Gatekeepers Without Gates
Is Larry Flynt America's assignment editor? Or are there ways new organizations can make reponsible decisions in today's frenzied freewheeling media world?
By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
CHICAGO TRIBUNE WEST COAST Bureau Chief Vincent Schodolski arrived for the January press conference an hour ahead of the well-publicized 8 p.m. start time. He'd called that morning to say he'd be attending, but when he checked back later a recording said there was no more room. He knew he'd better get there early.
To get in, journalists took an elevator up to the 10th floor. There, they had to pass through a security station, then another, before they could enter a spacious corner office that's a cross between a brothel and a funeral home, replete with gilt frames, statuary, Tiffany lamps and thick tapestry curtains. Behind the large desk sat a small bronze sculpture of a kneeling woman and man having intercourse.
As he walked into the press conference, Schodolski was handed a sheet with the rules: Each reporter could ask one question and one follow-up. Freelance cameraman and video producer Chris Guzzetta was already there, setting up equipment and running cable for C-Span to one of several satellite trucks parked outside. C-Span intended to broadcast the press conference live.
Schodolski and about 200 other reporters and cameramen waited, sipping bottled water, before a Blues Brother look-alike in sunglasses wheeled in the star of the show. Cameras whirred and clicked ferociously. It was showtime in L.A. for Hustler magazine Publisher Larry Flynt, and he was obviously loving every minute of it.
In December, after unleashing two full-time investigators to scrutinize the sex lives of Republican legislators and offering serious money for tips about indiscretions, Flynt had proved instrumental in the sudden resignation of Republican House Speaker-elect Bob Livingston. This time Flynt was offering up Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), an early and aggressive champion of impeaching President Clinton.
Barr was one of 13 House Republicans chosen to act as prosecutors in Clinton's Senate trial. Barr, Flynt's investigators found, was guilty of king-size hypocrisy: An outspoken foe of abortion, the Georgia lawmaker had acquiesced to his then-wife having an abortion in 1983. And he had invoked a legal privilege during his 1985 divorce proceeding so he could refuse to answer questions on whether he'd cheated on his second wife with the woman who is now his third.
Barr, in Flynt's mind, was guilty of far more heinous moral crimes than Clinton. ``Bob Barr stood on the House floor and said abortion was the equivalent to murder,'' Flynt told the assembled press. ``To me, that represents the ultimate form of hypocrisy, and in many ways it's worse than failing to tell the truth under oath.''
After Flynt's statement, he answered questions during a 50-minute session that reflected a press bored by the topic and searching for a way to legitimize spending after-hours work time at pornography central. How much had he paid Barr's second wife, Gail, for information? (Flynt wouldn't say.) Had he paid anyone else for salacious details about Republican legislators? (Yes, but he'd give no specifics.) When would he reveal who his Big Fish was? (Flynt just smiled.)
``You had the feeling people were groping for meaning or context,'' says Peter Hong, who covered the press conference for the Los Angeles Times. ``There were pauses between questions. Normally at a lot of press conferences, people are talking over each other. Any pause is awkward. You could tell people were struggling to think what to ask. It was really an absurd scene.''
And finally, astonishingly, Flynt was asked to assume the role of media critic. ``Larry, do you think the mainstream press has done a good job of covering the Monica Lewinsky story?'' Not surprisingly, Flynt, a Clinton loyalist who says he's acting on his own, didn't think so. Before the news conference came to a close, a photographer wanted to take a close-up of Flynt. He asked a publicist if she would flip over the hard-core sex covers on Flynt's desk of Hustler, Barely Legal and other magazines you wouldn't find in the dentist's waiting room.
``The whole thing was another one of those moments in journalism that makes you wonder about what's going on in journalism,'' Schodolski says. ``Here we were, all these legitimate news organizations, in a pornographer's office waiting for him to tell us some dirt on a congressman.''
Ten years ago, five years ago, maybe even one year ago, before Monica Lewinsky became a household name, the mainstream press would have left a Larry Flynt press conference promising sexual dirt on conservative Republican lawmakers to the supermarket tabloids. Especially since Flynt had violated a major journalistic tenet by paying for information.
For years the mainstream media considered themselves the gatekeepers, the wise ones with the good sense to decide what the public needed to know and what it would be better off without. There was even a time, according to former Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, when the Big Newspaper editors conferred before deciding to publish or withhold sensitive stories. In their paternalistic fashion they were apt to hold stories about a politician's sex life, unless the peccadilloes were deemed to affect his or her job performance. But now, some say, ethical standards for journalism are being set by the Larry Flynts of the world.
