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From AJR,   December 1998  issue

Get "Out There" Outta Here   

It's not good enough to go with a story just because others are running with it or it's in the atmosphere.


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


'O UT THERE." Used together, they may be among the most pernicious words in the English language, at least as far as journalism is concerned.
Out there is the ubiquitous catch phrase used to justify going with gossip, rumor, other people's questionable reporting or ``reporting."
OK, it doesn't meet our standards. We don't really have the sourcing we generally demand. We haven't nailed it down as thoroughly as we'd like. But what can we do? It's out there. Everybody else has it. We'd look silly to ignore it.
So push the send button.
The kingdom of Out There is not a newly discovered one. As our crowded media landscape developed, the one featuring Web sites galore and round-the-clock cable news and 24-hour news cycles, out there has often made its presence felt. Certainly the O.J. hysteria was a time when many bogus and semibogus and too-good-to-check stories became accepted truth, thanks to the out there phenomenon.
But the situation reached its apotheosis at the height of Clinton/Lewinsky fever. It played a major role in the frenzy, in the barrage of breathless and inaccurate and overhyped stories.
The Committee of Concerned Journalists commissioned Jim Doyle, the widely respected former Boston Globe Washington savant and Archibald Cox aide, to head up an analysis of Lewinsky coverage. While hardly giving a perfect score to the handful of reporters who dominated the reporting, the study concluded that ``contrary to White House accusations, those doing the bulk of the original reporting did not ferry false leaks and fabrications into coverage of the Clinton/Lewinsky story."
Instead, the report said, ``the research paints a picture of a news media culture that in breaking stories usually relied on legitimate sources and often was careful about the facts in the initial account [emphasis added]."
While the study, released in October, said some of the lead Lewinsky reporters were on occasion too prone to accept the prosecution spin, the document was hardly a scathing indictment of their work.
No, the big problems in the Lewinsky extravaganza, it seems to me, stemmed from two causes: the wall-to-wall prattling by television's talking heads, a bitter brew of fact, amplified fact, misconstrued fact, guesswork and pontification; and the stories produced by those chasing the tiny brigade of national newspapers, TV networks and print newsmagazines that led the charge.
It was in these follow-up and catch-up stories that many egregious mistakes cropped up. It was like one of those games of telephone in which, after a series of conversations, the person at the end hears a version of events far different from the one told at the beginning.
That comes from moving too fast in an effort to get back in the game, from going right away with what you've got--from doing the story because it's out there.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if this bizarre year led to the unlamented demise of out there? Don't bet on it happening, of course. But maybe....
At a panel discussion following the release of the Committee of Concerned Journalists' report, New York Times Washington Bureau Chief Michael Oreskes expressed the view that the lesson of Lewinsky for journalists was a simple one: Stick to firsthand reporting.
``People who did their own work, who were careful about sourcing, came out all right," he said. ``People who worried about what's out there are the ones who messed up."
There's no question that the overwhelming quantity of information now transmitted so widely and so quickly has complicated the journalist's job enormously. But with all the potential for error that adds to the equation, putting accuracy first becomes more critical than ever.
The problem is that proceeding cautiously, particularly in the midst of a raging mega-story, is often at odds with another journalistic value: getting it first. Compounding the problem is the fact that, in the whirlwind surrounding the president and the intern, being careful could not only mean not getting it first but getting it 361st.
While it doesn't always feel that way during the heat of battle, it's far, far better to be late than to be wrong, often humiliatingly wrong. As Doyle points out, those who fared best on the Lewinsky story were not always those who were the most aggressive.
But what to do with out there, besides driving a stake through its heart?
Not long ago I ran into Sydney Schanberg, who was in Washington to receive an award from the Anti-Defamation League. A former New York Times and Newsday columnist best known for his brave and powerful coverage of the fall of Cambodia, Schanberg is deeply pessimistic about the state of the field he loves so well.
But he does have a suggestion for dealing with the out there factor: If you feel there's something out there you simply can't ignore, don't lead the paper or the newscast with it. Tuck it away with a disclaimer of some sort: This stuff is swirling around, and damn if we know whether it's true.
A stickler for traditional news values, Schanberg says he refuses to jettison them until someone can convince him that all that he learned as a young journalist from Homer Bigart, the legendary war correspondent for the old New York Herald Tribune and the New York Times, no longer applies. Another great Vietnam correspondent, Neil Sheehan, once summed up Bigart's credo: ``Take nothing for granted. Find the truth."
Hang in there, Sydney: Homer is still right.