Albion Monitor

These are not proud times to be a journalist.

Now more than a full month after Monica Lewinsky's name first dropped into the headlines, the media continues to gnaw away at the story. Each day her name appears in articles, editorials, op-eds, photo captions, weighty think pieces. On February 19 -- a day when there was little to report on the story -- Monica's name appears 22 times in the front section of The New York Times.

I confess that I've taken to counting "Lewinskys" in the Times, much as I once added up sightings of "Nina" in cartoons by Al Hirschfield. As a child I delighted in hunting for his daughter's name discreetly hidden in a drawing. Perhaps the Times should consider printing a sum of how many times "Lewinsky" appears in that edition, as Hirschfield provided a Nina-count. That would be such fun.

Even more interesting is a just-released report from the Committee of Concerned Journalists, an independent industry group with members from all branches of the media (including myself). The study, examining just the first six days' coverage of l'affair Lewinsky, is shocking.

Two out of five "news" statements that week were completely hot air -- either reporters offering their own opinions (Clinton is in Big Trouble), analysis (why this is Big Trouble for Clinton) or speculation (Clinton is lying about his Big Trouble). Add in the quotes lifted from other media (somebody told somebody else something that might show Clinton is in Big Trouble) and more than half of the coverage was completely groundless.

The rest of the reporting was "factual" -- that is, if you have a pretty loose definition of what it means to have proof. Normally, editors demand having two (or more) sources that say the same thing, and willing to go on record. But in this case, the rules evaporated. Only about half the news in The New York Times came from a named source. And was the best example found; the Washington Post used anonymous sources a whopping 84 percent of the time.

Pie Chart of Media Coverage of First Week of Lewinsky Scandal

Why was the press relying on anonymous sources, hearsay, or stealing quotes from others? As the report notes, " Given the limited number of reporters who actually had listened to the tapes or interviewed Linda Tripp, most news organizations did not have any confirmation of the major allegation that drove this story -- that Lewinsky had talked about having an affair with Clinton and the possibility of lying about it."

The real shocking story for that week was this: Only one percent of the coverage was based on information from more than one named source -- the usual requirement for a statement to appear as fact.

To show how quickly ethical standards fell, the Committee examined the legend of the semen- stained dress. It was the most sensational angle of the Lewinsky story, and during the third week of January it dominated the news. (An excellent chronology of the legend of "Monica's Love Dress" can be found in the Time magazine archives.)

In brief: The press went into a frenzy over rumors that Lewinsky kept an unwashed dress with DNA evidence of sex with the president. The sensational story raged for days, reluctantly fading only when the FBI said no such dress could be found. Reporters attacked each other over the story, as the Committee report explains:

On the Today Show January 22, for instance, [program moderator] Matt Lauer repeatedly tried to get Newsweek's Michael Isikoff to admit whether he had "heard anything" about a semen- stained dress. Even after Isikoff said an answer would be irresponsible, Lauer pressed him, for the third time. "You're not telling me whether you've ever heard of it?"

For a sample of the full-bore attack that developed in that last crazy week of January, read the White House press conference transcripts from Jan 23, and particularly, Jan 26, the same day as the State of the Union Address. Presidential sex wasn't just an important story of the day; it was the only story.

All rules vanished; the front pages of the supermarket- checkout tabloids blended with the "mainstream" press. Both the New York Post and New York Daily News had identical January 26 headlines: "CAUGHT IN THE ACT." The Dallas Morning News also used a screamer headline: "I SAW THEM DO IT." Other papers printed the same (anonymous) gossip, but tried to keep it at arm's length. The Chicago Tribune added: "...attempts to confirm the report independently were unsuccessful," and the Wall Street Journal winked that these were "unsubstantiated reports." But like the dirty dress, the eyewitness account turned out to be another myth; the Dallas paper retracted it in later editions.

By the end of the month, however, it was becoming obvious that the Lewinsky story wasn't the juicy scandal many hoped -- the media had been misled by phony leads. Who to blame? Many editorial writers easily found an easy fall-guy: The Internet.

The main target was Matt Drudge, author of the "Drudge Report," a controversial web-published tip sheet.

Drudge defies easy description. His detractors are quick to note that he's young (31), a novice journalist (who once worked at a CBS gift shop), and styles himself after Walter Winchell. His web page mixes freely Hollywood news, celebrity gossip, and D.C. rumors. There's no distinction between boffo Titanic ticket sales, Madonna's latest makeover, or supposed conspiracies by the President of the United States to swindle or murder some of his closest friends.

On his simple web page, Drudge broke the Lewinsky story on Saturday night, Jan. 17. Events moved with lightning speed. The story was mentioned on TV the next morning; the day after that it was the number one song on right-wing radio's Clinton-hit parade. The day after that it was front page news in the Washington Post. And if the press wasn't overexcited enough, Drudge pushed them over the top the following day (Jan. 21) by publishing news that Lewinsky claimed to have "kept a garment with Clinton's dried semen on it -- a garment she allegedly said she would never wash." Now pundits were speculating about impeachment.

While Drudge was beating all media to tomorrow's headlines -- and particularly, after the story turned sour a week later -- he was harshly criticized in dozens of mainstream papers and magazines. Some questioned his very First Amendment freedom to write; others attacked his watery ethics. Here's a small sample of the criticism that appeared in major dailies:

  • By reporting gossip about gossip, Drudge has single-handedly lowered the bar for what constitutes "news."

  • Praising the Drudge Report for reporting is like praising a men's room wall for its poetry. But get used to it. Drudge is the future. There is no going back to the days when a scurrilous rumor could be kept out of the news.

  • Controversial Internet "reporter" Matt Drudge may be good enough for NBC's Meet the Press, but you won't catch him on CBS's Face the Nation, says anchor Bob Schieffer.

