What we do now

Regardless of who ultimately wins or loses, regardless of who is judged right or wrong, regardless of the fate of William Jefferson Clinton – or Monica Lewinsky or Kenneth Starr – what will matter mightily to journalists are the long-lasting lessons that we learn from this lamentable and depressing affair.

However the scandal turns out, the press stands to lose in the court of public opinion. In a Pew Research Center poll of 844 people taken from January 30 to February 2, nearly two-thirds said the media had done only a fair or poor job of carefully checking the facts before reporting this story; 60 percent said the media had done only a fair or poor job of being objective on the story and 54 percent thought the press put in another fair or poor performance in providing the right amount of coverage. “The rise of Clinton’s popularity in the polls is in part a backlash against the press,” said Andrew Glass, Cox Newspapers’ senior correspondent. “One way the people can say that the press has been too critical is to tell the pollsters that they support Clinton.”

If the president should fall, then those who jumped the gun, who ran with rumor and innuendo, who published or broadcast phony reports without eventual retraction, will falsely claim vindication and triumph. And if this president should persevere and prevail, many in the public will be convinced that the press and the independent counsel were in some unholy conspiracy to persecute him. Remember that the Clinton controversy is only the latest in a string of stories – Diana, O.J., Versace – that the press has been widely accused of exploiting. Says Los Angeles Times editor Michael Parks: “We’re good at wretched excess, at piling on.”

The preceding article targeted where parts of the press have gone wrong in reporting the White House crisis, and leads to these further conclusions:

Competition has become more brutal than ever and has spurred excess. TV newsmagazines are now viewed by traditional print newsmagazines as direct competitors. Thus, says Michael Elliott, editor of Newsweek International. “The proliferation of TV news shows makes it harder for us to delay the release of a story.” With the spread of twenty-four-hour all-news cable channels – CNN, MSNBC, Fox – there’s pressure to report news even when there isn’t any. In a remarkably prescient statement last year to the Catto Conference on Journalism and Society, former TV newsman Robert MacNeil said: “I tremble a little for the next sizable crisis with three all-news channels, and scores of other cable and local broadcasters, fighting for a share of the action, each trying to make his twist on the crisis more dire than the next.”

The Internet has speeded the process and lowered quality by giving currency to unreliable reports. When a story is posted on the Internet, it races around the globe almost instantly. But the Internet has no standards for accuracy. Web gossipist Matt Drudge once claimed only an 80 percent accuracy rate – wholly unacceptable under any journalistic standards. Technology, long the journalist’s great and good friend, has turned out to be a dangerous mistress. “The Internet is a gun to the head of the responsible media,” says Jonathan Fenby, editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. “If you choose not to report a story, the Internet will.”

As journalism speeds up, there is less time to think, to ponder, to edit, to judge, to confirm, to reconsider. Never was there greater need for gatekeepers with sound and unimpassioned editorial judgment who refuse to be stampeded in the pressure of competition.

And never was there a better time to start examining what journalists can do, immediately, to improve and recapture public respect.

A major step, surely, would be to resolve to make abundantly clear in the reporting of every fast-breaking or controversial story what is known fact and what is mere speculation – or better yet, to swear off disseminating speculation at all except as it can be fully attributed to a knowledgeable source. And to forgo cannibalizing the stories of other news outfits whether mainstream or tabloid – and to refrain from merely retransmitting them on their face value, without independent reporting.

Clearly, every news organization needs to establish its own written guidelines for almost every conceivable coverage situation. Many already have them. In Britain, the BBC has a thick book containing policies for everything from covering elections to interviewing terrorists to determining when the people’s right know supersedes what may constitute invasion of privacy. The BBC’s dedication to the two-source rule caused anchorman Nik Gowing to fill forty excruciating minutes of airtime last August — awaiting confirmation by a second source of Princess Diana’s death — before broadcasting the news.

Journalists must more freely and fully admit – and quickly correct — their errors. More gross missteps were committed in the early stages of the Clinton scandal than in all of Watergate. Just one example: All of those “sightings” of the president in intimate situations with Ms. Lewinsky in the White House as reported, variously, by ABC News, The Dallas Morning News, and The Wall Street Journal. As CJR went to press, not one had been confirmed.

Newspersons must have the courage to stand up to their editors, news directors, and other bosses when the need arises and refuse to take a story beyond where sound journalistic principles allow.

