Standards Are the First Casualty  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   March 1998

Standards Are the First Casualty   

Once again coverage of a mega-story was dominated by rumor, innuendo, undersourced stories and snap judgements. Isn't there some way to break this pattern?

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     



O N JANUARY 28 LARRY KING STARED into the camera with an expression that telegraphed, ``Here it comes folks, another sexy scoop." The talk show host announced that the next day's New York Times would contain a story about a message supposedly left by President Clinton on Monica Lewinsky's answering machine.
After a commercial break, King once again locked glances with millions of viewers.
``We have a clarification, I am told from our production staff," King said. ``We may have jumped the gun on the fact that tomorrow's New York Times will have a new report on the phone call from the president to Monica Lewinsky, the supposed phone call. We have no information on what the New York Times will be reporting tomorrow.
``Do you, Bob Woodward?" he asked.
``No," Woodward replied.
``Do you, Dee Dee Myers, know anything?" he asked his other guest, the former Clinton White House press secretary.
``I don't," said Myers.
A flustered King responded, ``OK. Anyway, it came to us. We reported it. But this happens in a running story like this. Now we unreport it."
Woodward: ``And that's one of the problems with the frenzy that we're in...that television has become kind of a blowtorch on this story."
King: ``Here's a classic example."
Woodward: ``Right before our eyes, yes."
As the White House sex scandal erupted, the American media--from print icons to major TV networks and talk shows--were caught up in a frenzy that shot off the Richter scale.
After the Clinton/intern sex story broke on January 21 in the major media, Americans found themselves besieged by an unprecedented rush of information. If the Guinness Book of Records recorded media stampedes, the Clinton crisis would be in first place, knocking out O.J. Simpson and the death of Princess Diana for massive, round-the-clock, soap-opera coverage.
And, all too frequently, standards were the first casualty. Innuendo quickly replaced hard facts. ``Sources say" became the phrase du jour, often without any indication where those sources might be coming from. ``If it is true" became the fashionable disclaimer.
While an abundance of examples exist in which journalists fell from grace while pursuing this watershed story, it is important to make distinctions. Some news outlets worked hard to publish only reliable information and withheld material they could not confirm, opting for caution over repeating third-hand rumors.
Newsweek, in fact, lost a scoop because editors were determined to act responsibly. USA Today Editor David Mazzarella admits to passing up juicy but unsubstantiated information. ``I heard one 15 minutes ago that made my ears burn. But the story's not there yet," he said at the height of the furor.
Because so many of the major figures in the saga cited legal reasons for not speaking on the record, unnamed sources were an inevitability. And this was not just another bimbo eruption. Given the seriousness of the allegations--possible perjury, obstruction of justice, subornation of perjury and witness tampering by the president--most would agree that this was an episode the media should pursue with vigor.
Zippergate, as it was dubbed, marked the first major political crisis in which the vast universe of the Internet, along with upstart 24-hour cable channels such as MSNBC and the Fox News Channel, joined the ranks of heavy hitters, propelling news agendas and sparking a tidal wave of copycat journalism that pierced the heart of the big three--accuracy, fairness and balance.
Words like ``resignation" and ``impeachment" quickly made their way into top-of-the-hour newscasts, along with unconfirmed reports of oral sex in the Oval Office, a semen-stained dress and the notion that the president did not consider oral sex outside of marriage to constitute adultery. These nuggets were repeated so often that they seemed to acquire the legitimacy of commonly accepted facts.
TV newsman turned media analyst Bernard Kalb wondered aloud whether the media had ``gone nuts." Kalb posed the question: Have the media become a kind of journalistic vacuum cleaner, sweeping up the dirt without worrying about the details?
From newspapers to magazines and TV newscasts, there was a journalistic standards meltdown. The most common lapses?
a knee-jerk impulse to be first at the expense of being right
  • unrestrained speculation portrayed as news
  • a rush to judgment
  • an overwhelming use of thinly sourced stories
  • reporting unconfirmed information as fact
    It often seemed as if traditional rules on attribution and sourcing had been suspended, and it appeared that the mainstream press and the tabloids were moving closer together than ever before.
    Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz sees recent media explosions changing the boundaries of what the profession will tolerate. ``Each new media frenzy, whether it's O.J. or Marv Albert, lowers the bar a bit for what kind of journalistic excesses or sloppiness are deemed acceptable," Kurtz says.
    Is there anything to be done about the media spinning out of control in this high-tech, hotly competitive marketplace driven by 24-hour news cycles and the immediacy of the World Wide Web? Or has the digital revolution made it impossible to cram the proverbial genie back into the bottle? Is journalism doomed to alternating spasms of excess and repentance?
    ``The speed with which information travels is not going to slow down," says James W. Naughton, president of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. ``We have to begin reassessing our standards and looking for new models to help catch up with the new communication age."
    And, perhaps, keep in mind that old values still matter.
    Journalists ``shouldn't be so reactive and go with the pack," says ASNE President Sandra Mims Rowe, editor of Portland's Oregonian. ``Using the excuse `Everybody had it' doesn't relieve us of our responsibility in our newsroom to say what we stand for."