With the advent of the Internet, 24-hour cable television news, talk radio and a general coarsening of the popular culture, the notion of the press as gatekeeper seems a quaint relic. Today's media landscape offers so many back doors for salacious stories to find their way into the public consciousness that we have entered a world without gates to keep. The late-night monologues of Jay Leno and David Letterman can put a story into play long before it has been checked out. And the situation has been complicated by a new phenomenon: Targets now disclose that they are being investigated before a single word reaches print or air.
While the mainstream media still spend hours trying to determine how to handle a sex story, it seems as if their agonized deliberations have less and less impact.
``The verdict is already in,'' says media commentator Bernard Kalb of CNN's ``Reliable Sources.'' ``The sanctification of surrender is what is taking place. There's an awful lot of chest pounding, yet simultaneously there's a surrender to the sex syndrome.''
Paul Taylor, a former Washington Post reporter, isn't as downbeat. ``I hope there's a way out,'' says Taylor, now a political reformer who has campaigned for free air time for presidential candidates. ``I believe the news culture will create some boundaries and bounce back from the really, really obviously difficult period. Obviously the question of who is a journalist and the changing technology makes it harder to see how that hope can become a reality.''
Nevertheless, the way major news organizations ultimately handled Flynt's disclosures about Barr suggests the outlook may not be as dark as it sometimes seems.
IT USED TO BE SO SIMPLE back in the days when John F. Kennedy was president. What reporters covering the White House knew about his promiscuity never saw its way into print. It just wasn't considered relevant. The same held for Lyndon Johnson's reputed affection for women other than his wife. The rules began to change one night in 1974 when stripper Fanne Foxe was out carousing in Washington, D.C., with Rep. Wilbur Mills (D-Ark.), a major capital player. Foxe jumped into the Tidal Basin in front of the Jefferson Memorial, and Mills' problems with alcohol soon became public knowledge.
``Obviously standards have changed,'' says Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. ``But we have a consistent policy that has not changed: Is it true, and if it's true, is it relevant?'' But what is considered relevant is part of the evolution. Truth has always been the No. 1 consideration in determining if information should be published. Relevance is more slippery. It was not considered relevant that Kennedy brought women into the White House, but by 1987 it was relevant when then-Democratic presidential contender Gary Hart brought Donna Rice, a 29-year-old aspiring actress, into his D.C. townhouse for an overnight rendezvous.
When Hart announced his candidacy in 1987, many reporters knew or suspected that he was a womanizer. But nothing had been published about his dalliances. Hart addressed the issue head-on by challenging reporters to follow him, warning that they'd be bored. Tom Fiedler and Jim McGee of the Miami Herald took Hart up on his offer, staked out his Capitol Hill townhouse and discovered his relationship with Rice.
The story was fair game, says Fiedler, now the Herald's editorial page editor, because it illustrated Hart's hypocrisy. ``Hypocrisy is a very relevant standard,'' he says. ``For those people who say hypocrisy is an artificial standard, I think that's ridiculous. The public will put up with lots of bad behavior, but the public should not have to tolerate hypocrisy. For Hart, it was both hypocritical and poor judgment.''
Twelve years later, Hart refuses to talk about the episode, says his assistant, Pam Martinson.
Fiedler notes one difference between his reporting and Flynt's investigation: Flynt paid for information. ``We did the work ourselves,'' he says. ``The standard of behavior was not established by us, as Flynt has, but by Gary Hart. He stood there and said, `I'm not a womanizer. Follow me and you'll be bored.' He is the one who set the bar and essentially kicked the bar over.''
Paul Taylor earned a footnote in the history of covering sexual behavior when he stood up at a press conference after the Herald's story appeared and asked Hart a question that previously would have been taboo: ``Have you ever committed adultery?'' Hart said he didn't have to answer that question; he eventually withdrew from the race.
``Any time you do a story about a politician's private life that has consequences,'' Taylor says, ``it's going to create ripples. Those ripples lasted awhile [after the Hart story], and the moon and stars got out of alignment, but sooner or later things do settle down.''
Things did settle down, until an obscure lounge singer named Gennifer Flowers held a press conference in 1992. Flowers claimed that for 12 years she had carried on an affair with Bill Clinton, at the time a presidential candidate. The story paralyzed the Clinton campaign briefly. The source, Flowers, had been paid by the Star, a supermarket tabloid, and the story was not entirely verifiable. It played itself out after the candidate, with wife Hillary Rodham Clinton at his side, deflected the charges on ``60 Minutes.'' (Last year Clinton admitted that he had sex with Flowers, but just once.)
