By: M.L. Stein
Newspaper refuses anonymous-source Lewinsky articles from AP and NYT
Charging that the Associated Press and New York Times wire stories “did not meet our standards,” the Riverside, Calif., Press-Enterprise declined to run either organizations’ coverage of Monica Lewinsky’s Aug. 6 appearance before a federal grand jury.
“We decided we were not going to let others edit our newspaper,” said managing editor Mel Opotowsky.
Instead, the paper used a Scripps Howard
News Service account along with a sidebar
notice to readers that it objected to both AP and the Times “quoting a single legal source not otherwise identified and describing very similar details of Monica Lewinsky’s testimony. . . . It
could not be determined, however, whether this source was, for instance, Lewinsky’s attorney relaying a second-hand account (because he is not allowed into this procedure) or from the special prosecutor’s office, which would have a stake
in selecting what to leak to the public about any testimony.”
The newspaper said it has a policy of requiring at least two sources, if anonymous, on critical reports.
Times and AP ResponD
Times spokeswoman Lisa Caparelli said in response to the Press-Enterprise’s action: “There are times when we obtain highly newsworthy information from reliable sources who have understandable reasons to demand anonymity. . . . This was one of those cases.”
Chris Connell, AP assistant bureau chief in Washington, said the wire service is “very, very cautious” about using anonymous quotes in any circumstances but that exceptions are sometimes made. “We only use anonymous sources when we positively and absolutely have to,” he said.
Opotowsky told E&P that he made the decision not to use AP’s or the Times’ Lewinsky story after consulting with other editors and publisher Marcia McQuern, who gave final approval.
“It was quixotic but we stuck to our guns,” McQuern said. “They have a habit in Washington of using anonymous sources and expect us to eat it. We had no idea who the source was. How do we know it wasn’t someone with his own axe to grind and wanted to skew the story?”
The Scripps Howard story by Michael Hedges did not include any details of Lewinsky’s grand jury testimony by anyone, but in one paragraph said: “Those familiar with debriefings with [Kenneth] Starr’s team before her appearance say Lewinsky had described a sexual relationship with Clinton ? directly disputing a sworn statement he gave in the Paula Jones sexual-harassment case as well as an affidavit Lewinsky signed before the story broke in early January.”
In a column last February, Opotowsky scorned the use of unnamed sources while conceding that the Press-Enterprise has been guilty of the practice in its use of wire copy.
“Everybody’s doing it ? using unnamed sources, that is,” he wrote. “You can expect it from the Internet. . . . You can even expect it from TV, a medium that has turned news into entertainment so smoothly we hardly noticed. But for respected mainstream newspapers and wire services to abandon their customary standards and safeguards in the . . . heat of the story chase is disturbing.”
The use of anonymous sources is an old dilemma for journalists that has intensified in recent years as the proliferation of media has made news gathering more competitive and the public has become increasingly fascinated by celebrity trials.
Reporters and editors, of course, prefer identified sources for the sake of credibility. But when the terms are “no names or no comment,” most will go with concealment.
A number of news organizations reported the main points of Lewinsky’s secret grand jury testimony just hours after she left the building ? a practice that drew fire from media critics like Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post.
“The major players seem willing to provide whispered descriptions of each turn in the Lewinsky probe in time for the evening news and the morning papers,” he wrote. “Events that transpire behind closed doors almost feel like they’re out in the open. And that affects not just journalists but the proceedings themselves.”
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