    R USHING A SCOOP ONTO PAGE ONE certainly didn't pay off for the Dallas Morning News, where editors ended up scrambling to retract a story that ran in the early edition on January 27. The article, also posted on the paper's Web site, reported that a Secret Service agent was prepared to testify that he'd seen Clinton and Lewinsky in a ``compromising" situation (see ``Moving Too Fast," page 35). The story, attributed to the Dallas newspaper, received prominent television play the night of the 26th. Other newspapers also picked it up.
    Only one problem: The story was wrong. In the next edition the Morning News ran a retraction: ``It was a unique situation Monday night when a primary source suddenly reversed field," Executive Editor Ralph Langer wrote.
    But that wasn't the only misstep. In the rush to compete, the paper had violated its own rule of requiring two independent sources when reporting information anonymously.
    While the Morning News' blunder was one of the most blatant examples of sloppy, inaccurate reporting, it was hardly the only one. The New York Post prominently ran a quote--misquote--from an unnamed source quoting Lewinsky on tape saying, ``The Big Creep Told Me to Lie." There is no evidence that such a statement was ever made.
    The Detroit News also embarrassed itself. Staffer Rick Blanchard wrote a story describing Monica Lewinsky's home page, a hoax home page actually, available to anyone searching the America Online directory. The day the story appeared, January 22, AOL declared the Lewinsky site was a hoax ``designed to deceive people" and pulled it.
    Blanchard admits he did not check the site for authenticity before filing his story. The following day, he says, he talked to an AOL lawyer who told him there was no way to know if such sites are legitimate.

    A S THE CLINTON-LEWINSKY STORY took off, it became routine for explosive and damaging information, sometimes vaguely attributed when first reported, to be picked up uncritically by many media outlets with no idea of whether the material was accurate. The result was, to the general public, many juicy but unconfirmed tidbits took on the aura of fact.

