No Follow-Up to the Hype?
Reports debunking the White House vandalism story were often played less prominently than the original articles.
By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (email@example.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.
THAT GIFT-GRABBING, pardon-granting media favorite, Bill Clinton, was hit with yet another scandal. One fraught with details of destructive pranks played by exiting staffers on the new Bush regime. A harmless toilet-papering of the White House this was not. How could the media resist? ###
"And in Washington tonight, many people are shaking their heads over some surprising behavior by members of the outgoing Clinton administration," Tom Brokaw said in introducing an "NBC Nightly News" segment January 25. While many news reports left out any indignation, treating the story fairly straight, the articles nonetheless gave the public the dish on what anonymous sources, and the vague but encouraging White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, were saying.
The January 26 Washington Post piece began: "Bush administration officials said yesterday that they are cataloguing numerous acts of apparent vandalism that the officials attribute to outgoing aides to President Clinton, including sliced phone and computer lines, obscene messages left in copy machines and champagne flutes missing from an Air Force jet."
Various other stories that day mentioned more dirty deeds, including overturned desks, obscene graffiti on walls, drawers glued shut, a jet that was thoroughly looted--acts much more destructive than the previous tales of White House computer keyboards missing their "W" keys. And beyond the news coverage, it was the damning editorials and inflamed talk-show chatter that kept this story percolating in the public consciousness.
News outlets did run subsequent pieces when Fleischer said no formal "cataloguing" would be done, and George W. Bush himself later said the rumors of the Air Force jet trashing were bogus--though reporting of that quote was scant at best. The White House and the press successfully put the issue behind them. That is, until mid-May. Then, the story took one turn, and another, leaving the press wading in a mess of criticism. Had the media overblown initial reports of vandalism? And did they bury follow-ups that undercut the charges?
Vandalgate, as surprisingly few called it, resurfaced on May 18 when reporters learned of the result of a General Accounting Office and General Services Administration inquiry, which had been requested by Rep. Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Georgia). The GSA, the agency in charge of office space, said the White House and Old Executive Office Building property "was consistent with what we would expect to encounter when tenants vacate office space after an extended occupancy." Some news organizations reported the development, but for the most part not very prominently.
The Washington Post, which had played the initial story out front, ran a nine-sentence Knight Ridder wire follow-up on A13. NBC News and the Boston Herald, which had run a front-page story on the shenanigans in January, had nothing. USA Today and the Los Angeles Times ran nothing as well, though they didn't make a huge deal of the initial allegations. While other news organizations took a couple days to catch on and published only briefs, some, such as the Washington Times, Kansas City Star and New York Times, printed their own stories, playing them the same as they had the original charges. The Washington Times and the Star ran stories on the front page; Fox News and ABC News' "World News Tonight" aired the item; and CNN gave it a few mentions. Still, the diminished attention, in comparison to the way the allegations were hyped throughout the media, was enough to win criticism for gullible early reports and irresponsible coverage of the GAO/GSA findings.
Washington Post Ombudsman Michael Getler wrote in his June 3 column: "The use of a brief news service account rather than a well-displayed, staff-written story about the GSA findings tells me that the readers who complained have better news judgment than the editors."
But, alas, this saga was far from over. On page one of that June 3 Post, the paper detailed a list of damages finally released by the White House, which faced demands for an apology by up-in-arms Democrats. Among what staffers could remember encountering: "obscene graffiti in six offices, a 20-inch-wide presidential seal ripped off a wall, 10 sliced telephone lines and 100 inoperable computer keyboards." The front-page play made sense, Post Managing Editor Steve Coll says, because these details, while based on recollections, "were material and substantial and new."
The GAO then opened a new probe of the affair.
The turnabout left pundits in a tizzy; the press following the scandal-that-was, that-wasn't, then that-wouldn't-die; and many people wondering how anyone would ever know what really went down.
"We wouldn't have had to go through all this if we had done our job right in the first place," says Geneva Overholser, a journalism professor at the University of Missouri. The media should have pressed harder for documentation and should not have allowed sources to remain anonymous, she says. "It's just amazing what we let people get away with saying."
Marvin Kalb, executive director of the Washington office of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, says of the initial reports: "On reflection, it seems to me that it was played too big. But at the time, it fit into the larger Clinton departure story" of questionable pardons and taking of gifts from the White House.
As for the reliance on anonymous sources, the Post's Coll says the recent list of damages shows why sources said what they did. He adds, "I don't think we were ahead of what we were being told by credible officials in the White House."
Beyond the no-name leaks, says Mike Allen, a Post White House reporter, it was Fleischer's reference to "cut wires" at his press briefing that sparked so much coverage. "That seems tough to ignore," Allen, who reported the bulk of the Post stories on this issue, wrote in an e-mail to AJR.
A couple reporters, however, found Fleischer's wishy-washy responses called for stories that stressed the White House's refusal to offer proof. Boston Globe writer Anne E. Kornblut's skeptical piece ran January 26, and David Goldstein, a Washington correspondent for the Kansas City Star, penned that paper's first "facts few" story on the clamor for the February 9 edition.
Goldstein called the chief of public affairs for Andrews Air Force Base to quell the allegations (much stoked by opinion writers) about the trashing of the jet Clinton and party flew to New York after the inauguration. "The public was misinformed," Lt. Col. Dana Carroll told Goldstein.
The Star was consistent in its coverage, placing its three stories--on the charges, the GSA statement and the opening of a formal GAO review--on page one.
Why did the paper feel the GAO/GSA results deserved A1 as well? "The story got such play back in January. It was all over the place," Goldstein says. "And it was questionable from the beginning."
Critics say other media would have been wise to exhibit such logic. "The problem is that follow-ups as a rule are treated like stepchildren," Kalb says. "You go with the big story when you got it, and if it's contradicted later, you try to ignore the contradiction."
The Post's Coll says that in hindsight, with reader interest so strong in this story, "we could have done better to sort this through for them."
"Probably most papers are wishing they had paid a little bit more attention" to the GAO/GSA findings, says USA Today White House Editor Gwen Flanders. The non-provability factor plus the lack of a weekend edition contributed to her paper not running a follow-up in May, she says.
But, say Coll and Allen, the GAO had not conducted a full investigation. Andrew Miga, the Boston Herald's one-man Washington bureau, echoes that rationale for not trumpeting the news. "The GAO report was not definitive," he says.
That first inquiry was just preliminary. The GSA said that it found nothing out of the ordinary in the office space. As for equipment, such as phones and computers, the GAO asked the White House about that. It was told, says an April GAO letter to Barr, that there were no records of damage and that repair records would not indicate why one was being made.
It's by no means certain the latest investigation will sort things out. Given the lack of records, says Bernard Ungar, the GAO's director of physical infrastructure issues, "It's going to be very difficult and challenging to determine what did happen."