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From AJR,   April 1997  issue

A Source of Embarrassment   


By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      

Ever since Watergate made it famous, the "two source" rule has been standard procedure at many newspapers. And that's the policy of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which likes to be sure it has two sources when it is relying on anonymous sources for sensitive information.

But the paper decided to ignore that practice on a high-profile story. The result was an embarrassing page one, above-the-fold retraction.

The saga began February 15, when the Democrat-Gazette reported that Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr had conducted four "mock trials" of President Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton, and that all had ended in acquittal. The exclusive story by reporter Rodney Bowers attracted nationwide attention.

Starr was not contacted for comment. Ray Hobbs, the Democrat-Gazette's assistant managing editor for news, says Starr should have been contacted, though the office's standard policy is not to respond to press inquiries.

The paper did have two sources for many aspects of the story, Hobbs says, but only one for its most explosive element: the mock trials and the acquittals. "Normally our policy is to have two sources for stories of this nature," Hobbs says. In this instance, he adds, "I guess we had one and a half."

Three days after the story ran, Starr's office issued a press release stating it hadn't conducted mock trials. The following day the Democrat-Gazette ran an article by reporters Bowers and Joe Stumpe on Starr's decision (later reversed) to leave the investigation this summer to become dean of Pepperdine University Law School. Touching on the trial issue, the story quoted Starr as saying, "There were no mock trials."

The story also quoted Hobbs as saying, "While there may be a semantic problem with the term 'mock trial,' our source says that a group of people was paid by the independent counsel's office to listen to evidence and render a verdict on it."

But it was clear the story was unraveling. The source had reversed course and was now saying that the "jurors" actually had been leaning toward conviction.

Then, five days after the original article ran, the Democrat-Gazette received disheartening news. The source contacted Bowers to say that he had spoken to an acquaintance in Starr's office who had convinced him that there had been no mock trials. The Democrat-Gazette's retraction, appearing under the headline "Starr staged no mock trials, source concedes," ran on the paper's front page on Friday, February 21.

Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz calls the episode "a spectacular embarrassment for the paper, which apparently staked its reputation on an unnamed source which did not have firsthand knowledge.... What compounded the error was the Democrat-Gazette's insistence in standing by the story for six long days after it was denied."

Why had the paper gone with the story based on a single unnamed source? Hobbs says the source had provided accurate information in the past. But the source had declined to tell Bowers where he had gotten his facts. It turned out that he had been relying on second-hand information from someone in Starr's office.

Bowers declined to discuss the story. Bob Lutgen, the Democrat-Gazette's managing editor, says, "We had confidence that he [the source] was absolutely correct. Because three or four items were actually checked out with other sources, we let our guard down a bit and used the whole thing."

As for the future, Lutgen says, "I don't think we'll be any more cautious than we were with this story." But, he adds, "I do think there will be a new level of caution on lower levels, and we will test [sources] much more vigorously perhaps."

While some journalists and media critics think any use of unnamed sources undermines credibility (see "Anony-
mous Sources," December 1994), their prime defender, Bob Woodward, says the question isn't so much the identity of the sources as the quality of the information they provide. In this case the Democrat-Gazette ended up with the worst of all worlds: secondhand information from a single anonymous source who didn't know what he was talking about.