It’s one of those gifts that keeps on giving! New evidence of Jeffrey Toobin’s hypocrisy (in his book AVast Conspiracy) arrives almost daily. Today’s installment focuses on the aspersions Toobin casts on Michael Isikoff, whose reporting of the Flytrap scandal won a National Magazine Award for Newsweek.
Toobin writes that “greed,” in the form of a “desire to write books about the president’s sex life” motivated Isikoff and other Clinton “enemies … to act as they did.” In a deceptively crafted passage on pages 130-131, Toobin quotes a Sept. 1997 Linda Tripp tape in which Tripp says that Isikoff was “working on a book deal. He’s doing an all-the-president’s women kind of deal.” Toobin then flatly asserts, “Isikoff was using Tripp as a source for the [book] project he had started with Glenn Simpson of The Wall Street Journal, who had by this point dropped out of the project. Isikoff had apparently even shared the working title of his volume with Tripp, as he had with others”–the title, according to Toobin, being All the President’s Women.
Toobin then blasts Isikoff for trying to talk Tripp into cooperating with him. According to Tripp, Isikoff told her, “If I were to, uh, work with you and, you know, allow some of this to get out into the mainstream media, then that would set you up for a [book contract].” Toobin writes:
If events unfolded as Tripp said they did, this was dubious ethical territory for the reporter. If Isikoff and Tripp were both stoking the story so they could profit from it in the form of book deals–and not disclosing that fact to Isikoff’s readers, as he had not in his August story–that would have been inappropriate to say the least. Likewise, it would have been wrong for him to advise Tripp on how to position herself in the marketplace of Clinton sex books. In the book that he did write on the case, which was entitled Uncovering Clinton, Isikoff claimed that Tripp “invented” this conversation with him. If she did, it is curious that Tripp knew the precise title of Isikoff’s planned book; moreover, Tripp was obviously not lying about her own interest in writing a book.
There are many, many things wrong with Toobin’s argument.
First, note the clever use of the word “if” in the second sentence. “If” Isikoff had been writing a book, he might be accused of mercenary motives. But Isikoff says he wasn’t writing a book. He confirms (in Uncovering Clinton, and to me) that he had talked about co-writing a book with Simpson but says that they had dropped this idea more than a month before the Tripp tape, after Matt Drudge ran a screaming headline suggesting that Isikoff was holding back juicy Kathleen Willey details (which even Toobin concedes he wasn’t) for a book. Indeed, Toobin himself, 17 pages before the above passage, writes that after the mid-summer Drudge headline, “Isikoff and Glenn Simpson decided to put All the President’s Women aside for a while.”
What evidence does Toobin have that Isikoff isn’t telling the truth and that the “while” had ended by September–with Isikoff back to “using Tripp as a source” for a book, as opposed to reporting a possible article for Newsweek? Well, Isikoff had told Tripp the “precise title” of his book! Except that Toobin got the title wrong. The title of Isikoff and Simpson’s proposed book, according to both Isikoff and Simpson, was Secrets and Lies, not All the President’s Women. “The notion that Mike and I would be so lame as to use a cliché like All The President’s Women is perhaps the most insulting part of Toobin’s mistake,” says Simpson. (Simpson also told me that after Drudge’s report, Isikoff “was fairly petrified that he would be pulled into a conflicted situation” and that their book project was “most emphatically” dropped.) Isn’t it likely that Tripp had simply read the Drudge Report and erroneously believed that Isikoff was working on a book?
Given that, what was so terrible about what Isikoff is alleged to have told Tripp? He told her she shouldn’t publish her story herself but that she should let him have it. In other words, he’s trying to talk a source into giving a story to him, and his employer. That’s what reporters do, and what they’re paid to do.
What’s so terrible about writing a book anyway? As Isikoff says, “any big story can always turn into a book.” A reporter would have to be a moron not to have that thought somewhere in the back of his or her mind. Maybe Toobin is right to think that “such incentives did not even exist a generation ago”–although I suspect the incentives do more to bring out relevant truths than distort them, and it’s not at all clear that prior to Clinton the incentives even applied to “books about the president’s sex life.” (Bob Woodward got rich off Watergate. But what journalist got rich writing about Nixon’s sex life, or Ford’s, or Carter’s, or Bush’s–or Gary Hart’s for that matter?) It’s easy to believe that Isikoff would have done exactly what he did even if his only possible publication outlet was Newsweek (and his only remuneration his salary) since all of his reporting was supervised and supported by his Newsweek editors.
Toobin is, of course, being massively hypocritical here, given that he too is now profiting from enclosing his reporting in hard covers. How dare Isikoff write a book, says Toobin in his book! Was Toobin’s own judgment distorted by his presumably large Random House advance? Has he donated the money to charity?
In fact, kausfiles has learned, after the Monica story broke in early 1998, Random House approached Isikoff (who had no deal in the works) to write a book about it, but then backed off because Toobin, a big-name Random author, was already interested in doing one himself!
Did Toobin disclose this book project to his New Yorker readers when he wrote five articles for the magazine about the Clinton scandal in the six months after February, 1998? Want to guess?
It gets worse. In April of 1998, according to Isikoff, when both he and Toobin had their publishing deals, Toobin actually proposed over lunch that he and Isikoff join forces and co-author their Clinton books. At that point, of course, most of what Toobin now criticizes in Isikoff’s reporting (including the role of Clinton’s enemies in advancing the scandal) was well known. If Isikoff was such a disreputable sleazemonger, why would Toobin want to write a book with him? A Newsday story on this incident reports that “Toobin said through a Random House spokesman … that Isikoff had approached him.” Isikoff insists it was the other way around–he’d invited Toobin to lunch, but only to pump him for info on Dennis Kirkland, one of Paula Jones’ detractors. He remembers being surprised when Toobin suggested they write the book together.
I believe Isikoff on this. (Neither Toobin nor Random House returned my repeated calls.) Anyway, whoever suggested the arrangement, Toobin doesn’t deny considering it for at least a day. Why, if Isikoff’s so bad? And shouldn’t Toobin, by his own standards, have disclosed his book dealings with Isikoff to Vast Conspiracy readers?
There’s more! Let’s not forget that Toobin, the man who now decries the baleful influence of book deals, first made his mark betraying Iran-Contra special counsel Lawrence Walsh, for whom he worked as a lawyer, by quitting to publish a book about the case before it was even over! There’s not enough room on Slate’s server to fully analyze Toobin’s possible psychological motives for indulging in the ridiculous innuendoes of A Vast Conspiracy. But one is obvious: He’s projecting!
P.S.: Isikoff, as I’ve written earlier, is a friend of mine. In my experience, he’s honest and conscientious. He has a darker view of Clinton than I do, but I can’t say that view is unreasonable. Am I motivated to criticize Toobin in part by a desire to defend Isikoff from the slime in Vast Conspiracy? You bet. But I wouldn’t do it if I weren’t convinced Isikoff is right and Toobin wrong. I’m not that loyal a friend.