A Tough Call for the Nationís Editors  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   April 1999

A Tough Call for the Nationís Editors   

By Chris Harvey
Harvey, a former AJR managing editor and a former associate editor at washingtonpost.com, teaches Web writing and publishing at the University of Maryland.     

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   » The Wall Street Journals

When the Associated Press and Washington Post stories about Juanita Broaddrick began moving on the wire late February 19, editors at the San Jose Mercury News knew they were in for another round of tough decision-making.

The wire stories, which followed publication that morning of a Wall Street Journal editorial page interview with Broaddrick, carried the nursing home operator's allegations that she had been sexually assaulted by Bill Clinton 21 years ago. "This is an incredibly serious accusation, accusing someone of a crime, a very, very serious crime," says Jerry Ceppos, executive editor of the Mercury News. A meeting of the paper's top editors was called.

"Some argued to run with the Post wire version, some to run it but not on the front page," others not to run it at all, Ceppos recalls. In the end, he says, he was swayed by the assistant managing editor for national who argued the paper wouldn't run a similar story about a local official in the absence of charges by law enforcement officials. "One uncorroborated person speaking isn't enough; it didn't meet our basic standards," Ceppos says.

So that weekend, while the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Newsday, New York Post, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, St. Petersburg Times and others published wire or staff stories about Broaddrick's allegations, the Mercury News was silent. But the silence didn't last.

Five days after the editors' meeting, the paper ran a wire brief saying NBC would air its own interview with Broaddrick that night. And the following day, the paper printed a full-blown, wire-compilation story that led with Clinton's sidestepping of a question on the allegations. Still, no charges against the president had been filed, nor would they be. The statute of limitations had long since passed.

"I still can't say I'm very comfortable with it," Ceppos said in a second interview, explaining the paper's flip-flop. "One reason we did it is, [Clinton] was asked about it at his press conference and commented slightly. That brought it into the public light a little more." A New York Times explainer on the allegations and the media's handling of them, published inside that paper February 24, also "fleshed out" the issue, Ceppos says. Some of that explanatory information made it into the Mercury News' February 25 wire piece.

The Mercury News may have displayed editors' conflicting opinions of the Broaddrick allegation more visibly than other media outlets. But other top editors around the country say they, too, felt strongly pulled in two directions when deciding whether to publish the latest accusation about Clinton's sexual conduct. Broaddrick's charge, denied by the president's lawyer and spokesman, had already found currency on the Internet, cable news and talk radio, following a mention last March in Paula Jones' court filings against the president and a footnote about "Jane Doe #5" in Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's report to Congress.

New York Times Managing Editor Bill Keller says that throughout the weekend following the Wall Street Journal's publication of its interview, editors debated whether the Times should run something. "There was a great deal of schizophrenia," Keller says. "I found myself at various points...on either side of the issue."

Keller cites numerous reasons not to publish: "This is a 21-year-old allegation; the truth is unknowable; the statute of limitations has run out...impeachment is over; no legal consequences are likely to flow from this." And Broaddrick had signed an affidavit, which she later disclaimed, saying the allegations were false. Keller adds: "We did not want to be stampeded into print, with something based on other people's reporting. We didn't want to do one of those cover-your-ass, the allegation-is-out-there, the White-House-denies-it stories, or a media story to report other people have reported it."

But Times editors, still grappling with whether or not they would publish anything, set a reporting team in motion, Keller says. One reporter was sent to Arkansas to try to interview Broaddrick. Another was asked to look into how other media were handling the story. At least two reporters in Washington were told to talk to Starr and members of Congress about the role Broaddrick's allegations had played in the impeachment proceedings against Clinton.

After Times reporter David Firestone interviewed Broaddrick late February 22, editors decided to publish the story inside the paper two days later. "What carried a lot of weight here is this allegation played...a marginal role...in the impeachment process," Keller says. "Whether it changed any votes decisively, I can't say. A number of members said it hardened their positions, gave them greater confidence in their vote" to impeach.

By the end of the weekend, Keller says, "Our readers had quite likely encountered some or all of this story...in other newspapers, on the Internet, on TV." The Times felt it had an obligation to "try to help them make sense of what they'd heard."

Among the accounts New York readers were likely to have seen that weekend was New York Post columnist Steve Dunleavy's interview with Broaddrick. It was teased from A1 of the tabloid and dressed inside the paper with a vintage Post headline: "I was sexually attacked by cold bastard Bill." Says Dunleavy, in defense of the headline and his use of the phrase in his lead, "She said the 'cold bastard' phrase twice" during the course of their half-hour phone conversation February 19.

