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From AJR,   November 1998  issue

Starr Turn   

Coverage of the Starr report and President Clinton's videotaped testimony raised provocative questions about journalism ethics.


By Jacqueline E. Sharkey
Jacqueline E. Sharkey is head of the University of Arizona Department of Journalism and author of "Under Fire--U.S. Military Restrictions on the Media from Grenada to the Persian Gulf."     

THE SPLIT-SCREEN IMAGE ON ABC NEWS WAS SURREAL. On the left was a live shot of President Clinton behind the podium at the United Nations delivering a speech about global terrorism. On the right side was the videotape of the president delivering his testimony to Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's grand jury.

ABC--like other broadcasr and cable networks--was struggling to make judgments on September 21 about which news event was more important: the president'speech to world leaders and U.N. delegates, or the release of his videotaped statements about his relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

The twin images were a metaphor for deep divisions among the public and the press about congressional decisions to release the Starr report and Clinton testimony, and about the way the news media handled them.

The "data dumps" led to an intense national debate about the news media's roles and responsibilities in an age when information is instantly available to the public and the press. Among the questions: How should graphic sexual material be handled? Were the news media in danger of becoming arms of law enforcement? And when the public at large has instant access to information online, what is the role of the journalist?

Millions of Americans read the unexpurgated Starr report on congressional or news media Web sites, then got verbatim reprints in the hometown newspapers. An estimated 22.5 million Americans watched the president's testimony on the seven U.S. networks that provided live coverage the morning the videotapes were released. That night, ABC, NBC and CBS expanded their nightly newscasts to an hour for the first time since the Persian Gulf War.

CBS News President Andrew Heyward told news directors gathered in San Antonio for their annual convention that television handled the situation ``very responsibly," and had a duty to show the testimony. But New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis wrote that the videotapes ``should never have been shown," and 78 percent of Americans agreed with him, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted September 22 and 23.

Many newspapers around the country printed the Starr report in special sections, insisting, as did Arizona Daily Star Editor Stephen Auslander, that readers should have access to the entire document because it involved ``a serious political issue" that called for informed judgments. Many readers agreed, but others resented the relentless coverage of the independent counsel's probe. ``After reading only the table of contents, the Starr report went into the recycle bin," wrote Star reader Priscilla Walker. ``I guess the media doesn't even pay attention to the polls that indicate most of us are fed up with Starr's behavior."

Some readers also were fed up with the report's explicit language and detailed depictions of sex. Some canceled subscriptions at newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune, Kansas City Star and Arizona Republic. These reactions helped renew discussion about whether the press should reflect or challenge cultural values about sex and language. New York Times columnist Russell Baker decried the fact that ``sober commentators...were writing like pornographers." But the Baltimore Sun's Rosemary Armao, a former executive director of Investigative Reporters & Editors, supported publishing the graphic language, saying that news media censorship of explicit words and details sometimes distorts information.

Some members of the public and journalists think coverage of the independent counsel's report and Clinton's testimony symbolize the extent to which the news media, during the Starr investigation, have become participants in the nation's political and legal systems rather than observers. Journalists have acted like ``adjuncts to the special prosecutor's investigation," says Bill Kovach, curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University and chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists.

Others wonder about the extent to which news values are eroding democratic values, such as the right to privacy. ``There are no secrets anymore," NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw acknowledged moments before the network began airing Clinton's testimony.

The debate about coverage also has international ramifications in an age when information technology has transformed U.S.-based news organizations into global media. CNN senior international correspondent Christiane Amanpour reported that some foreign leaders thought televising the president's testimony was an ``electronic lynching" that undermined American leadership.

U.S. news media have received calls, e-mails, faxes and letters from people all over the world criticizing the coverage. ``Posting the independent counsel's report on the Internet was disrespectful, unnecessary and aimed at damaging Clinton," wrote Heidelberg University student Andreas Volk in USA Today. ``Broadcasting his testimony proved to many Germans that political and social life in the U.S. has dropped to a `Baywatch' level."

Despite the criticism at home and abroad, many news media reported spikes in sales and ratings. The Los Angeles Times sold more than 60,000 additional papers the day it published extensive excerpts of the Starr report. The Chicago Tribune sold more than 80,000 extra copies. Tom Johnson, chairman and CEO of CNN News Group, said ratings for the president's testimony were among the highest ever for the time slot.

