January 27, 1998 in Nation/World

News Media Caught Up In Moment Journalistic Standards Suffer In Washington ‘Feeding Frenzy’

Howard Kurtz Washington Post
 
Tags:ethics

The furious, almost blinding pace of coverage of alleged scandalous behavior in the White House has all but shattered traditional media standards and opened the floodgates to a torrent of thinly sourced allegations and unrestrained speculation.

That is the view of some media critics, academics and journalists, such as James Fallows, editor of U.S. News & World Report, who argues that much of the reporting has “gotten out of control.”

Regardless of whether the allegations about President Clinton and former White House intern Monica Lewinsky turn out to be true, they say, the competitive pressure on news organizations is so fierce that many are airing charges that, until a week ago, would not have been deemed fit to print.

In recent days, based on anonymous sources, various newspapers and networks have reported such stories as: that Clinton has claimed to have had sex with “hundreds” of women; that he said he does not consider oral sex to be adultery; that White House staffers once saw Clinton and Lewinsky in an intimate encounter; that the two had engaged in phone sex; that Clinton admitted under oath having an affair with Gennifer Flowers; that Clinton may have had an affair with a distant cousin; and that Clinton had an affair with Shelia Davis Lawrence, widow of the former ambassador who was exhumed from Arlington National Cemetery for fabricating a military record.

“Once again, the media are courting a backlash,” said Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist and author of “Feeding Frenzy.”

James Warren, the Chicago Tribune’s Washington bureau chief, said the media’s “loose standards” have been “astonishing.” But, he said, “your bosses say, ‘My God, we’ll look like we’re behind.’ There’s intense pressure to regurgitate what everyone else is doing.”

Little has been reported about the motivation of the sources providing the allegations to reporters, although some of the leaks are attributed to “investigators” or “sources close to the investigation” of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.

This means that journalists, unwittingly or not, may be helping prosecutors put pressure on Lewinsky by acting as a conduit for selective bits of damaging information.

Some administration officials are furious about what they see as Starr’s leaks, saying that reporters call about subpoenas of White House officials almost immediately after they have been issued by Starr. The prosecutor’s office has denied any leaks.

“Agendas are at work here,” said Tim Russert, NBC’s Washington bureau chief. “Ken Starr’s office puts this out, the White House puts this out, Lewinsky’s team puts this out, all looking for an advantage. We’ve got to be very careful.”

It is probably too soon to say whether this represents a sea change in mainstream journalism or a frenzied reaction to a huge and fast-moving story. But many news executives themselves are worried.

“Of course there’s pressure,” said Frank Sesno, CNN’s Washington bureau chief. “There’s always competitive pressure. But we’ve taken things out of scripts that would be in any other story at any other time because it just doesn’t quite feel right.”

The sheer velocity of the scandal has enabled stories using anonymous sources to ricochet from television to newspapers and magazines and back again, with qualifiers often dropped in the process.

On “This Week with Sam and Cokie” on Sunday, ABC’s Jackie Judd reported that “several sources have told us that in the spring of 1996, the president and Lewinsky were caught in an intimate encounter in a private area of the White House. It is not clear whether the witnesses were Secret Service agents or White House staff.”

This produced the banner headline in Monday’s New York Post and Daily News: “CAUGHT IN THE ACT.” The tabloid Post said “the witnesses are Secret Service agents.”

The Chicago Tribune reported the charge, citing ABC, but added that “attempts to confirm the report independently were unsuccessful.” The Washington Post attributed its version of the story to “sources familiar with the probe.” The Los Angeles Times credited “people familiar with the investigation” by Starr.

The Spokesman-Review ran a wire service version of the “intimate encounter” story Monday after it was reported by numerous news agencies.

White House spokesman Mike McCurry said the president denies that any such incident took place.


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