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American Journalism Review
The News: It May Never Be The Same  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    TOP OF THE REVIEW    
From AJR,   March 1998

The News: It May Never Be The Same   

The flashfire coverage of Clinton moves us into a new era.

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


Everything was different this time. Journalism became a flashfire. The coverage joined Tim Russert and Matt Drudge at the hip. Mainline news organizations, starting with Newsweek, scooped themselves online. Endless numbers of lame stories were made to walk by that crutch "reportedly." The president stonewalled and his press secretary made a joke of it, recalling Stonewall. A prosecutor who had been given abusive power went for the jugular. Vintage news taboos died with stories about oral sex and presidential semen.

In the heat of all this, a great balance wheel, Americans at large, restored order through wait-and-see warnings, even while they devoured every tidbit available about sluttiness, sleaze and public slime.

Much of the backlash was against journalists. At the moment we may be bothered by the scale of the rebuke, but the public changes as it sees substance accumulate, as it will over months.

In midstream now, we have to ponder whether flashfire journalism means the ultimate meltdown of news values and standards: whether any barriers remain.

But there is this. Putting aside a few examples of serious mistakes and a shameful reliance upon others' reporting, didn't the main-stream print and broadcast press do the kind of work it should do? Yes, and it did a huge amount of it well.

Hype? The press was quick to say the presidency itself was in play. That offended. But it was true because Clinton was an accident waiting to happen. The press' performance can't be evaluated without noting that we do have a president who is not just a philanderer but a man who is reckless, compulsive and dangerously confident of his Houdini-like capacity to escape.

The press' most notable omission in the first two weeks or more was the medical story. But some reports did explore the issue. We didn't have to await legal outcomes to see that Clinton may come down because of a sexual disorder, exacerbated by the pressures of office and getting worse. David Maraniss of the Washington Post explored this early. Addiction specialists on John McLaughlin's "One on One" program also helped us understand this dimension.

To this pattern of disaster in the making add an independent counsel who is politically partisan to the core. And as law professor Jeffrey Rosen has pointed out, he is armed with two dangerously unlimited areas of law: the statute creating independent counsels and a pattern in sexual harassment suits in the civil courts that lacks safeguards for the accused. Starr has the power, and he uses it.

The reckless prosecutor meets the reckless president. The public should know about that. The press had to tell that story, tell it fast, and tell it all. We can disagree about what constitutes the "all." But that was the biggest story of danger to the presidency since Nixon.

This is our paradox:
The ever-flawed press has pushed hard and substantially informed a public that moralistically claims it does not want to know and (as of this writing) remains in denial. But the experience may have changed the press for the worse.

Now we have to repair that damage, some way. Old-fashioned standards look better than ever.

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