WHEN CONGRESS RELEASED THE STARR report September 11, the strengths and weaknesses of various news media were readily apparent.

Television correspondents, on the air moments after they had the document, struggled to deal with its explicit language and detail. CBS chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer commented on the report while flipping through it. CNN's Bob Franken summarized one part of the material by saying, ``According to Miss Lewinsky, she and the president kissed, she unbuttoned her jacket, et cetera, et cetera."

Although there were no disasters on the Internet, some users faced long waits, as millions of people jostled electronically for access to Web sites. ``[O]ne advantage television has over the Internet is you'll never see the words `Site Unavailable," 'quipped CBS anchor Dan Rather.

Newspapers had their own advantages. The longer news cycle gave editors and reporters time to read the report and plan coverage. On the other hand, the cycle was shorter than for news magazines, whose printed product did not reach readers for days. This provided ``a rare chance" to demonstrate why ``we bring something to the table that other media don't," including nuanced stories and a range of opinions ``instead of sound bites from talking heads," says Sandra Mims Rowe, editor of Portland's Oregonian.

During the weekend, many papers--among them the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Kansas City Star and Oregonian--published the entire report as a special section. Others, such as the Baltimore Sun, published lengthy excerpts.

Many newspapers dealt with the Starr report's frank detail by printing warnings on their front pages and special sections. Editors said the graphic descriptions were not a deterrent to printing the report because the political issues were so grave.

``This is a document which has the potential to cause the president of the United States to leave office," says Chicago Tribune Editor Howard A. Tyner. ``I don't think that if you have any sense of responsibility that you can say, `Well, it's just too yucky.'"

Editors worked hard to provide careful coverage of the report's explicit sexual accounts in news stories. ``There's no way of talking about the perjury charge without talking about oral sex, breasts and genital areas," says New York Times Executive Editor Joseph Lelyveld. ``But we've tried to be generic...in describing particular sexual acts and encounters."

The report evoked intense public interest. Papers across the country sold thousands of additional copies, and some reported unprecedented reader response.

The Kansas City Star ``got considerable praise" for printing the report, says Doug Weaver, the paper's editor for readership and new initiatives. ``We would've gotten a ton of criticism if we had not run it."

At first, Arizona Daily Star readers reacted with ``an unbelievable outcry of `shoot the messenger,' " says Editor Auslander. Once people learned about this negative response, he adds, ``there was a second wave of support."

The newspaper's decision to sell the special section at Circle K convenience stores in southern Arizona created some spirited civic discussion. A middle-aged woman at one Tucson store pointed out that Penthouse and Playboy were kept behind the cash register, but the Starr report was out on the counter, ``where any kid can buy it." A clerk spent several minutes earnestly trying to explain the difference between news and pornography.

In newsrooms, reporters and editors talked about whether the Starr report is a signal that guidelines for using sexually explicit language in news stories should be revised.

The Sun's Armao thinks it's time for an update. Concerns about language are ``causing us to self-censor important elements of the news that the public needs to know to make judgments about political and social issues," she says.

Armao finds it ironic that shortly before the Sun printed unedited sections of the Starr report, the paper would only paraphrase sexually explicit passages from a Maya Angelou book that some parents wanted removed from a high school reading list. Armao suggested running some passages verbatim, but editors thought this would take the graphic language out of context.

Armao doesn't disagree with that decision, but believes that newspapers are too apt to take the ``we don't lead, we follow" approach to cultural standards. She recalls having to fight to get the words ``anal intercourse" into stories about the emerging AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s. Using such language--distasteful as it was to many readers--saved lives, she says. If the Starr report ``does nothing more than force us to look at the words we use in a paper and the way we write, then it's done something good," Armao says.

The report compelled newspaper editors to look at other issues as well. One is fairness. Some journalists are troubled that many newspapers, because of time constraints, only included the White House ``pre-rebuttal" to the Starr report, written before the president or his lawyers had a chance to examine the document. By the time the White House issued a more detailed response on Saturday, some papers already had printed their special sections.

