You Can't Ignore News  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   April 1992

You Can't Ignore News   

...and those tabs aren’t all from Mars any longer.

By Tim Schreiner
Tim Schreiner is demographics editor at the San Francisco Chronicle.      


Before we get to the meat of why Gennifer Flowers' accusations were news, let's clear up a few matters about those sleaze-slinging supermarket tabloids.

First, the mainstream press should examine itself and its own ethics before it starts lobbing bombs at the celebrity-oriented Star. No one will argue that the scandal sheets are in the same business as metropolitan dailies, but as the old saying goes: Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

It would not be difficult for the news-consuming public to become confused over the differences between ethical standards of mainstream news operations and the tabs. Consider:

  • NBC News, the New York Times and several other mainstream media outlets identified William Kennedy Smith's accuser by name; the Star, following a long-held tenet of journalism, did not print Patricia Bowman's name until she came forward voluntarily after the trial.
  • When Star editors paid Flowers for her story, it was merely the latest in a series of cash-for-splash journalistic payments that include television networks, magazines and the famous Richard Nixon interview with David Frost, who paid more than $600,000 to the disgraced former president.
  • Mainstream news operations like to say they don't print unsubstantiated rumors. But within a few days after the Star's Flowers story was ridiculed by many columnists and editors, the New York Times printed a Page One story citing repeatedly denied, unsubstantiated "speculation that Mr. (Boris) Yeltsin might be seriously ill from..alcohol abuse."


The Sleaze Factor

Over the last 24 years the sleaze-prestige spectrum between supermarket tabs and mainstream media has narrowed. Prestige papers now are elbowing tabloids for stories such as Zsa Zsa Gabor's trial that used to be the sole province of the tabs. The supermarket sheets are increasingly breaking stories that require follow-up by mainstream media. Like it or not, the tabloids, with their multimillion circulations, now are "megaphones in the world that do appear to have the power to make something happen in politics," in the words of Washington Post Managing Editor Robert Kaiser.

The most famous tabloid scoop, other than the Flowers accusations, was the National Enquirer's 1987 photo of presidential front runner Gary Hart snuggling with Donna Rice aboard the "Monkey Business." The photo ended all doubt about whether the two were mere acquaintances, as he had claimed, and effectively forced Hart to withdraw from the campaign. "That particular photograph legitimized the role of supermarket tabloids," despite their reputations and some well-publicized libel suits against them, says Everette Dennis, executive director of the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center at Columbia University.

Dennis says journalism changed after the Hart-Rice photo appeared. University of Michigan communications professor John Stevens, one of the few academics to study tabloids, agrees that the Hart, William Kennedy Smith and Clinton stories, along with other less publicized examples, probably portend a turning point in journalism standards.

"It seems we're moving to another level," says Stevens, who identifies three previous such milestones. The first was in the 1830s when newly independent newspapers were heavily criticized for covering even tame society news. In the 1890s, newspapers began covering crime and personalities in business and government. In the 1920s, the first big-city tabloids began publishing sensational news and private details from divorce court. "When a new form of journalism comes out, it's always started by the most daring [media]," says Stevens, author of "Sensationalism and the New York Press." These renegade elements "redefine news and most often it comes by moving the line between what's private and what's public." The Clinton-Flowers story provides a good look at that line.

When Rumors Become News

Why did the mainstream media repeat the Flowers allegations in the January 23 Star press release (the issue appeared on newsstands four days later), given that the majority had not picked up accusations of Clinton's marital infidelity that the Star had printed earlier in the month, and given that various versions of the story had been dismissed by virtually every reporter who looked into it? Because the story was different for three reasons: a woman, who was willing to be named, said she had sex with the candidate; she produced taped conversations that, although partial and inconclusive, showed a warm relationship between the two and a ready willingness to discuss marital infidelity; and Clinton's reaction.

Previously, Arkansas reporters had checked out and dismissed dozens of allegations of Clinton's "womanizing" over the years, including two lawsuits on the subject and a nasty handbill that accused the Arkansas governor of fathering a child out of wedlock. Former Arkansas Gazette Washington Bureau Chief Jeffrey Stinson says most Arkansas reporters had decided that if a woman ever came forward and said, "I had sex with Bill Clinton," they would write the story. "That was the standard I set and my editors set," Stinson says. Flowers' accusations "changed everything, and the tapes made it even more of a story." So Stinson, now at the Washington bureau of Gannett News Service, wrote it.

