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From AJR,   May 1998  issue

A Verdict Without A Trial   

The Lewinsky episode provides a painful but important lesson.

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

It's a cautionary tale that should be memorized by every journalist.

It's a lesson so basic, so central to the craft, that it should never be forgotten.

It's a message that should be emblazoned on neon signs, posted on billboards and never ignored in the nation's newsrooms.

Even those people who are forever flogging journalists for being "cynical" probably agree that it's still OK, and maybe even a good thing, for them to be "skeptical." But they need to be as skeptical about bad news as they are about puffery and self-promotion.

The Monica Lewinsky explosion was as astonishing a period in journalism as I can recall. There were any number of mind-boggling episodes and lessons to be learned.

But one lesson stands out: Don't jump to conclusions. It's devastating as far as credibility is concerned.

As disheartening as the undersourced stories and gratuitous details and breathless tone were, they pale in significance when compared to the instant and facile assumption that the allegations represented a fatal threat to the Clinton presidency.

Of course, they may have, and for that matter may still. But for Sam Donaldson to instantly declare that Clinton might be out in a matter of days, for Tim Russert to speak so quickly of the possibility of impeachment, was flat-out wrong. It represented a stunning leap about seven steps too far ahead.

And, significantly, it set the tone for the frenzied coverage that was to follow. The scent of blood was in the air, and much of the media, too much of the media, acted in those early days as if they were part of Ken Starr's posse.

Particularly silly was the early talk of resignation. It represented a total misreading of Bill Clinton the politician and Bill Clinton the man. They don't call him the Comeback Kid for nothing. So the notion that he would fold in the absence of anything short of a smoking gun never made any sense at all.

Often it takes awhile for lessons to coalesce. But not this time. By the time Judge Susan Webber Wright threw out Paula Jones' lawsuit two-and-a-half months A.L. (After Lewinsky), the early presumption of disaster seemed particularly embarrassing. Clinton's poll numbers were soaring, as they had been for weeks. Rather than boarding a helicopter for Arkansas in disgrace, the president was jetting back from a high-
profile visit to Africa as The Statesman.

ýf course there's no way journalists or anyone else could have predicted how things would play out. But by the same token, this extraordinary interlude was a powerful and vivid reminder of how important it is to refrain from reaching a verdict well before the jury is empaneled.

ýone of which is to suggest that the massive coverage was out of line. These are, and remain, serious allegations. Less than aggressive coverage would have been a dereliction of duty. And some of the sorrier aspects shouldn't detract from the excellent work done by many news organizations.

One impressive example was the performance of Keith Olbermann on MSNBC (see Free Press, page 13). From the get-go the former sportscaster turned his nightly program over to the White House scandal. But rather than wallowing in sensation, Olbermann offered his viewers sober and intelligent analysis from knowledgeable guests.

Olbermann shelved the attitude that made him a star and adopted a serious, probing tone. It was a model of traditional, high-minded journalism, not on one of the major networks but in an untraditional venue.

In fact, Olbermann's success underscores the promise of cable television. Rather than the old lament about 500 channels and nothing's on, Olbermann's "Big Show" is grounds for celebrating the burgeoning world of cable.

But much of the coverage did little to help journalism's credibility shortfall. And credibility was the subject du jour when the American Society of Newspaper Editors convened in Washington in April.

uo surprise: Outgoing ASNE President Sandy Rowe had established upgrading credibility as a major theme of her reign.

In a refreshing departure from the usual panel fare at such gatherings, ASNE opted for a Fred Friendly-style "hypothetical" under the able and dynamic direction of Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree.

ýhe role-playing, with Washington Post Ombudsman Geneva Overholser as an editor weighing whether to run an explosive story about a popular mayor based on anonymous sources, was entertaining and at times insightful. Particularly impressive was Dan Rather as Overholser's publisher, an editor's dream eager to run the story if it could be nailed down regardless of his friendship with the mayor.

After the hypothetical, there was the inevitable Lewinsky panel. This also had some bright moments, particularly when Washington Post Executive Editor Len Downie provided insider insights from the battlefield.

ýfterward, I ran into the editor of a good-sized midwestern daily and asked him what he thought. He said he had enjoyed the discussion, but added that he had just been chatting with another heartland editor, and they agreed that it was kind of tangential to their major credibility concerns.

They're right. Because for much of the media, for local newspapers and newscasts, credibility grows not from the great cosmic issues, but from getting it right day in and day out about the mundane but important things that matter so much to readers and viewers. l