Two years later, an Arkansas state employee named Paula Jones accused Clinton of crudely propositioning her when he was governor of the state. Jones' press conference was largely ignored by the media, although her charges gained attention after she filed a suit against the president.
Then, on January 21, 1998, Monica Lewinsky entered our lives. Before long, semen-stained dresses, kinky acts with cigars, oral sex performed on a president while he chatted with a congressman--all found their way into print and onto broadcasts. Some news organizations relied on firsthand reporting; others picked up what was being reported elsewhere. Virtually everyone published or aired the abundant sexual detail of the Starr report, which was available online in its entirety anyway.
The rout was on; the gatekeepers had been overwhelmed. Soon journalists were fretting that Larry Flynt--pornographer, Clinton enthusiast, self-promoter extraordinaire--had become the nation's assignment editor.
``It's very uncomfortable for us that the guy setting the standards of what becomes news or not is Larry Flynt,'' Fiedler says. ``Which is why a million dollars makes a difference. Once it's `out there,' the decision has been taken away from us. It is news. We are only in the position to bring our best judgment to it on how to handle it.''
IN OCTOBER, FLYNT PAID $85,000 for a full-page ad in the Washington Post, offering up to $1 million for ``evidence of illicit sexual relations'' involving high-ranking members of Congress or senior government officials. The ad caused a few ripples, but not much was made of it because, after all, it was Larry Flynt, better known for the explicit sexual material he publishes than for devotion to journalistic standards.
Flynt's ad drew some 2,000 responses; he whittled them down to a dozen that seemed worth pursuing and hired two full-time investigators to look into the allegations. Flynt proved you could be a player in Washington journalism even if you paid for information. ``With the advent of television, the Internet and wireless communication,'' he said, ``the elite can no longer control people by controlling information.''
Flynt said his probers found that Livingston, who is married, had been involved with four other women in the last 10 years. But before Flynt had a chance to publish, Livingston launched a preemptive strike.
Jim VandeHei, a reporter for the twice-weekly Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, played a role in Livingston's downfall. ``Jim heard that Thursday [Dec. 17] that Livingston was telling other party leaders somebody was investigating his past, and he was going to go to the Republican Conference and offer to resign,'' says Lee Horwich, Roll Call's editor. ``We had heard, but couldn't confirm at that moment in time, that Hustler was investigating him.''
But Roll Call was stymied by its Monday and Thursday publication schedule. ``I felt we had a scoop, but one that wouldn't last six more hours, let alone until Monday,'' Horwich says. ``So we decided to publish on the Web, at which point we went to Livingston late in the afternoon and said, `This is what we are hearing.' '' Shortly afterward, Livingston released a statement admitting he had ``on occasion strayed from my marriage,'' and Roll Call posted its story.
``Only a couple hours before Roll Call put the story on its Web site, we heard the rumors,'' says Bruce Alpert, a Washington-based reporter for New Orleans' Times-Picayune, which is in Livingston's district. ``I was a little incredulous and thought this was another crazy, sex-inspired rumor.'' He soon learned the story was true when Livingston confirmed it.
``It wasn't a story with a lot of deliberation,'' Alpert says. ``Had we had this information on our own and had Livingston not made it public, we would have probably had lots of deliberations about whether to publish or not to publish. But the story broke so fast, there was really no time for deliberation on how we should cover it or whether we should cover it.''
For Horwich it was an easy call. ``We weren't revealing the details of an extramarital affair,'' he says. ``My sense of the story was we were reporting that the incoming speaker of the House was about to offer his resignation.''
The next day, every major newspaper in the country ran a story about Livingston admitting he'd been unfaithful. Although his adultery might be considered a private matter between Livingston and his wife of 33 years, the rationale for publishing was clear: Livingston made it news by acknowledging the liaisons and offering to resign. (After Bonnie Livingston asked Flynt to spare her family more pain by not publishing the details of her husband's dalliances, Flynt agreed, according to the Times-Picayune.)
But it was also a story about hypocrisy, a standard today's media find increasingly persuasive. ``While I may have thought his sex life was irrelevant, I knew some Democrat would be quick to raise the hypocrisy issue in the context of impeachment,'' Alpert says. ``Here was yet another Republican who had been unfaithful to his wife and was moving aggressively to impeach the president.''
