It Was All About Sex  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Books
From AJR,   October 2001

It Was All About Sex    

One Scandalous Story: Clinton, Lewinsky, and Thirteen Days That Tarnished American Journalism
By Marvin Kalb
The Free Press
288 pages; $25.00

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     


News is divided into two kinds of big stories: the Big Big Story, like Watergate or Vietnam, and the Little Big Story, like the O.J. Simpson case. You need to appreciate that distinction in evaluating coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. While the press treated Clinton-Lewinsky as one of history's Biggest Big Stories, the public all along knew better. In his new book, Marvin Kalb doesn't frame the discussion in these terms. But the book underlines that Clinton-Lewinsky was, from beginning to end, largely about sex. It was gossip, pure and simple, a five-star Little Big Story. The problem wasn't that the press should not cover this stuff. Juicy gossip has always made news. Instead, the press floundered because it tried to stretch its protocols for important stories and apply them to a soap opera sideshow. Even now, just a couple of years later, it seems unreal that this mess actually led to impeachment. What lingers isn't the vestige of a national emergency, but a sordid, sad and classically sensational tale of lust and faithlessness; not a matter of state, but a gripping melodrama featuring glamorous people in the mundane and unseemly clutches of carnality. Kalb, the former CBS newsman and Harvard policy center leader, offers a conventional critique of the scandal coverage. His examination is not as analytical as Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach's "Warp Speed," nor as insiderish as reporter Michael Isikoff's "Uncovering Clinton," nor as dramatic as Steven Brill's 1998 article, "Pressgate" (all three of which Kalb heavily relies on). But Kalb, who like Brill uses the tick-tock format to chronicle the first few days' coverage, does capture well the spirit of those times: the competitive frenzy, the backstage jockeying, the editorial vacillation and, best of all, the furious and perfidious byplay between journalists and their sources. What Kalb adds to the record, mostly through interviews with the key journalistic players, is retrospective detail and context. Readers will enjoy the many inside glimpses. For example, Kalb is, I believe, the first to publish a pointed critique of the New York Times' coverage, ordered by top Times editors and prepared by Martin Baron, then a Times editor and now editor of the Boston Globe. Baron identified "two major lapses" and they were big ones: bad sourcing and sloppy editing. In the Times' lead story the day after the scandal broke, Baron pointed to phrases such as "were said to be," "amid reports that," and "in another reported disclosure." He criticized the Times for "quotes we never heard but felt free to recount without attribution," "repeating sensational reports of others without confirming them," "speculation" and "overstatement." Kalb also offers a strong recapitulation of Newsweek's "incredible seven-hour dialogue" that ended with a decision not to run Isikoff's original scoop on the scandal; new insights into the digging of ABC correspondent Jackie Judd and, especially, her producer Chris Vlasto; and interesting backstage vignettes on how papers like the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune leapt into the chase. Kalb's work underlines several points best made in the Rosenstiel-Kovach book. First is the galvanizing role that the Internet, notably Matt Drudge's Web site, played in driving the story. What the Web provided, in a way that probably permanently changed journalism, was a publisher-of-last-resort for almost any report or rumor, including those passed over by mainstream editors or still in the checking stage at frontline media. This lowering of threshold may have forever corrupted the equation for deciding what and when to publish. Kalb also, like Rosenstiel and Kovach, demonstrates how quickly the story became what New York Times columnist Frank Rich has called a "mediathon," a 'round-the-clock media blitz in which uninformed and often reckless commentary exceeded actual reporting. Kalb does his best job in conveying the alarming way in which Clinton-Lewinsky coverage was a duel of leakers, won big-time by the anti-Clinton forces. According to Kalb, Drudge was from the first fed a river of reports by the anti-Clinton ringleader Lucianne Goldberg and lawyers representing Paula Jones and other Clinton foes. Later, Kalb says, the office of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr overflowed with "carefully timed leaks...helpful to Starr's case and harmful to the president's." The result, Kalb charges, was that "the press was clearly in collusion with the prosecutor" while "the public often had no idea where the information was coming from or the motivation of those who leaked it." From all this, some lessons are obvious. Journalists should use reliable sources, disclose them fairly, confirm facts before publishing, stress reporting over commentary and not be stampeded by others with lesser standards. But another vital concern, yet to be adequately vetted, is the matter of proportionality. To justify their huge coverage, journalists tried to sell the story as a super-important matter of state and thus blew it out of proportion. The constant talk of impeachment, indictment and national crisis an effort, presumably, to establish significance created a drumbeat effect that inflamed the situation and irritated the audience. The irony is that by misapplying the Big Big Story model, the media turned a pretty good gossip story into a trivialized civics debacle. Gossip is news, but it is best whispered, not shouted. What remains to debate is how the press can cover the juicy Little Big Stories in ways that satisfy public appetites but don't strain credulity with false notes of gravity and momentousness.

Stepp, an AJR senior editor, teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

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