In the “Conventional Wisdom” section of its Feb. 23rd issue, Newsweek gives Gen. Wes Clark a down arrow, noting: “Drops out, spreads Kerry rumor, then endorses him with hope of being veep. Dis-missed.”

Campaign Desk got stuck on that “spreads Kerry rumor” part — we knew of no documented evidence that Clark spread the only obvious “Kerry rumor,” the to-this-day unverified Matt Drudge allegation that Kerry had an affair with a former intern. We called the usually astute Jonathan Alter, who colleagues say was responsible for the Newsweek item, and asked him upon what reporting was it based.

Alter said he wasn’t sure, but he believed it “likely” that Clark had “made an oblique reference” to the Kerry matter, “in which case,” he added, “we have nothing to be sorry about.”

There then came what was a new one for us. Alter suggested Campaign Desk track down exactly what Clark had said. We don’t generally get reporters asking us to fact-check an item already in print, but it seemed like a good idea in this case.

So we asked Ryan Lizza of The New Republic, who has already disputed Drudge’s story, writing “I can confirm that Wesley Clark did not say what Drudge said he did” — that “Kerry will implode over an intern issue.” Because the precise quote was off the record, Lizza can’t elaborate, but today he told Campaign Desk that “I wasn’t being Clintonian — Clark never used the word intern.”

We also spoke to a couple other reporters and pieced together what happened: at a press conference at a Nashville restaurant, Clark made a passing reference to an upcoming National Enquirer story about Kerry’s past. The story wasn’t about an intern at all, and Clark brought it up in the context of his own campaign plans. He was staying in, he said, in part because the expected story might damage the Kerry campaign. According to one reporter, it appeared Clark didn’t have any idea what the allegations might be.

While Clark might have chosen his words more carefully, it’s safe to say he never spread what Newsweek calls the “Kerry rumor.”

Alter told Campaign Desk that the “Conventional Wisdom” section “isn’t necessarily held to the same standard” as the rest of the magazine’s news sections, but he emphasized that he’s “still very unhappy if we’re saying something that’s not true.”

It took us a little more than an hour of reporting to shoot down a rumor that started as an allegation in the Drudge Report and ended up presented as fact in the pages of a major national newsmagazine.

We recommend the exercise to Newsweek.

Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.