In short, the time has come for a thoughtful and uncompromising reappraisal – time to stand back and recall the fundamentals that once made the free press of America the envy of the world. We asked a sampling of journalists and media analysts for their views on what lessons the profession ought to learn from the Clinton scandal story, and where we go from here:

Walter Isaacson, managing editor, Time

We’re in a set of rooms where we’ve never been before. It’s murky, and we keep bumping into the furniture. But this is a very valid story of a strong-willed prosecutor and a president whose actions have been legitimately questioned. Reporters must be very careful to stick to known facts, but not be afraid to cover the story. A case involving sex can be a very legitimate story, but we can’t let our journalistic standards lapse simply because the sexual element makes everybody over-excited. One lesson is, in the end, you’re going to be judged on whether you got it right, not just on whether you got it first.

Richard Wald, senior vice president, ABC News

There are, at least, three lessons.

One: when you are dealing with the president and sex, you must be extremely precise in how you say what it is you think you know. When carefully phrased stories that we ran on ABC were picked up by other news organizations, nobody said: “ABC News reports they got the story from source A or source B.” They simply reported it as fact. It then gets into the public vocabulary as fact rather than as allegation.

Two: People dislike the messenger but like the message. If you believe the polls, the public is annoyed with the media and doesn’t want to hear about this story anymore. On the other hand, they’re buying a lot of newspapers and driving up the ratings of twenty-four-hour news channels. If you believe surveys that ask people what they watch on TV, PBS is the highest rated network in the world. And ballet is huge.

Three: We all get tarred with the excesses of a few. Some TV news organizations rush onto the air with bulletins that don’t mean anything. Some newspapers plaster stuff over page one that’s really quite minor. Each tiny advance in the story is treated like a journalistic triumph. But the bulk of the reporting has been reasonable and in context.

Marvin Kalb, director, The Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, Harvard University

Check the coverage of the O.J. trials, the Versace/Cunanan saga, Princess Diana’s tragic death. With each burst of excessive, shallow, intrusive, and hardly uplifting electronic herd journalism, there has been the promise that next time it would get better. The new technology and the new economics have combined to produce a new journalism, which has bright spots but is marked by murky questions about ethics, slipping standards, and quality.

James Fallows, editor, US. News & World Report

When this whole thing is over, we’ll be wringing our hands in symposia and postmortem critiques. The trick would be to keep some of that retrospective view in mind while we’re in the middle of covering the story. A year from now people will be saying: that we shouldn’t have let this story blot out so much else of the news, as happened with O.J. and Diana and Flight 800. that we should have avoided some of the flights of fancy that come with ever-escalating hypothetical questions. (“If it is proven that Monica Lewinsky killed Vince Foster, then . . . ?”)

that we should have been more skeptical about single-source anonymous reports – and made the possible motive of leakers clearer to our readers.

that we should have found some way to retain the proper function of editorial judgment, i.e., waiting to see when there is enough basis to publish a story rather than just saying: “It’s on the Internet, it’s `Out There.”‘

that we should have recognized that we’re in a morally complex situation when it comes to dealing with leaks one where we really need consider the inherent rights and wrongs.

The point is: why wait until next year before trying to let such concerns shape our coverage?

Anthony Lewis, columnist, The New York Times

The serious press has an obligation to stand back and warn the reader about how thin is the basis for many of these stories. It’s a disgrace what the papers are doing in terms of sourcing.

The obsession of the press with sex and public officials is crazy. Still, after Linda Tripp went to the prosecutor, it became hard to say we shouldn’t be covering this. My criticism is in the way it was covered. In general, the press started out rather gullible as regards the Starr operation, and has caught up. The public’s been way ahead.

William Marimow, managing editor, the Baltimore Sun

When a story is sensitive and controversial, you don’t go into print until you’ve done everything possible to interview people on both sides of the issue, until you understand their accounts of what happened. If you’re going to report that “sources” said a White House butler saw the president and an intern in a “compromising situation,” you ought to go to the ends of the earth to get the point of view of the butler, the president, the intern, and their attorneys.

Geneva Overholser, ombudsman, The Washington Post

Again and again, readers complained about how much we in the press have been reporting from anonymous sources that just seems like gossip. And that is, in fact, inexcusable. We aren’t clear enough [in our reports] about the possible motivations of these sources. It’s not that we can’t have anonymous sources, but each one costs us something in credibility.

