut tells him is The Big One. At 8 that night, already at home in Chevy Chase, Md., Special Correspondent Jackie Judd reaches another important source who confirms the final, vital details.

But they aren’t alone. While no other network correspondent is close to the story of the President, the intern and the advisor, Judd and Vlasto know a Washington Post reporter is closing in. The race is on to scoop the paper before its morning edition hits newstands.

Decision time. Washington Bureau Chief and VP Robin Sproul gets on the phone for a conference call to Cuba, where ABC News President David Westin, Senior VP Bob Murphy and what seems like half the news division is preparing for the Pope’s historic visit with Fidel Castro. Westin wants one more source before he’ll give the OK to air. Ninety minutes later, Justice Department Producer Beverley Lumpkin gets that source.

It’s 9:30 p.m. Vlasto makes the final round of calls to lawyers for the President and advisor Vernon Jordan and gets their reaction to the extraordinary story ABC is preparing to air. The account is so complicated, and the implications so severe, that news executives decide to hold off reporting it on “Nightline.”

Finally, at 12:45 a.m., Jackie Judd – still at home in her husband’s office – gets on the phone and goes over the air via ABC Radio. Almost immediately, the news also goes out over the internet, through ABCNEWS.com. Judd becomes the first network correspondent to report allegations that Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr is investigating the President for having an affair with Monica Lewinsky, then pressuring her to lie about it through Jordan.

Judd rushes to the Washington, D.C. newsroom at 4 a.m. to prepare for the first television report on “Good Morning America.” After that, the story steamrolls. “World News Tonight” anchor Peter Jennings, still in Cuba, breaks into regular programming at 3:32 p.m. Wednesday to pick up a live feed of Clinton’s interview with PBS. ABC News executives and numerous staff members desert Cuba in droves to prepare for continuing reports carried by every ABC news program.

“It was an all-hands-on-deck story,” Sproul says weeks later, recalling those first few exceptional days. “We understood the ramifications of putting it on the air.”

“I knew it was big, but not as big as it turned out to be,” says Vlasto, a New York-based producer now working from Washington. “I didn’t realize the magnitude until the next morning.” The task before the producers and correspondents remains enormous: determining if the President lied, if any laws were broken, if anyone committed perjury and if jobs were exchanged for silence. “Every day we have to sort through the facts and determine what is the most responsible thing to put on the air,” Sproul says. ABC executives have acknowledged those efforts and been supportive throughout. Shortly after the story broke, ABC News Chairman Roone Arledge sent a memo to the news staff thanking them for a job well done.

Chris Isham, the senior producer of “World News,” heads the investigative team from the “war room” in New York. The core team ABC is relying on includes: executive producer Dorrance Smith; senior producers Kerry Marash and Virginia Mosley; investigative producers Ariane DeVogue and Josh Gerstein; political director Mark Halperin; and Lumpkin. By an amazing stroke of luck, veteran newsman Sam Donaldson returned to his old White House beat the week before the story broke. Rounding out the team is Cokie Roberts and legal correspondent Jeffrey Toobin.

In the beginning, the story required around-the-clock stakeouts by camerapeople and field producers at the White House and the Watergate, where Lewinsky stayed with her mother. “Virtually everybody in the bureau had a piece of this story,” says Sproul, who’s worked for ABC 22 years. ABC employees continue to flood Judd and Vlasto’s e-mail, sending up to 70 tips or pieces of information a day. “This is the product of a lot of people working all over our company – in the L.A. bureau, in New York and, obviously, here,” Judd says. “If Chris and I don’t have a source to work an angle on a particular story, we know someone in this building will. One way or another, we get the information.”

Throughout, the investigative team has relied on Westin, and found his expert legal background an unexpected resource. By coincidence, during their investigations producers reviewed an opinion on Grand Jury testimony that Westin wrote when he clerked for Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell. “He’s been incredible,” Sproul says. “It’s such a collaborative effort.”

Scoops? Judd reporting that Starr is investigating whether Clinton and Lewinsky were witnessed in an intimate moment and the revelation of the talking points and speculation over the author. Gerstein’s hunch about political donations that sparked a search that led to the infamous tape of Lewinsky’s ropeline hug with Clinton. And, Barbara Walters scoring the first interview with Lewinsky’s father on the February 20 edition of “20/20.”

Mistakes? “We’ve had no retractions or mistakes that I’m aware of,” Sproul says. “We stand firmly behind every story we’ve had on the air.”

Ratings highlights? As a result of their in-depth coverage, ABC scored the highest ratings of all three networks during Clinton’s State of the Union Address. According to The New York Times, “Among the networks, ABC clearly benefited most from its coverage of the president’s problems, ending its recent stint in last place by passing CBS and closing to within three-tenths of a rating point of NBC.”

Nearly everyone in the ABC group ran specials or reports on the story. On January 24, the network premiered “ABC News Saturday Night,” which provided an extensive look on the latest allegations. On January 25, and continuing for two weeks, ABC News Radio launched a nightly, two-hour “Crisis in the White House” program dedicated to covering the issues. Bettina Gregory hosted the program from Washington, D.C., along with WABC-AM’s morning show co-host, “Lionel,” in New York. KABC Radio disc jockeys Peter Minyard and Ken Tilden in Los Angeles got their piece of the action through a bizarre interview with disgraced Clinton advisor Dick Morris.

Due to heavy international interest, the BBC picked up ABC News’ regular programming and specials for broadcast to more than 50 million homes in 187 countries. The pick-up included an interview of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton by “Good Morning America” co-anchor Lisa McRee that earned the “GMA” newcomer raves from the New York Post.

As the story continues to unfold, ABC News will follow it aggressively, Sproul vows. “We have an extremely talented group of people working on it. We’re very well positioned.”

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