The Chicago Tribune included the second rebuttal in its final edition. The Oregonian printed the text in its commentary section on Sunday. But many newspapers simply summarized the White House document.

Another issue raised by the Starr report involves the changing role of the journalist in an age in which the public can independently access information as quickly as the media. Some analysts believe the news media's attempts to deal with the report--which the public received over the Internet as journalists pored over their printed copies and computer screens--show that they should put more emphasis on analyzing facts.

``With the advent of the Internet, anybody can be an information collector," says University of Missouri journalism professor Lee Wilkins. What people need now ``is the analysis and the synthesis and the context" to put information into perspective and make judgments about it. This, in turn, raises questions about the traditional definition of objectivity, which calls for giving equal space or weight to competing sides of an issue.

Wilkins thinks this definition presents a false impression of journalists and their role. The minute reporters ask, ``Where did those documents come from? What questions did they ask? What questions did they perhaps not ask?" they are moving from objectivity to analysis, Wilkins says.

Oregonian Editor Rowe, immediate past president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, says journalists should no longer tell the public, `` `We just bring you the news. We're objective. You know, just the facts, ma'am.' The fact that we have tried to pretend that is true has hurt us in terms of the range of things we do, and I think it has hurt our image with the public.

``There is an increasing awareness that we put a framework on almost every story," Rowe says, and ``making sure that you have the best possible framework for a story" is one of a journalist's most important responsibilities.

Reporters and editors covering the Starr report soon faced another challenge to that responsibility, when the Republican-led House Judiciary Committee announced it was releasing Clinton's videotaped testimony on September 21.

T HAT MORNING, MILLIONS OF AMERICANS from Times Square to Texarkana watched on television as Judiciary Committee staffers delivered the videotapes to technicians in Room B365 of the Rayburn Building.

TV viewers included many dedicated Internet users, who didn't want to endure the long download times that video requires on the World Wide Web.

As seven U.S. broadcast and cable networks struggled to present live coverage of the four hours of videotaped testimony, occasional technical glitches caused what NBC's Tom Brokaw called ``electronic meltdown."

Media critics were more concerned about what the New York Times' Baker called ``the Great Media Meltdown," citing actions that he said ``were variously foolish, shameful, dangerous to American democracy and destructive for the reputation of the news industry."

One embarrassing misstep involved the prevalent speculation that the videotapes would show an angry president losing control. These reports, based on anonymous sources, ``proved false," says CBS' Schieffer, who earlier told viewers that Clinton had used profanity and had ``stormed out of the room."

These errors show that ``sources have gained the upper hand, and journalists have become more easily manipulated by all sides," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, on CNN's ``Inside Politics."

Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, says competitive pressure helped create the ``urban myth" about the president's behavior. Twenty-four hour news cycles and increasing numbers of information sources sometimes make journalists seem ``a little out of control," she says.

Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes said at RTNDA's September convention that one reason the networks decided to run the president's testimony live was ``so that we wouldn't spin it, and [would] just give the president every opportunity to speak for himself as opposed to have us interpret it."

Showing the videotapes rekindled debate over how to handle sexual details, this time in the independent counsel's questions. All the networks provided viewers with verbal warnings and graphics; most showed the entire tape. But NBC deleted two brief passages it deemed too explicit to air, and MSNBC deleted one.

Showing the entire four hours of grand jury testimony also raised questions about fairness and balance. Anchors tried to provide perspective, reminding viewers that this was a one-sided proceeding. ``It is prosecutorial in nature.

There's no opportunity for the president to defend himself," ABC's Peter Jennings said. Some journalists did not think these comments were sufficient. New York Times columnist Lewis said televising the tape ``degraded this country" and turned TV journalists into ``the prosecutor's chorus."

Jon Katz, a Freedom Forum First Amendment Center scholar and online columnist, agrees. ``Journalists aren't just covering the Starr inquiry, they're coproducing it," he says.

Network news chiefs defend their decision. The videotapes marked ``a historic moment in this nation's history that relates to the possible impeachment of a twice-elected president," CNN's Johnson said. ``For us not to carry it is almost censoring information from people of all ages, and that isn't what democracy is all about."

Bill Wheatley, NBC News vice president, says the tape ``was an important piece of evidence." Because ``there was already a national debate going about it," he says, ``we felt it a reasonable thing to do to air it and let people decide for themselves."

