By: Mark Fitzgerald Investigative Reporters and Editors conference panelists discuss the media coverage of John and Lorena, Tonya and Nancy, Paula and Bill, and of course, Jacko sp.
THIS YEAR'S INVESTIGATIVE Reporters and Editors showcase panel explored a smorgasbord of sleazy stories that was billed as an exploration of ethics versus sensationalism. An unidentified voice from the back of the crowded ballroom offered another set of alternatives, however. "This isn't investigative reporting," he shouted. "It's crap." However the topic was posed, the panel at the 19th annual IRE conference in St. Louis was certainly rollicking. Indeed, the subjects chosen were sufficient to keep joke faxes flying from office to office for the past couple of years. On hand were the journalists who led the coverage of such stories as the John and Lorena Bobbitt affair; Paula Jones' sexual harassment accusations against Bill Clinton; Tonya Harding's plot against Nancy Kerrigan; and the child molestation charges against Michael Jackson. There was even a surprise guest star with some sleazy video clips from a tiny town outside of Houston: KTRK-TV reporter Becky Oliver, who brought along tape shot from a hidden camera showing a doctor performing oral sex on an unwilling adult male patient. Like most of the other journalists searching for a high-minded rationale for their reporting, Oliver suggested her report was not really about the opportunity to air an act of fellatio, albeit one obscured by pixelizing. It was really about the failure of the Texas board of medical examiners to stop a sexually abusive physician. Just as the Bobbitt story wasn't really about a wife severing her husband's penis ? it was really about spousal abuse and marital rape. And just as the Paula Jones-Bill Clinton story wasn't really about an allegation of a crude sexual come-on ? it was really about an allegation of abuse of power. And just as the Tonya Harding-Nancy Karrigan story wasn't really about an overly ambitious skater and her nitwit friends ? it was about . . . . Well, Portland Oregonian managing editor Peter Bhatia tried gamely to say it was about "basic values and morality, about the Olympics . . . and the win-at-all-costs mentality" ? but he had to admit "it was as much fun as I've ever had with any story." Similarly, the free-lance journalist who broke the Michael Jackson child molestation story acknowledged that few socially redeeming lessons were drawn from the case. "The Michael Jackson story was about pedophilia, but nobody reported about pedophilia, what it is ? nobody," said Don Ray, a Los Angeles-based television journalist who operates ENG News Services. At the outset of the discussion, William Woo, editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, said these sensational stories have journalistic worth. "The sensational stories that fall under this [tabloid] rubric tell the story of our human condition and of our social condition," Woo said. By the end of the discussion, however, Woo was comparing the journalistic shortcuts these stories seem to spawn with the late Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen's famous observation about "a billion dollars here, a billion there ? pretty soon it adds up to real money." "With so many corners cut on each story, I wonder if really we are getting into real problems," he said. Some journalists argued that even sleazy stories can be covered seriously. For instance, Denise Watson, a reporter with the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot and Ledger-Star, said her reporting on the Bobbitts began when she wondered why it was taking so long to charge John Bobbitt for marital rape. It turns out, Watson said, that delays like that are not unusual in Virginia. In Watson's first story, she said, "The Bobbitt incident was used as a news peg for the rape stories." Watson acknowledged, however, that her efforts foundered in a sea of low comedy about the Bobbitts ? who also turned themselves into jokes. "By the time of the second trial, of Lorena Bobbitt, the story had lost its seriousness," Watson said. Other journalists had to be converted to the seriousness of their sensational story. Los Angeles Times national correspondent William Rempel, for instance, confessed that he had not wanted to do the Paula Jones/"Troopergate" sex story involving Clinton. "Being assigned to look into the sex life of a president or a man who wants to be president is not a desirable assignment for a person who wants to be a serious reporter," Rempel said. But both he and the Oregonian's Bhatia said it is possible to maintain standards even while covering a supermarket tabloid-quality story. "I think the one lesson to take away is that just because the story is a little sleazy, the standards of journalism shouldn't be lowered," said Bhatia, who noted the paper was never forced to run a correction during the three-month frenzy of "Tonyagate." The overflow IRE audience seemed considerably less convinced about the merit of the panelists' stories. Oliver was a particular target of criticism for her report on the sexually abusive doctor. Some questioned the ethics of outfitting the patient with a hidden camera. Oliver said the patient approached her with the allegation ? and the suggestion to tape an upcoming appointment. Others questioned the significance of the report. And some seemed offended by the sweeps-week feel of the piece, with its catchy title ("Doctor's Orders"), grabby graphics and bits of mood music. And then there was the journalist who called it simply "crap." When the panel broke up after more than two hours the night of June 17, IRE members learned they were already late for yet another feeding frenzy: A half-hour before, O.J. Simpson's white Ford Bronco had been spotted on a Los Angeles freeway.