  • The semen-stained dress. Newsweek reported that Lewinsky claimed she had a dress stained with Clinton's semen. The context in which this was mentioned suggested it was mentioned on a Tripp-Lewinsky tape heard by Newsweek reporters and editors. Washington Bureau Chief Ann McDaniel later said it was not on a tape she and others had heard but refused to identify the source. Numerous other news outlets repeated the story, often attributing it simply to unnamed sources.
  • Clinton believes extramarital oral sex does not constitute adultery. This originally showed up in an article four years ago in The American Spectator, attributed to Larry Patterson, an Arkansas state trooper said to be mad at Clinton because he had failed to get him a job. The Los Angeles Times reported in January that it had been told by two troopers that Clinton said the Bible doesn't classify extramarital oral sex as adultery.
  • Clinton and Lewinsky engaged only in oral sex. The Los Angeles Times quoted a source who said he had listened to taped conversations between Lewinsky and Tripp. Newsweek paraphrased a tape saying that Lewinsky said Clinton preferred oral sex. The Newsweek story implied, but doesn't say explicitly, that staffers heard the part of the tape dealing with oral sex. McDaniel says reporters did not hear the allegations on tape.
  • Clinton gave Lewinsky gifts. The New York Times attributed that information to an unnamed source who was said to have heard portions of a tape where Lewinsky discussed the gifts. McDaniel noted that the information, as reported in Newsweek, was not heard on a tape but was obtained from an unnamed source.
    Often what unnamed sources said didn't really tell readers, viewers and Net surfers very much. After an anonymous source disclosed that Lewinsky may have given the president ``decorative frogs" as gifts, ABC's Jackie Judd reported, ``Another source tells ABC News that very few people knew about Mr. Clinton's frog collection, and so her [Lewinsky's] claim suggests intimate knowledge of the president."
    But in some newsrooms, editors and reporters kept the old rules in mind while trying to cope with a high-interest story breaking at lightning speed. At the Oregonian in Portland, at least 70 stories were published on the Clinton scandal before the term ``oral sex" was used.
    Editor Rowe says it wasn't a ``holier than thou" attitude that kept the paper from using the phrase. It was because the reports surrounding the supposed sexual encounters were innuendo and speculation and not based on primary information, she says.
    When the paper finally used the term, it was in a local story about Andrew Bleiler, Lewinsky's former high school drama teacher, who says he had a long-term affair with her. Bleiler's lawyer says Lewinsky told Bleiler she was having oral sex with a high-ranking White House official.
    ``Original reporting applies the highest standards," Rowe says. ``How do we maintain those standards when we are taking information off TV, the wires and the Internet?"
    Other newsrooms took similar pains to do the right thing. In fact, USA Today's Mazzarella says he isn't as down on the media as a whole as are some of his colleagues. ``I would not beat up on the press too much on this. I believe, on the whole, they have acted responsibly under the conditions they have had to work," Mazzarella says. He cites court-sealed documents, gag orders on witnesses and a shroud of silence over the White House as chief stumbling blocks in the newsgathering process.
    Rosemary Armao, former executive director of Investigative Reporters & Editors and now the Baltimore Sun's Anne Arundel County bureau chief, agrees. ``For the most part, the intent [of the coverage] is good, and there certainly is some wonderful reporting going on," she says. ``There's great sourcing, and you can see computer-assisted techniques being used, particularly for backgrounding on Lewinsky. What's lacking? Restraint where an editor steps in and pulls reporters back from the edge."
    Restraint isn't something that wins journalists great praise, admits Wall Street Journal Washington Bureau Chief Alan Murray. ``When the history of this scandal is written, no one will cite the Wall Street Journal for being first with big news, but I hope someone will cite us for being restrained," he says.
    But even Murray's bureau got caught up in the rush to publish. On February 4 it posted on its Web site a story reporting that a White House steward had told a federal grand jury he had seen Clinton and Lewinsky alone in a study near the Oval Office. But it did so before getting comment from the White House and the steward's lawyer. On February 9, the paper retracted the story, saying the steward had testified he hadn't seen them together.
    Was this another case of moving too quickly in an effort to be first? ``We all try to be competitive," says one Journal editor, ``and sometimes that can lead to this." Says Murray, ``Nobody here is happy about it."