What many members of the public decided is that they did not like the way the news media were responding to the situation. A CNN/Time magazine poll taken after the videotapes aired found that 71 percent of respondents disapproved of the media's coverage of impeachment issues.

An ongoing stream of calls and correspondence to news media echoed that finding. During a C-SPAN call-in show after the videotapes were shown, a 16-year-old schoolgirl from Alamo, California, explained that she was reading Arthur Miller's ``The Crucible" for English class. The play, she said, helped her understand that ``this thing going on with President Bill Clinton is a modern-day witch hunt."

Another concern is whether major stories have been ignored as the Starr report and the president's testimony dominated the news agenda. Rep. Vince Snowbarger (R-Kan.) told MSNBC he feared that Americans were not receiving information about crucial legislation.

His concerns are reinforced by data from the Tyndall Weekly, which monitors broadcast news programs. The week after the Starr report's release, the major broadcast networks produced 54 stories about the Clinton-Lewinsky affair and four about public policy, the newsletter reported.

``I think it's fair to say that some other important stories have gotten less coverage than they would have," says NBC's Wheatley. ``On the other hand, I'm not sure that we've missed any major story."

CBS' Heyward told his RTNDA audience that issues such as education routinely are ``woefully undercovered" on television ``because it's difficult to find a headline and, frankly, because education stories aren't as sexy as Monica Lewinsky or...a breaking story, like a crime story."

Television is ``a medium that has to be so entertaining even when we do the news, because you're scared of boring people and losing the audience," he said.

CNN Chairman Johnson said ratings for his company's Headline News channel--which covered Clinton's U.N. speech live--were ``very meager," while ratings for CNN--which was showing the Clinton videotape--were very high. ``I just hope that we can resist the pressures to take our programming down for the sake of bringing audience levels up," Johnson said. ``But it's one of the sad realities of the world we live in."

Another reality is that U.S. press coverage of the Starr report and Clinton testimony has had an impact around the world. A German newspaper, Hamburger Morgenpost, ran two blank pages under the headline, ``Clinton's pornographic interrogation--Without us."

French 2 Television, in an attempt to understand ``how U.S. politics and media came to this point," sent correspondent Philippe Gassot to visit CBS News the day the videotapes were released. C-SPAN ran his report.

Gassot said some CBS staffers were uncomfortable with the ``relentless" coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair but did not want to discuss their misgivings. ``It's not easy to express your doubts when you're not supposed to have any," Gassot noted.

A man identified as a CBS production assistant did speak up. ``I don't think there's any way that we can safely ignore this. This is news, this is what people are talking about," he said, ``but personally, I'm troubled that we've gone this far with it."

Some members of the public also were troubled. ``If any...one group has completely lost the faith of the citizens it is the media who have inflated this panty raid into what it is today," John Martin said in a message to CNN's Web site.

Analysts are concerned that these attitudes could have a profound effect on the news media. They warn that as public trust declines, so does support for the press' traditional protections and privileges. This sets up a climate in which judges, juries and legislatures believe they have the responsibility for placing controls on the press.

Media excesses during the O.J. Simpson trial led the California legislature to consider laws restricting press access to information about criminal cases. Public perceptions about the news media's role in Princess Diana's death led members of Congress to introduce legislation to protect people's privacy by deterring journalists' access. In September, California Gov. Pete Wilson signed a bill allowing people to collect damages if they can prove that a photo of a ``personal or family activity" involved an unreasonable invasion of privacy.

Freedom Forum columnist Katz warns that if journalists ignore the way recent press coverage has compromised privacy and the criminal justice system, ``It's hard to imagine how somebody is not going to start raising the specter of the British judicial system, which puts some limits on the press' coverage of these matters."

Nieman Curator Bill Kovach thinks there is ``a real disconnect between the journalists who are producing the information" and the readers and viewers ``who care about what kind of journalism they get." Kovach believes the news media must bridge the gulf separating them from the public if they hope to regain people's confidence and maintain support for First Amendment freedoms.

``We insist on transparency of every institution in America but our own," he says. ``We have to become a hell of a lot more transparent to the people who consume our information, about who we are and what we do and why we do it the way we do."