Friday, April 27, 2001; Page A04
Newsweek Spiked Kerrey Story in '98
Editors Cite Dropped Presidential Bid
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Top Newsweek editors decided more than two years ago not to publish Bob
Kerrey's account of his role in the 1969 killing of unarmed civilians in
Vietnam because Kerrey had decided not to run for president.
"We all agreed there's a higher level of scrutiny that goes on for
presidential candidates," Editor Mark Whitaker said yesterday. "At that
point, in my mind, the relevance of this story changed a little bit."
The editors spiked the effort even after the then-Nebraska senator, in an
Omaha interview, confirmed to two Newsweek reporters that his Navy SEAL
unit had killed more than a dozen civilians, mostly women and children,
in the village of Thanh Phong. One of the reporters, Gregory Vistica,
later quit the magazine and brought the story to the New York Times
Magazine and "60 Minutes II," whose imminent publication prompted Kerrey
to go public this week.
"We could have run the story," said Evan Thomas, an assistant managing
editor who interviewed Kerrey with Vistica. "We had Kerrey's
confirmation. We just didn't want to do it to the guy when he wasn't
running for president."
Thomas added: "The idea of coming out with a story about him two days
after he announced he wasn't running for president would seem strange and
unnecessary. It certainly would raise questions about whether we had
driven him out of the race."
That decision, in December 1998, came 11 months after Newsweek held
Michael Isikoff's scoop about the Monica S. Lewinsky investigation,
forfeiting the story that ultimately led to Bill Clinton's impeachment.
Kerrey said in an interview yesterday that he made no attempt to dissuade
the magazine from running Vistica's story. "That was Newsweek's
decision," he said. He added that Vistica could not have reported the
Times and CBS stories without Kerrey's help as "a volunteer."
Kerrey said after making a little-noticed speech on the subject last week
that he sent a copy to "a friend" at the Wall Street Journal, reporter
Dennis Farney, without realizing this would preempt the Times piece
slated for Sunday. "I felt like I had compromised him," Kerrey said. "I
forced him to write a story."
Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism said Newsweek
"made a mistake."
"It's hard to imagine by what definition this isn't news. Even if Kerrey
never intended to run for president, the story of one of the more admired
figures in political life, who won a Bronze Star for this action, speaks
to something beyond just Kerrey," Rosenstiel said. "It raises all kinds
of questions about what the Vietnam War was like for grunts and young
While at Newsweek, Thomas says, Vistica interviewed several other members
of Kerrey's Navy unit, including Gerhard Klann, who claims the unit
rounded up the civilians and shot them point-blank. Kerrey strongly
denies this, and Thomas said he left Klann's account out of the story he
turned in because Klann "did not seem to me to be the world's greatest
Whitaker, expressing no regrets, said Newsweek tried to sort out Klann's
"My Lai version" with "other versions that made it sound much less like
My Lai and more like the fog of war."
Vistica said the story was "painful for all the people involved," but he
would not comment on "an internal Newsweek matter." No stranger to
controversy, while at the San Diego Union-Tribune he broke the story of
the 1991 Tailhook scandal, in which Navy pilots groped women. In 1996,
Navy Adm. Jeremy "Mike" Boorda committed suicide less than two hours
after learning that Vistica and Thomas would be interviewing him as part
of a Newsweek inquiry into whether he had properly earned two of his
Sources say Vistica encountered some friction with Newsweek over his
reporting, but Whitaker said Vistica's resignation last year was not
related to the Kerrey story.
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