    W HO HASN'T SEEN THE CNN VIDEO of Lewinsky and Clinton, or pictures of them together? Such images, media experts say, can have a powerful influence over public opinion, whether valid or not.
    So how much ought to be made of a photo or video of Clinton giving Lewinsky a hug? Maybe not much, but discovery of the videotape was big news when it was aired on CNN. The hug also became fodder for reporters who speculated on its true meaning.
    Of the hug, Newsweek's Michael Isikoff and Evan Thomas wrote in their story in the magazine's February 2 edition: ``...look closely at those video clips of Clinton working the rope line at the homecoming on that bright autumn day. There is a flirty girl in a beret, gazing a little too adoringly at the president--who in turn gives her a hug that is just a bit too familiar. The young woman, we now know, was Monica Lewinsky."
    Some attempted to provide a framework for the explosive image. On CNN, media experts explained that Clinton was known as a touchy-feely person and that not too much should be made of the video.
    As photo directors frantically scoured the country for images of Lewinsky, Time magazine scored a coup. It struck a deal with a photographer, whom it promised not to name, for still photos of Lewinsky and Clinton from a post-election celebration on the White House lawn. Up to that point, the public had been exposed mainly to a television video of the two hugging on that November day.
    Time put the photo of Clinton and Lewinsky standing next to each other on its February 2 cover. A Time spokesperson admits that such arrangements are unusual, but says keeping secret the identity of the photographer and the amount paid for the photo was part of the deal. Time Managing Editor Walter Isaacson defends the use of the cover photo, telling the Los Angeles Times that the photo ran because it was ``the best picture of the two of them."
    In media circles, discussion centered on whether the photo and video were misleading, particularly in light of Clinton's habit of hugging everyone from Coretta Scott King and Mikhail Gorbachev to lowly interns. One editor referred to the president as ``a hugging machine."
    Keith Woods, an ethicist at the Poynter Institute, warns of the disproportionate impact that pictures can have on public perceptions.
    ``A few months ago, a photo showing Clinton hugging Lewinsky at a rally would have been considered normal, typical behavior for the president. Now, in the context of political scandal, those photos take on completely different meanings...," he says. ``We at least have to make our decisions having thought that through first."

    T HE WHITE HOUSE SEX SCANDAL , some believe, has drawn the mainstream media and tabloid press closer in content and style than ever before. Often it appeared that stories were pegged more on salacious rumors than solid newsgathering, and that no purported detail of Clinton's and Lewinsky's sexual predilections was off-limits.
    ``Once more, as seems to be happening with greater frequency, the lead story on `Inside Edition' and `Hard Copy' is the same as the lead story on `The CBS Evening News,' " wrote TV critic Tom Shales in the Washington Post.
    A story in the February 2 issue of Time alluded to former FBI agent Gary Aldrich's assertion that sex toys dangled from the White House Christmas tree and quoted Lewinsky saying on tape to Linda Tripp that if she ever left her job at the Pentagon and returned to the White House, she would be made ``Special Assistant to the President for B--- J---."
    In some cases, journalists became instant psychoanalysts. In its February 2 issue, Newsweek reported that everyone in Clinton's immediate family suffered from a compulsive disorder or addiction and that his biological father was ``a major Lothario and quite possibly a bigamist." Then, in parenthesis, the magazine noted, ``Some therapists say dopamine levels--linked to addictions, including sex--can be inherited."
    Newsweek reporters also told readers that ``she [Lewinsky] does not sound unbalanced or delusional on the tapes heard by Newsweek."
    Even The New Yorker published a passage one would consider more likely to show up in the New York Post. In the February 2 issue, David Remnick quoted an ``administration source" as saying, ``If he blows it on this, he'll be remembered as `the pussy president' and not the `policy president.' "
    Woods describes much of the media coverage as ``the National Enquirer with a new name." And media critic and author Jon Katz worries that such behavior could have serious ramifications because it transmits a dangerous message to the public: ``that there is no difference between us and the tabloids."

