By: Joe Nicholson
NEWSPAPER editors say they are struggling to maintain the same high journalistic standards that led Newsweek to delay publication ? and ultimately lose its scoop ? on the story of President Clinton’s alleged affair with an intern and his alleged effort to get her to lie about it.
Clinton has denied both allegations.
From small towns to the largest cities, editors said Newsweek’s decision was an ethical beacon at a time when rumors swirl on the Internet and when some TV newscasts have broadcast allegations of a love triangle at the White House and even hearsay reports that the President could be entangled in as many as five love triangles.
In interviews with 17 senior editors, all said their own newspapers were maintaining standards, but many of them complained, speaking with dismay and sometimes disgust, that standards were slipping at other newspapers.
“It takes more courage not to run a story,” said Cole C. Campbell, editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Newsweek said it delayed publishing its scoop in order to further evaluate various players, especially former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky. The magazine said its reporters had “never seen her, talked with her or done enough independent reporting to assess the young woman’s credibility.”
Only one editor, Bob Wilson, managing editor of Wyoming’s Laramie Daily Boomerang, said Newsweek had enough information to publish. “They were nuts not to do it when they knew the investigation had been opened. That’s news,” said Wilson. “It’s not up to them to determine whether she is telling the truth or not. That’s the prosecutor’s job. Clearly they dropped the ball.”
How much information is enough to publish?
“There isn’t a clear-cut formula. It’s a gut judgment,”
said Bill Keller, managing editor of the New York Times.
A crucial factor is a prosecutor’s credibility, said editors, especially when a prosecutor also is an important source. How reliable has he or she been in the past? Also, are there political motives? Personal grudges? Previous wild goose chases?
When covering independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, said James O’Shea, deputy managing editor-news at the Chicago Tribune, it has been important to factor in his background as “a well-known conservative with ties to some people who have rabidly opposed the president.”
“You make sure to write in every caveat and let the reader know what you don’t know, including those caveats that raise any question about the motivation of the prosecutor,” said Keller of the Times.
At the Washington Post, executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. pointed out that an independent counsel does not play the impartial role of a judge “and we recognize that in our reporting.”
Should every leak from Starr and his staff be published?
It’s always important to be mindful of who has an ax to grind, said Larry Eichel, national editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “It’s something that happens all the time. It’s part of the business,” he conceded. “When the information comes to somebody else, it’s a leak; when it comes to you, it’s sources.”
At the same time, editors have cast a skeptical eye on the accused. Past adultery allegations against Clinton, said Eichel, made editors “somewhat more willing to believe this than if it was the first time it has been raised.”
But editors said they haven’t lowered their standards because of what competitors might have done.
“You’re not a good journalist if you say, ‘I’m going to publish it just because they are,’ ” said O’Shea, of the Chicago Tribune. “That’s journalism by the lowest common denominator.”
When unsubstantiated stories become widely known, newspapers must tell their readers what has been reported elsewhere, said O’Shea, and explain “the reasons why you might have had some doubts about it, so your readers have some ability to judge the credibility of it.”
One dilemma in covering the Clinton controversy, said Keller, of
the Times, came with a reported claim that someone had spotted him with Lewinsky in a compromising circumstance.
“WABC broke this story that said somebody may have
witnessed the president and
Monica engaged in some kind
of intimate act,” recounted Keller, whose staff found no immediate substantiation. “For all I know it may be true, but we haven’t reported to the point where it meets our standard.”
Others were swept along. “A lot of other people have just picked up the story and attributed it to ABC,” said Keller. “The stampeding herd has gotten so big and so ferocious that it requires a lot more backbone to stand up in a case like this.”
The Times did publish a report that alleged Clinton gave Lewinsky a dress, which supposedly got stained with his semen during a sexual encounter. Was that a tough call at the Times?
“We talked about it a lot. This has been a week of hard calls,” said Keller. “What we said was that, according to people who have heard the tapes, that Lewinsky told [confidante] Linda Tripp that the dress contained a semen stain.”
In recent years, said James Godbold, managing editor of the Register-Guard in Eugene, Ore., some newspapers seem to have begun stooping “to fairly reprehensible depths in order to publish sensational, titillating, outlandish information.”
Many newspapers went “a little crazy in general with this story” while it was still “half-baked,” said Davis Merritt Jr., senior editor of the Wichita Eagle. “It seems that the larger the target, the larger the stakes, the less restraint is used, which is sort of perverse.”
Even in covering the relatively tepid Whitewater scandal, said Merritt, reporters seemed to be saying, “‘When do we get to use the word impeach?’ There just seemed to be this compulsion to get there.”
“The wall between tabloid journalism and mainstream journalism has almost dissolved,” said Keller.
“That distance is a lot shorter than it once was. That makes me very uncomfortable.”
The breakdown of standards, he said, has been caused by “all kinds of unvetted raw information on the Internet” and some 24-hour TV news operations.
Newspaper reporters have contributed to the trend, he said, by joining TV news discussions in which they are confronted with “very artful questions” that pressure them “to make judgments and predictions.”
“I’ve seen print reporters whose work I really respected who were put in a position where they were saying on TV the kinds of things they would only have said five years ago to a friend over a beer after the newspaper had closed,” said Keller. That sort of experience, he said, “kind of softens up” the resolve of newspaper reporters who should be sticking to the facts when they sit down to write stories.
In the end, good newspapers will maintain their standards, predicted Keller, because “we realize our stock-in-trade ? what we have to offer readers ? is our credibility and we can’t afford to lose that.”
?(“It takes more courage not to run a story.”) [Caption]
?(-Cole C. Campbell, editor, St. Louis Post-Dispatch) [Caption]
?(Nicholson is a freelance writer based in New York.) [Caption]
?(E&P Web Site: http: www.mediainfo.com)
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher, January 31, 1998) [Caption]