HYPOCRISY PROVED TO BE THE justification for running stories on the extramarital activities of three other prominent Republican members of Congress. Some 57 journalists last year were offered the story of Rep. Henry Hyde's infidelity in the 1960s and turned it down, most deciding that the affair had happened too long ago to be relevant. Hyde (R-Ill.) is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which had jurisdiction over the impeachment hearings, and is no friend of Bill Clinton. But in September he was not yet the vocal critic he would become during the impeachment hearings. ###
``With Henry Hyde, most of us felt the hypocrisy wasn't big enough,'' says Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. ``Henry hadn't gone out there and denounced adultery per se. But what if the story had come up during the hearings? It might have been a harder call. It's all context.''
``There are many things we don't publish in the Washington Post about people's private lives,'' says Executive Editor Downie. ``Remember, I'm the editor who decided not to publish the story about Bob Dole's affair. While it was true, we decided it was not relevant to his candidacy for president'' because it had taken place more than a quarter-century earlier.
Nonetheless, the Post did mention Dole's affair inside a larger story about the former senator. And once the left-leaning online magazine Salon revealed Hyde's extramarital relationship on September 16, the Post, like many other news organizations, picked up the story. The justification: Hyde acknowledged the story was true. And the story became a political issue when Hyde and his allies blamed the White House.
Earlier that month, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), a Clinton arch-critic who had called the president a ``scumbag,'' volunteered to the Indianapolis Star and News that he had fathered an illegitimate child, now 15. The congressman's action was triggered by freelance writer Russ Baker, who was questioning Burton's associates for an article for Vanity Fair; Burton apparently feared that magazine would disclose the child's existence. Vanity Fair never published anything on the subject, but Salon ran a Burton piece by Baker in December.
Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho), a family values proponent who had criticized Clinton for his personal behavior, admitted to a six-year affair with a married man when she was asked about it by the Idaho Statesman. Livingston, Hyde, Burton and Chenoweth all confessed to their moral frailties after learning news organizations were onto them; each apparently decided it was better to preempt and defend rather than deny and cover up. The question is, why were the sexual histories of these lawmakers being investigated by news organizations?
The Miami Herald's Fiedler says an apparent double standard is justification enough. ``I think we have an obligation to expose hypocrisy in public officials, but it's unfortunate when we learn of that through people like Larry Flynt,'' he says. ``If the information is `out there,' we have a duty to report on it in as fully and in as complete context as we can. We have to hang all the cautionary lights around it. But to not report it would be self-absorbed and would be a disservice to our readers. At this point, we as journalists should just put it out there. `You people should know this. And you decide how important it is.' ''
Sydney H. Schanberg, a former New York Times and Newsday reporter, editor and columnist, believes the press should cling to its traditional way of handling such stories, Internet or no Internet. ``I have yet to hear a compelling argument as to why the old code of journalistic ethics is no longer valid,'' he says. ``Under the old code, you didn't write about the sex lives of public figures unless you could demonstrate that the private life had an effect on the public person. I've heard all the discussions and seen all the country's major newspaper editors telling us they had no choice because we have a 24-hour news cycle and they have to keep up. And if they don't, their readers won't be served. But if they have no choice, then what qualifies them to be editors?''
Although Flynt's disclosures about Barr might not rise to Schanberg's level, the coverage provides an interesting window on the contemporary approach to handling allegations about sex and public figures--and perhaps some hope for the future.
While Schanberg's old paper ignored the Barr story (``This is the only area of the news where I can't imagine wanting to be first,'' New York Times Executive Editor Joseph Lelyveld said), few others did.
``It would have been irresponsible not to be'' at Flynt's press conference, the Post's Downie says. ``But my specific instructions were that we not feel obligated to print something.'' Although Downie says the Post was not duty bound to report on what transpired, it could be argued it was, since the paper had run a lead feature on Flynt in the Style section the day of the press conference. It reported on what Flynt was up to and mentioned that Washington was waiting nervously to see whom Flynt might aim his million dollars at next. ``It was not an advance to the press conference,'' Downie says of the story. ``That's when we got it done.''
The reporters who crowded into Flynt's spacious office were handed court documents about Barr's Georgia divorce from his second wife, as well as a recent affidavit in which she said Barr had not protested her decision to have an abortion and had driven her to the clinic. She also said that she suspected Barr had committed adultery with the woman who is now his third wife, Jerilyn Ann Barr. Flynt provided information indicating Barr had refused, albeit legally, to answer questions during the divorce proceeding about his alleged infidelity.