  • Back in the old days -- 1993 or so -- the Washington press corps would have held tight rein on Clinton's crisis. Editors and reporters would have decided, right or wrong, what to print and when. But times change.

Drudge-bashing wasn't the only editorial sport, however. Several commentators lamented that the Internet and cable TV were forcing a "24-hour news cycle" that altered the basic tenets of journalism. With increased pressure to scoop other media, they complained, standards have relaxed.

Broad swipes were also made about any information found on the Internet. Seth Schiesel wrote for The New York Times, "[A] result of the essential democracy, or anarchy of the Internet is that established news organs have no more claim to screen space than basement efforts... on the Internet... truth often seems relative."

All of these mainstream media editorials hammer away at their fading claims to controlling the news: We're the responsible journalists; We're the arbiters that decide the headlines; We're the only news source you can trust.

That's fundamentally dishonest. While the editorial writers were condemning Drudge, the reporters were glued to his web page, their fingers twitching on the Netscape PAGE RELOAD button to see if he'd provided fresh rumors to steal.

The AP had circulated the "I SAW THEM DO IT" story from the Dallas paper, and likewise made a retraction a few hours later. But the AP also made an embarassing attempt at passing the buck for such irresponsible journalism. In a follow-up, the wire service editor muttered, they had no reasons to doubt the Dallas newspaper's report. Well, sorry, AP -- you had no reason to believe it at all.

And The Wall Street Journal, another paper that spread the "eyewitness" story through the media via their web page edition, can't claim higher moral ground for having also retracted the story -- Washington bureau head Alan Murray had appeared on CNBC just hours before, crowing about the Journal's hot scoop.

In these newsrooms, a double standard prevailed. They published salacious material on the front page (and quickly forgive themselves when the gossip proved untrue). But just a few pages away, op-eds decried the loosened standards.

Sadly, it was almost an exact replay of the shaky ethics found in reporting the death of Princess Diana just a few months earlier. Then, the press roundly condemned the paparazzi for irresponsible behavior -- then sold souvenir editions illustrated with paparazzi pictures.

To my mind, such ethical lapses are not the worst of it.

Since realizing they were duped, mainstream media has made a shameful attempt to coverup their responsibility in spreading lies.

The critical report by the Committee of Concerned Journalists even gives a very specific example of how the press failed. Perhaps freewheeling Matt Drudge premiered the story of the semen- stained dress, but it was eagerly repeated in all media, quoting anonymous sources. The report explains why it was essential for readers to know who originated the tale -- and why:

ABC described its source as "someone with specific knowledge of what it is Monica Lewinsky says really took place." In a subsequent interview with the New York Daily News, Linda Tripp's literary agent friend Lucianna Goldberg, a woman with a history of antipathy for Clinton and for engaging in dirty tricks for the Republican party, openly said that she was the source for the blue dress allegation. "The dress story? I think I leaked that." Goldberg told the Daily News laughing in a way that suggested she was mocking the press with this and other leaks. "I had to do something to get their (the media's attention). I've done it. I'm not unproud of it."

But that section of the report doesn't appear in any newspaper summary. In fact, mention of the hallmark study appeared in a mere 17 newspapers nationwide -- and even then, it was consistently downplayed.

In the Washington Post a condensed summary followed a columnist's news about the wedding of actress Sharon Stone. The typical headline above a (short) item on the report, as found in the Houston Chronicle: "Journalists speculated too much." No story emphasized the most important finding: "Only one percent of Lewinsky scandal was verified fact."

And remember the nondescript day of February 19, when 22 "Lewinskys" appeared in the front section of The New York Times? Just one of those Lewinskys appeared in the Times' article on the Committee report -- an article that was thin, superficial, and sadly, also the longest piece on the study to appear anywhere.

During the madness of Lewinsky fever, a single article peered directly into the scandal's true heart. It didn't appear in esteemed newspapers like the Times or Washington Post, nor in big-name magazines like Time or the New Yorker. Instead, it was a commentary in the February 8 Book Review section of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Editor Patricia Holt compares the development of the Lewinsky scandal to Dominick Dunne's "fictional memoir" of the O.J. Simpson trial, Another City, Not my Own. Like any reporter on the Lewinsky story, Dunne knew how to collect true, verifiable information. But like Dunne, the Washington reporters found it more interesting to follow the gossip. Holt describes the twist this approach gave the Simpson book:

Perhaps the best example of rumor over fact was the story Dunne heard several times about Simpson sitting on the board of the company that manufactured Swiss army knives. One of the perks, the story went, was the gift directors received of a sampling of knives. According to this scenario, Simpson took the sample from the board room only a short time before the murders, waiting until he was alone in the limousine before pulling out one particularly long and potentially vicious knife and exclaiming to the chauffeur how easily a person could slice somebody's throat with the weapon.

Dunne didn't care if Simpson actually sat on the board of this company, if he made that statement or if the chauffeur could be trusted -- had the chauffeur spread word of this alleged incident in the first place. What interested Dunne was the way the knife anecdote made the rounds, how it was seized and clucked over and elaborated upon by the people in Dunne's current circle. What he admired was the way it fit into the expanding mosaic of gossipy pieces that he could feed to his audience one at a time. Readers by that time were acting like starving fish that, oblivious to the dangers, swam not toward food but toward the glint of the lure.

Holt adds a brilliant insight: When explosive rumors circulate, we don't hear the quiet voices that urges ethical journalism and responsibility. "Why spoil the fun? Once we accept the allegations as possibilities, the door is open to the juiciest of speculations."

Well, there are still some journalists that don't think that way. Unfortunately, we're being trampled by the full-scale riot by the "respectable" media.

-- Jeff Elliott,
Editor, Albion Monitor
March 1, 1998

Albion Monitor issue 43 (

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