    A FTER THE TORRENT OF SPECULATION , innuendo, gossip-mongering and talk of impeachment from the get-go, what happens if the president's not guilty? Los Angeles Times writers Eleanor Randolph and Jane Hall posed that question in the lead of a story exploring accusations of the media's rush to declare Clinton at fault.
    On January 24, CNN's Washington bureau chief, Frank Sesno, went on the air to defend the accuracy of senior White House correspondent Wolf Blitzer's reports that, despite the president's denials, close friends and advisers believe he ``almost certainly" had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky and that they were talking about the possibility of Clinton's resignation.
    Blitzer quoted a ``longtime Clinton insider" saying, ``If he had sex with a 21-year-old intern--any kind of sex--he has to resign."
    Almost immediately, CNN was criticized for what many felt was an undersourced report and a premature rush to judgment. Juan Williams of the Washington Post accuses CNN of being reckless. ``If you don't have the story, don't go with the story. And I think they really violated that rule," Williams says.
    On NBC's ``Today," Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist, criticized the media's premature political obituaries of the politician known as the Comeback Kid. ``I've heard some of the commentators on your show this morning practically putting Clinton on the elevator on the helicopter flying back to Arkansas," Sabato said.
    Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a media scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, shares Sabato's concerns. Speaking on CNN's ``Reliable Sources," she warned against the idea that saying ``allegedly" at the beginning of stories and ``presumed innocent" at the end constitutes fair, responsible reporting. ``There is a presumption of guilt in much of this reporting, and that's problematic in a country that predicates its justice system on the presumption of innocence."
    Some newspapers were more careful. ``For us, being on the cutting edge means explaining the story to our readers," says USA Today Editor Mazzarella. On January 30 his newspaper ran a full page on ``Assessing the accusations against Clinton." The Wall Street Journal and New York Times, among others, made similar efforts to point out the origins of various bits of Lewinskyana.
    Some blamed cyberspace for creating an echo chamber effect with inflammatory bits of information posted on the Drudge Report and dozens of other Web sites. Katz, an online journalism enthusiast, acknowledges that the Net does push news organizations to break stories more quickly. ``But so does radio, TV and the electronic age in general," he says. ``This process has been going on for half a century.... Information is moving faster than ever, but the truth [in the sex scandal] is moving very slowly."

    W ITH THE CLINTON-LEWINSKY COVERAGE , it appears that too much of the media played it fast and loose--risky business for a profession already held in low esteem by the American public. What can the industry do to mend its ways? Or will the cycle of overkill and self-flagellation recur indefinitely, like some nightmare version of ``Groundhog Day"?
    Some journalists worry that an overheated marketplace, spurred by new electronic gadgetry, will continue to drive journalistic standards to the lowest common denominator and make gossip, innuendo and hearsay commonly accepted commodities.
    But what can individual newsrooms do once the story is ``out there"? Do they look clueless if they don't report the sexy but dubious details everyone else seems to have?
    Perhaps not. Some journalists see the twilight of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal as a window of opportunity to reassess standards as journalism crosses that bridge into the 21st century.
    Poynter's Naughton cites the use of sidebars as one way journalists might handle unsubstantiated information deemed important to readers. ``We have to find a mechanism that says, `Here's information that is ricocheting around. You have to be careful about this, reader.' If we are going to publish rumors, I don't think it should lead the paper," says Naughton, who acknowledges that unconfirmed information is sometimes so widely disseminated and so compelling that it must be used.
    Robert Giles, executive director of the Freedom Forum's Media Studies Center, believes some practical guidelines could play a big role in helping news organizations cope with an avalanche of tantalizing information from anonymous sources, even on a mega-story. He says it's critical to be certain that an unnamed source can speak with authority and is believable, and that you determine at the outset what kind of information you are comfortable taking from that source, especially as it relates to the character of an individual. All of this, he says, should be done in the context of clearly established standards regarding coverage of the privacy of elected officials.
    ``It's a matter of saying to readers and viewers, `Trust us on this,' " Giles says. ``That carries with it expectations that if we're compelled to use an anonymous source, we will stand by that person as someone in a position to truly know, and not just someone passing on juicy gossip."
    Bill Kovach, curator of the Nieman Foundation, maintains that over the years there have been signs that the new communication technology would become a force, requiring journalists to reconsider how they do their business. But the signs have been virtually ignored, he says. ``It has been a torturous lesson for a lot of journalists, if you have seen the post-mortem shows, Dan Rather sitting there ashamed of what he does for a living. You have to ask, `If journalists are ashamed, what do we do about it?' "
    Rowe says there is no ``magic bullet" to cure the current media malaise. As ASNE president she is working to ``get enough editors discussing these issues, understanding these issues and going beyond handwringing to what we really can do about this."
    And despite the flood of dubious information that comes to the fore during each media frenzy, she remains convinced that individual decision making still matters.
    ``I think it comes down to leadership," she says. ``Individual editors on newspapers can apply standards on this story even when it is going this fast without all the hype and make a stand for what is right....
    ``If enough of us articulate standards to each other in our newsrooms and push ourselves to have clarity on those standards, I believe we can make a difference."

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