Internet journalism and the Starr investigation

The following five-part 10,000-word research report appears in Thinking Clearly (Columbia University Press, 2003), a textbook on journalism case studies. It’s already in use in college classrooms around the country. Syndicated columnist Geneva Overholser and former Los Angeles Times Washington bureau chief Jack Nelson are among the other chapter contributors. Also see the teaching notes on the topic. Posted Jan. 20, 2000.

The Internet came of age as a news medium in 1998 during independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s investigation into whether President Clinton had a sexual affair with a White House intern and lied about it. This case examines three principal issues: (1) the rise of new media as legitimate and important sources of breaking news; (2) sourcing and verification of Internet news, and (3) how the Internet impacts the role of today’s journalists.

A new medium is born

At the beginning of 1998, nearly all news organizations had put up homesteads on the web. But few were taking advantage of the online medium’s inherent advantages of immediacy, interactivity and depth. The vast majority of newspapers updated their sites once a day, following the print cycle, preventing the Web site from “scooping” the newspaper. Most news sites relied almost exclusively on “shovelware” — content that had the twin disadvantages of being written for a different medium (print) and being untimely, i.e., yesterday’s news. Breaking news, if covered at all, was left to a wire service feed on the site. Interactivity was almost nonexistent; in many cases bulletin boards set aside for reader forums were digital wastelands that attracted few users. News sites associated with television, such as CNN Interactive and MSNBC, were experimenting with multimedia, but most news sites used video and audio sparingly or not at all.

For the most part, users came, they clicked, they yawned. They sensed, early on, that newspapers considered the Web a reluctant obligation rather than the future of their business.

“The first generation of Web journalism was bland, irrelevant and generally clueless. Nobody paid much attention to it,” says Jon Katz, an online columnist and new media scholar at the Freedom Forum. “Then came the Clinton scandal and the Starr report, and everything changed. It was the first time that official Washington, journalism, and the Internet bumped into one another nose to nose.”

The story is born

What propelled the new media onto the national radar screen was a scoop by a relatively unknown Internet columnist named Matt Drudge. Late on Saturday, January 17, 1998, he wrote a story that appeared on his Drudge Report Web site, in an e-mail alert sent to 85,000 newsletter subscribers, and later in his column on America Online. It was headed:

**Must Credit the DRUDGE REPORT**

Drudge’s exclusive may or may not have changed the course of President Clinton’s presidency. But there’s no question that journalism lurched into a new era, one that continues to befuddle newsrooms as they struggle to sort out their relationship with the Internet medium. Throughout the Starr investigation, Drudge’s reports — crackling with titillating revelations, insider information and shadowy sources — set the tone for the media’s coverage of the scandal.

Who was this brash upstart? A former employee in the CBS gift shop in Los Angeles with no journalism background, Drudge described himself as the vanguard of a new populist era in which every citizen with an Internet account would be a reporter — without interference from editors and publishers, whom he saw as beholden to special interests and archaic practices. From a cramped apartment in Hollywood, the 30-year-old produced the Drudge Report, a daily digest of news (including summaries of early of first edition stories in the Washington Post and New York Times, which he got from their web sites), opinion and gossip about the entertainment industry and political establishment, and, increasingly, leaks from anti-Clinton conservatives. His reporting was sometimes dead on (he was the first to report Jack Kemp’s selection as Bob Dole’s running mate in the 1996 presidential election), sometimes dead wrong (he reported that first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton would be indicted), but always entertaining. For many in the Washington press corps, Drudge was considered something of a must-read.

Drudge reported that Newsweek had “spiked” reporter Michael Isikoff’s story about an official investigation into Clinton’s relationship with a former White House intern, but in actuality Newsweek’s editors had decided to hold off publication until several loose threads in the explosive story could be nailed down. Starr’s office pressed hard to delay publication while, unknown to Newsweek, prosecutors tried to get Lewinsky to agree to a sting operation against the president or his advisors. In the end, Newsweek agreed to hold off reporting the story after extracting a promise from Starr’s office that it would receive a complete account for the following week’s magazine.

On Saturday night, about five hours after Newsweek’s decision, Drudge was tipped off about the story. Newsweek’s editors don’t know how the information found its way into Drudge’s hands, but their suspicions center on Lucianne Goldberg, book agent for Linda Tripp and a frequent source for Drudge’s reports. Isikoff had informed her early Saturday night of the magazine’s decision to hold off.

The story goes mainstream

The next morning, Drudge’s report was mentioned by conservative commentator Bill Kristol on ABC’s This Week With Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts. By Monday, January 19, the Washington bureaus of the major news organizations knew about the report. Drudge’s e-mail dispatch had been seen by a number of influential news managers who subscribed, such as Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times. Journalists of all stripes began chasing the story.