Unfortunately, the ethical discussion surrounding the story's publication in mainstream media often was marred by misunderstanding of what happened on January 23. Experts, academics and editors who criticized media outlets for running the allegations that day admitted that such charges become a story when they throw a campaign into turmoil. Marvin Kalb of Harvard's Barone Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy was very critical of papers and broadcasts that ran the Flowers story. However, he acknowledged to the Boston Globe that "there is a time when a certain critical mass is reached, and by any professional standard you are dealing with a news story."

For several reporters who were with the Clinton campaign January 23 at the American Brush Company in Claremont, New Hampshire, that critical mass was reached within a few hours after the candidate was asked about the Star story. Clinton's reaction sealed the story's fate. First, at an impromptu news conference the candidate took some time to get around to a denial of an affair with Flowers. Then he and his aides disappeared for three hours. Later the despondent campaign aides refused to answer questions and the candidate canceled a children's forum appearance that had been billed as important; Clinton was instead negotiating an appearance that evening on ABC's "Nightline" or "PrimeTime Live" to answer the allegations. Finally he slipped out a back door without answering questions.

"The campaign dignified the allegations by going into a tailspin," says Susan Yoachum, political reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, who was at the brush factory. "It went from affable to cold. He had the look of a deer in the headlights."

She says most reporters would have done similar stories if Clinton had reacted in the same way to allegations of a foreign policy blunder. The majority of reporters that day wrote the story from the angle of the Clinton campaign's reaction.

Eventually virtually every news operation ran a story about the allegations. Some ran a small story the first day, then a front-page story the second day. Others put it on Page One from the start. Some waited five days to put it in a prominent place. After the Clintons appeared on "60 Minutes," the story was on many front pages and led newscasts across the country.

The fact that coverage and placement differed over those first five days reflects the heated discussion and hand-wringing in newsrooms. Each decision to go with the story appears to have been based on some reaction by Clinton or scheduled reaction by Clinton yet no more substance about the original allegations came to light in the meantime.

Most media outlets recognized fairly quickly that, despite the Star's reputation, Flowers' allegations were news. Thus they ran the story, but let their placement reflect their view of it. "In the only language we have..we are telling the reader what we think of this stuff and whether we can vouch for it or not," New York Times Executive Editor Max Frankel said at the time in defense of his paper's decision to write very little and play the story on an inside page (see sidebar).

Unfortunately, instead of becoming a healthy discussion of what, if anything, the allegations and reaction revealed about Clinton's ability to be president, the early coverage bogged down in a discussion of the purity of the Star.

Guilt by Association

The mainstream press doesn't like to be associated with its lower-class colleagues, the tabloids, and it maintains distance by claiming that tabs print stories about UFO landings, Elvis sightings and 90-year-old pregnant women. "The Star writes about a major candidate," Kalb said, "as it writes about the sex life of frogs and three-headed women." These characterizations are ignorant at best and downright unfair at worst. The grocery tabs are as different from each other as the Washington Post and New York Post.

The Star and the Globe, throwbacks to the old fan mags, are full of celebrity news and movie-star scandal. The National Enquirer, the 3.8-million circulation granddaddy of tabs, and the National Examiner feature equal combinations of celebrity, health and human-interest stories.

Amid the diets, disaster and Princess Di in these four weeklies you won't find outlandish, obvious untruths such as this recent whopper: "JFK's Brain Found in Cuba." Those stories are reserved for the Weekly World News and the Sun, which provide a discreet disclaimer more or less admitting they don't pretend to contain the truth and are "published strictly for the enjoyment of our readers."

Even though the Star isn't as bad as some others, one news analyst found it guilty for being "comfortable in their company" on the same supermarket checkout shelf. If a publication can be pilloried for sitting on the counter next to a bad one, what about People magazine and TV Guide? They also sit on the same checkout line shelf. What about TV news, for that matter? It appears on the same channel as "Hard Copy," "Geraldo" and "Inside Edition."

Tabloid editors don't claim to operate on the same level as mainstream metropolitan daily newspapers. They don't pretend to cover city hall regularly; if they did they'd go out of business. Yet once in a while these two very different vehicles meet, and the collision changes both.

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