Los Angeles Times National Editor Scott Kraft says discussions at his paper--which ran a seven-paragraph wire story February 20 on the allegation and White House denials--extended to whether or not a staff reporter should be assigned to pursue a Broaddrick interview. Editors decided against it, he says. "It doesn't seem like it's worth us spending a lot of resources...on an allegation I don't think is provable."

Washington Post editors, when confronted with Dorothy Rabinowitz's piece in the Wall Street Journal, had a leg up on the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. Staff writer Lois Romano had already completed several off-the-record interviews with Broaddrick after references to the alleged assault found their way into Jones' court filings, says Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr.

Romano had agreed to a condition set by Broaddrick, that she not publish her piece until a Broaddrick interview with NBC News correspondent Lisa Myers aired, Downie says. That interview, conducted January 20 while the Senate was considering the impeachment charges, would not appear on the TV newsmagazine "Dateline NBC" until February 24--five days after the Journal piece and after the Senate had acquitted the president. "We waited until we could be satisfied and proud of the work," says NBC News Vice President Cheryl Gould. "The seriousness of the charge required this kind of checking and cross-checking and contextualizing."

Once the Journal piece ran, Romano went back to Broaddrick and requested permission to print, Downie says, and Broaddrick gave it to her. The Post's story of the sexual assault allegations, White House denials, and the circuitous path the tale took to publication ran on the paper's front page February 20.

"We didn't reach any judgment on if it was a sufficiently corroborated story," Downie says. But "we did decide to write about everything going on here, and not just one person's allegation. The full context of events--that's what we decided was newsworthy."

Network reaction to the story varied. The day the Journal piece broke, Charles Gibson discussed it on ABC's "Good Morning America." But, ABC News spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said in early March, the news staff had done no substantial reporting on the story since. "We feel there has been no news development that would warrant an additional piece." ABC's Web site, however, did post an interview with Broaddrick. "It's a 24-hour news site [with room for] much more additional information," Murphy says.

"CBS Evening News" aired a one-minute piece February 20--the day the Washington Post story ran--but didn't plan to follow up, spokeswoman Kim Akhtar said.

CNN passed on the story February 19, but aired one February 20, says Washington bureau chief Frank Sesno. "It was my position that Jane Doe #5 was referred to in many, many places in the impeachment process, and if news is the first rough draft of history, providing the next step, when she goes public, was an important footnote." After much internal discussion, CNN decided it would not lead any newscast with the story or run it with great frequency, Sesno says, "so it would have the importance of place it deserved." CNN would follow that story with a piece about the "Dateline NBC" interview and another on the numerous Sunday talk shows addressing the story the weekend of February 28.

The media's handling of the allegation has left some journalists and journalism watchdogs fretting about its impact on the industry.

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, and Nieman Foundation Curator Bill Kovach fear the worst. In the February 28 Washington Post, they wrote, "We are moving toward a journalism of assertion rather than a journalism of verification, and the cost for society is high."

Keller isn't so sure. "If this was a precedent for how we'll cover all future allegations, I'd say [the ground has shifted] for the worse. But I don't think it is." Nothing about this Clinton story is typical, he says. "The experience of the past year...Clinton's own behavior, the aggressiveness of his enemies, the impeachment process"--all were unusual circumstances that affected publishing decisions, he says.

Brit Hume, managing editor of Fox News' Washington bureau, says coverage of the assault allegation has left the media bloodied, but not for the reasons cited by Rosenstiel and Kovach. "It was a classic example of inexplicable timidity," Hume says. "It reflects badly on us all."

Fox was aggressive about reporting the story and about tweaking NBC for holding its interview. (NBC News spokeswoman Alex Constantinople says the interview with Broaddrick was not "held," but "worked.... It was in the process up until" it went on the air.) Hume wore a "Free Lisa Myers" button on the air in early February, he says, in a good-humored show of support for the reporter's work.

In early February, Hume says, Fox aired a story on Broaddrick's assault allegation, after interviewing four sources who said the nursing home administrator told them her story contemporaneously.

Hume says some media weighing this allegation of sexual assault by the Democratic president set a standard for publication that hadn't existed when journalists considered allegations of sexual harassment by former Sen. Bob Packwood, an Oregon Republican, and then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, a conservative. This most recent standard of "provability," Hume says, is "media double standards at its worst."

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