To Flynt, the hypocrisy was multifaceted. Barr was an ardent abortion foe. He had criticized Clinton for attempting to invoke executive privilege to avoid answering questions. And Barr, according to his ex-wife, had been unfaithful while they were married.
How to handle this information, especially when it was dished up at 8 p.m. Pacific Standard Time? Many, including the Los Angeles Times and the Detroit News, downplayed the press conference, folding it into larger stories on the impeachment hearings. The Washington Post was one of the few major newspapers to run its own bylined story inside the A-section.
On television, CNN gave the Barr story the most play, although it decided not to broadcast the press conference live (C-Span, which had earlier in the day crowed about its plan to carry Flynt live, pulled the plug 45 minutes before the press conference for fear that Flynt's loose-cannon style might attract a lawsuit).
The following day, the Georgia congressman appeared on three CNN shows. He also issued a statement saying he had never committed perjury and that he ``never suggested, urged, forced or encouraged anyone, including my ex-wife, to have an abortion.''
``We decided in advance we would not take it live and wouldn't report it until we authenticated any documentation Flynt produced. And we would not report it until we spoke to Barr,'' says CNN Washington Bureau Chief Frank Sesno. While Sesno says CNN considered ignoring the story, he concluded it couldn't. ``There was a component, I wouldn't deny it,'' he says, ``that this is going to be widely `out there,' and we do have a responsibility to our audience of verifying and checking and reporting and giving our take on the story.''
The day after the news conference, Flynt appeared on ABC's and CBS' morning news shows. That evening, CBS and NBC ignored the Flynt/Barr saga. But ABC aired a story by correspondent John Cochran, and CNN and Fox News Channel ran brief updates.
``Whatever you think of Larry Flynt or his pornographic magazine, he has shown that if you've got enough money you can put an ad in the paper offering up to $1 million for dirt on congressmen,'' Cochran said in his report. ``And then mainstream journalists will report your allegations about the personal life of, well, Bob Barr, for starters.''
One reason news organizations knew what to expect was that Flynt scooped himself by appearing on Geraldo Rivera's CNBC show two hours before the press conference. (The tease: ``Washington's been turned upside down: Controversy. Affairs. Scandal. Is Larry Flynt now in charge?'')
Whether or not Flynt is in charge, many journalists believed his information about Barr was worthy of publication. ``Bob Barr was clearly hypocritical, and the question that crossed my mind was, `Why hadn't the Atlanta Journal done the story long ago?' '' says Fiedler, whose Miami Herald ran a refer on the front page and played the story inside the A-section.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution didn't send a reporter to the Flynt press conference. Editors knew ahead of time that Barr was going to be the target and arranged to get comment after the press conference. Then they ran a five-paragraph story on page A-4.
``We ended up playing it inside, because we felt it was not much of a story,'' Managing Editor John Walter says. ``The only reason Flynt makes news with that allegation is the history of the last three or four weeks. All of us who hadn't paid attention to anything Larry Flynt's said in years became obligated to pay attention when Livingston stepped forward and quit. The fact that the first attack from Flynt hit its mark granted him a kind of sensational news value that would not have happened if Barr had been his first victim.''
Walter says his paper is not digging further into Barr's private life; he doesn't consider it relevant. ``But I have to add, in the real world, we aren't going to be able to get away from the Gary Hart questions. Not in this generation. For the foreseeable future, we are going to constantly be going through periods where we have to balance the idea of whether there is value or import in pursuing a personal life or whether we can rule it out of bounds. Every case is going to be different. If Bob Barr's short run is already over, that's another model or standard we've created.''
He might be right about a new model. A Lexis-Nexis search indicated the story had a two-day run, with papers such as New Orleans' Times-Picayune, USA Today, the Chicago Tribune, Buffalo News, Boston Globe, Sacramento Bee and Houston Chronicle publishing pieces in the neighborhood of 500 words. Flynt charged; Barr barely responded.
The new model suits Paul Taylor just fine. To him, the Barr story may be an example of how the media have configured a new standard. ``I would still argue from the point of view of those who would want to uphold traditional standards, it can be done,'' Taylor says. ``The difference may be that the Larry Flynt press conference is a one-day or a two-day story rather than a one-month story. You can't keep information from getting out there on the Net, out on Leno or Letterman. But it seems to me it's still possible to diminish the run. Diminish the importance and consign such stories to the marginality they deserve.''