And we’re too loose with language. One story quoted a source as saying that in her written proffer Monica Lewinsky had “acknowledged” having sex with the president. But she may have “asserted” it rather than “acknowledged” it. We can’t use language that hangs somebody before the facts are out.

The Washington Post conceded that one of its articles was based on sources who had heard the [Lewinsky-Tripp] tapes, not on a hearing of the tapes by the reporter. Yet there were quotes around the president’s alleged words to Lewinski – “You must deny this.” Here’s an anonymous source paraphrasing a woman who is characterizing the words of the president to her on tapes made without her knowledge. Deni Elliott, director, Practical Ethics Center, University of Montana and professor in the university’s philosophy and journalism departments

In the Monica Lewinsky stories in the February 16 Newsweek, there are at least thirty instances in which information is either not attributed, or attributed to anonymous sources, or attributed to other news organizations.

News organizations have not differentiated between different kinds of leaks. Leaks of grand jury testimony create information that ought not be disclosed unless it can be explained that the information is so important that the leak is justified. Grand juries have great latitude and are supposed to operate secretly because of that latitude. If information looks like grand jury testimony but is not, the reader should be informed, or readers will be led to believe you can’t trust in grand jury secrecy.

Peter Prichard, president, Freedom Forum, former editor, USA Today

One big lesson: never let hypercompetition take precedence over good news judgment. And be alert to the possibility that you’re being manipulated. Also: One anonymous source on any story is simply not enough. The speed of news cycles these days has resulted in errors, but generally the coverage has been good. Newspapers have done a better job than television.

Thomas E. Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press, Harvard’s John E Kennedy School of Government

It’s not hard to identify the standards we ought to have, it’s just hard to get everybody on board. It’s going to take real leadership – strong voices, editors, reporters who are willing to stand up to management.

There isn’t much real self-criticism among journalists. There has been a flurry of it in the current scandal because so many stories were so outrageous. But where is the same kind of scrutiny the press gives everyone else – really hammering away? These flurries blow over and six months later they’re forgotten. Journalists have to say, “Here’s an example of the kinds of things we don’t do” – and then don’t do it. And if journalists do do it, someone must tell them, “You’re violating the standards of your profession. Stop it.”

Anthony Marro, editor, Newsday

Before self-examination moves into self-flagellation, let’s look at the lessons here:

With the blur that results when television viewers can switch from the CBS Evening New’s to Hard Copy, Larry King Live, and Geraldo, it’s more important than ever for journalists to sort out: What are unproven allegations and what are proven facts? Which facts are criminal and impeachable and which are merely embarrassing? And what information is coming from serious journalism and what is coming from entertainment programs that have some of the trappings of journalism but few of the standards?

All life is Rashomon, as was seen in the early reports on the testimony of [Clinton’s personal secretary] Betty Currie, in which two of the nation’s very best newspapers produced two very different stories from pretty much the same bits of information. The New York Times gave something very much like a prosecutor’s view of the incident (i.e., Clinton was coaching her to lie) while The Washington Post gave something very much like a defense lawyer’s view (i.e., Clinton was just trying to refresh his memory about his meetings with Monica Lewinsky). Sorting this out can be both difficult and time-consuming and no one should expect the press even at its best to come up with quick and conclusive answers.

Reporters need to keep reminding themselves that just because sources say they’ve obtained information doesn’t mean that they’ve obtained all of it, or that it’s fully corroborated, or that it means precisely what they suggest it means.

James O’Shea, deputy managing editor, news, Chicago Tribune

We’re in a new world in terms of the way information flows to the nation. The days when you can decide not to print a story because it’s not well enough sourced are long gone. When a story gets into the public realm, as it did with the Drudge Report, then you have to characterize it, you have to tell your readers, “This is out there, you’ve probably been hearing about it on TV and the Internet. We have been unable to substantiate it independently.” And then give them enough information to judge the validity of it.

Not reporting it at all is the worst thing you can do because you create a vacuum in which people begin thinking a story is true and you’re not reporting it because you’re a backer of the president. One of the most popular things we did was run a big chart in our Sunday paper that told what’s been reported, what is known, and what is not known. We delineated, trying to separate fact from fiction and readers responded very well. The trouble with not reporting anything at all until it’s substantiated is that you’re not distinguishing between fact and fiction, and then fiction wins.

Copyright Columbia University, Graduate School of Journalism Mar/Apr 1998

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