Burton and Media Co-star In Theater of the Absurd

Political Notebook

This is the story of how former Associate Attorney General Webster Hubbell's prison phone calls to his wife reached your television, radio, and newspaper.

It all started when Rep. Dan Burton (R) of Indiana decided late last week to release excerpts of those taped conversations, which his House Government Reform and Oversight Committee had received from the US Bureau of Prisons.

The move infuriated Democrats, who said the excerpts falsely implied that Mr. Hubbell and his wife were under pressure to protect Hillary Rodham Clinton from independent counsel Kenneth Starr's Whitewater investigation. By Sunday morning, they had provided news organizations with a 10-page list of "alterations and omissions" from the tapes.

But when Representative Burton retaliated Monday - by ordering the release of the full text and tape of all 54 conversations - the release itself turned into a media circus.

As 100-plus journalists milled around the committee room awaiting The Tapes, committee spokesman Will Dwyer emerged to say he was "stunned" by the turnout. Apparently the committee staff hadn't counted on the possibility that the entire Capitol press corps would be curious about further developments in what had been a lead story nationwide for the past three days.

Mr. Dwyer explained the committee would indeed release The Tapes, but there weren't enough for everyone. (Groans from the journalists.) In fact, he said, he hadn't thought there'd be much interest and at first ordered only 12 copies, later upping the order to 50. (More groans.) And he would only have 43 of the 54 hours in question ready. (Keep groaning.)

As reporters, sound people, and camera operators surged toward the hapless Dwyer, who was standing in a row of committee seats, it became clear that the committee staff hadn't a clue how best to distribute the goods. One reporter said the scene might appear next fall on the Fox network: "When Journalists Attack."

The incredulous scribes, most of whom know each other, were trying to figure out how to grab a set of tapes without trampling one another. "If I slug you, it's nothing personal," one said to another. A couple of wags asked their comrades to take last words back to their families and editors.

In the melee, someone suggested that Dwyer give the tapes first to the wire services and the networks, to which everyone agreed. But as it turned out, he didn't yet have a complete set. He began passing out Tapes 1, 2, and 4. Journalists raised their hands, shouting out the names of their organizations, firm in the knowledge that, since they were being filmed, they would once again look ridiculous on the evening news.

Dwyer soon ran out of the first set of tapes and began passing out Tapes 5 and 6, but only to those who hadn't bagged 1, 2, and 4. Soon he was tossing cassettes to reporters like fish to hungry porpoises at Sea World. A young staffer from The Washington Post (not a favorite of most Republicans) cried out, "The Post doesn't have any tapes yet." Her pleas were ignored for several minutes, while the conservative Washington Times got its tapes relatively quickly. An intrepid and supremely dedicated Monitor reporter snagged Tape 7. (Most organizations eventually got a full set the next afternoon.) Tapes 8 and 9 have yet to be distributed.

CNN not only filmed the entire spectacle, which played over and over again during the next 24 hours, but, in a navel-gazing move, began interviewing other reporters about the free-for-all.

As some Republicans gripe about Burton's judgment, House leaders circled the wagons. "Dan Burton has entered a very tough arena where those who are covering up the crimes and those who participated in [them] are doing all they can to smear anybody who seeks the truth," said Speaker Newt Gingrich.

The affair has already produced at least one casualty. Burton yesterday fired his committee's lead investigator, David Bossie - a move that will please critics of the probe.

Meanwhile, a lot of news organizations are listening to the tapes. Stay tuned.

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