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American Journalism Review
Bimbonic Plagues And Ethics: What Next?  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    TOP OF THE REVIEW    
From AJR,   March 1992

Bimbonic Plagues And Ethics: What Next?   

There must be standard-setters, even if their rules cannot be codified.

By Reese Cleghorn
Reese Cleghorn is former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.     


The drama of Bill Clinton, Gennifer Flowers and the press has so many troublesome aspects that there is no place to begin or end. Mainline journalists let a supermarket tabloid decide what they should report. But there is much more to reflect upon.

Think of the ethical questions we have been asking, and how little professional consensus there is on the answers. In fact, consider the limited usefulness of any of the answers.

The Star claimed to have a smoking bimbo. Would anything else have happened if the New York Post had not instantly acccepted the Star as its reliable source, or if "Nightline" had not also jumped in early? (Good thing their fingers are not on the nuclear button.)

Defenses of the press's follow-the-Star behavior differed. The Star, with millions of readers, had forced the story into the public domain. Or: This was a story because Clinton had emerged from the pack. Or: It was a story now because Clinton might be lying, and that would be a character issue. Or: The Star's report was affecting the campaign, and that made it a story. Or simply: This was a story because the rest of the press had made it a story.

(If the Star's big national circulation made this a story, what if the Star sold only half a million copies? How about 250,000? Say, 100,000?)

(If mainline journalists should have explored this part of Clinton's private life, should they have done the same for all candidates? Just the married ones? What time frame? Just the last couple of years? Twelve years? What about past affairs versus current affairs that may have no bearing on public life?)

If we are confident of our answers to all these questions, we are slicing ethical issues very thin and being more than a little bit pharisaical.

What next, in this new era in which people may get information, or misinformation, from more and more sources, not just the Daily Mainline, the "Mainline Evening News" and sensational rags? All but the best radio talk shows already spread venom, lies and absurdities far and wide. On-line services will offer that soon, no doubt. Star-900, Rumor-SPAN and Sex Fax may just be around the corner.

Some time before the Star Stampede, I saw journalists on C-SPAN discussing whether rumors about Clinton might soon get the attention of the press. Good discussion. A play within a play. Who are we fooling now if we think people will not know if Mainline ignores something?

And another unhappy thought. Underlying all this discussion of what not to report is an assumption that the public cannot make distinctions. "The media" must protect gullible citizens by not giving them something they might misconstrue. Maybe so. God help us.

Yet there must be standard-setters in times of bimbonic plagues and Star-studded politics, even if their rules cannot be codified and inflexible. There must be institutions in journalism that are preferred because they are more credible, more selective, better in weighing news on the scales of accuracy and significance.

What troubled many journalists about the Clinton case was that the standard-setters were stampeded, and their explanations did not make much sense. However contradictory and imperfect their judgments, the Mainliners at least should judge for themselves the next time out. l

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