We Gotta Get Out of This Place  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    FROM THE EDITOR    
From AJR,   March 1998

We Gotta Get Out of This Place   

There must be some alternative to jettisoning standards every time a mega-story comes along.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


An editor I know has a category for the very intriguing yet wildly implausible tips that come to the attention of news organizations. They are, he says, stories that are "too good to check."

As coverage of the president and the intern reached fever pitch, life seemed to be imitating quip.

All the standards, all the rules, all the niceties about having two sources and giving people adequate time to respond and distinguishing between sexy rumor and actual fact were cast aside like so many Walter Mondale bumper stickers.

It was enough to make you long for the golden age of restraint in American journalism, like during the O.J. Simpson era.

Of course, it's important to make distinctions. First of all, despite their shared overload of salacious detail, the White House sex scandal was hardly Marv Albert revisited. That was a case of prurient interest for its own sake. No matter what qualms you might have about Ken Starr's investigation, the presidential allegations clearly demanded serious and intense scrutiny.

We're not talking bimbo eruptions here. You can't turn a blind eye to possible charges of obstruction of justice and subornation of perjury by the Leader of the Free World. The Linda Tripp-Monica Lewinsky tapes, those three dozen White House visits by Lewinsky after she was banished to the Pentagon, the high-level efforts to find a low-level federal employee a job: That's enough circumstantial evidence to make heavy coverage a no-brainer.

Distinctions also must be made among the huge and diverse array of entities that make up "the media." Some news organizations took pains to report carefully, to seek primary information, to resist the all-too-common propensity to blithely assert that "everyone is going with it" and throw judgment out the window.

Newsweek, after all, lost its exclusive when it chose prudence over speed.

That said, there was an awful lot in the latest bout of media overkill to sadden the most incurable optimist.

ýoo many stories were simply attributed to unnamed sources or to a single unnamed source. Too often there were no clues about where information was coming from. If the reader knows that the source is in one camp or another, that sheds light on possible motivation and helps the reader make a judgment about credibility.

èhen other news organizations, which had absolutely no idea of the validity of these undersourced accounts, would unquestioningly put them in the paper, on the air, online. The result is that any number of titillating tidbits that might be true became widely circulated and accepted as absolute fact.

Now I'm hardly one to campaign for a ban on anonymous sources. As Bob Woodward, Mr. Anonymous Source himself, is fond of saying, what's important isn't the identity of the source but the quality of the information. (Think about some of the out-and-out lies that have been trumpeted on the record and it's enough to launch a movement to ban named sources.)

And the current unpleasantness is a vivid reminder of why confidential sources are sometimes necessary. The combination of legitimate legal restrictions and tactical White House stonewalling made named sources hard to come by. All the more reason to use such information carefully.

Coach John Chaney, whose Temple University basketball teams play a slow, some might even say annoying, but quite successful style of basketball, is fond of saying that "speed kills." That's true in journalism as well.

Think of the Dallas Morning News. It rushed into its early edition and onto its Web site an explosive story saying that a Secret Service agent would testify he saw Clinton and Lewinsky in a "compromising" position. The ink had barely dried before the paper was retracting the story.

*ne of the problems was a misunderstanding between the Washington bureau and the home office – an inevitable consequence of haste.

Similarly, the Wall Street Journal rushed an inflammatory story online without response from the key principal and the White House. It turned out to be wrong.

ýpeaking of the Net, the latest frenzy marked an important coming-of-age for online journalism. Magazines and newspapers stopped worrying about "scooping themselves" and took advantage of cyberspace to get their stories out quickly. When Newsweek lost its exclusive, it bounced back by posting its much more detailed reporting on Lewinsky rather than simply waiting for its next print issue.

The bad news: The Dallas Morning News and Wall Street Journal episodes did little to alleviate widespread fears that the lure of instant publishing could further erode standards.

so what now? Even cynically noting the media's penchant for bouncing back and forth between shameful behavior and self-loathing is getting really boring.

üot long ago (was it after Diana or after Marv? Who can even remember?), ASNE President and Oregonian Editor Sandy Rowe was saying that individual decision making by individual editors was the only hope. If enough of them insisted on sticking to their values regardless of what "everyone else" was doing, perhaps critical mass could be reached and the madness would stop at last.

Despite the latest meltdown, Rowe is still singing the same song.

There doesn't seem to be a better answer.

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