While reporters for mainstream news organizations found the sexual underpinnings of the episode distasteful, there was little disagreement that this was a legitimate news story. The Office of the Independent Counsel was investigating whether the president had obstructed justice by encouraging Monica Lewinsky to lie under oath about their relationship. The fact that it was a civil deposition in a sexual harassment case funded by political enemies of the Clintons made it no less newsworthy.

“When you use the words president, sex, and intern in the same sentence, you’re going to get everyone’s attention,” says Leah Gentry, director of new media for the Los Angeles Times. “For an online journalist, the story was a lot of fun to work on because it had constantly breaking developments, lots of Web storytelling challenges, opportunities for multimedia, and high reader interest. All the lights were green. If stories were holidays, this story was Christmas.”

After the appearance of Drudge’s report and its mention on ABC, the dynamics of the story changed. For weeks, Newsweek’s Isikoff had had an exclusive scoop. Now other reporters quickly joined the chase. The hopes of Starr’s office for tape-recorded corroboration of the allegations had been dimmed by Lewinsky’s reluctance to cooperate and the public airing of the charges. If the people in the independent counsel’s office were reluctant to talk on Saturday, they were more willing to do so after all this. In the early evening of Tuesday, January 20, Dave Willman, the investigative reporter at the Los Angeles Times covering Whitewater, walked into the office of his boss, McManus. Willman told the bureau chief that Starr just had his mandate broadened to look into allegations of the affair and whether Clinton had told Lewinsky to lie and commit perjury. Times reporters immediately went to work on the story and found they had heavy competition. “The Washington Post had the story the same evening, ABC News had the story the same evening,” McManus says. “So there was clearly a lot of leakage.”

Late Tuesday night, the story hit the mainstream media. In its early edition, the Washington Post announced in a four-column headline across the front page: “CLINTON ACCUSED OF URGING AIDE TO LIE; STARR PROBES WHETHER PRESIDENT TOLD WOMAN TO DENY ALLEGED AFFAIR TO JONES’S LAWYERS.” The story was attributed to “Sources close to the investigation.” Minutes after midnight, ABC News broadcast a story recapping the Post story on its radio network. And the Los Angeles Times also broke the story in its Wednesday edition with a front-page story headlined, “STARR EXAMINES CLINTON LINK TO FEMALE INTERN.”

Although journalists decline to disclose the sources for their stories, Goldberg verified that she had spoken with reporters for several news organizations in the days after Drudge broke news of the scandal. Months later, the U.S. attorney general’s office and the judge overseeing Starr’s grand jury launched separate investigations into widespread leaks to the media by high-ranking members of Starr’s staff who had developed close contacts with reporters. Starr’s top aide, Charles Bakaly, was forced to resign in early 1999.

Questions for students involving the initial reports:

•    Were news organizations right in reporting details of Starr’s investigation even though they were unproven allegations at that point?

•    Should news reports about the investigation have been put off until the charges were leveled by someone on the record?

•    None of the initial reports by the Post, Los Angeles Times or ABC News mentioned the Drudge Report, even though that was where the allegations first appeared. Was that omission proper?

The story builds

A media feeding frenzy followed public disclosure of Starr’s investigation. Revelation quickly piled on revelation, each more sensational than the one before. During just the first week of scandal coverage, various newspapers and networks reported that White House staff members once saw Clinton and Lewinsky in an intimate encounter; that the two had engaged in phone sex; that Clinton had left a message on Lewinsky’s answering machine; that Clinton may have had sex with a second White House intern; that Clinton said he does not consider oral sex to be adultery; that he claimed to have had sex with “hundreds” of women; that in his sealed deposition he admitted under oath to having an affair with Gennifer Flowers; that he might have had an affair with a distant cousin; that he had had an affair with the widow of a former ambassador to Switzerland who been exhumed from Arlington National Cemetery and buried in another site when it was discovered that he had fabricated his military record.

Most of these reports turned out to be false. In every case, the allegations were attributed to anonymous sources. On top of the leaks came declarations from journalists that Clinton would be forced from office. Four days after the story broke, the Sunday talk shows focused almost solely on the allegations. The prospects of impeachment or resignation were a major topic of discussion. Sam Donaldson, ABC’s White House correspondent, suggested on This Week that Clinton might soon resign. “If he’s not telling the truth, I think his presidency is numbered in days. … Mr. Clinton, if he’s not telling the truth and the evidence shows that, will resign, perhaps this week.”

The public was not persuaded. A Washington Post poll taken ten days after the story broke found that 56 percent of those surveyed believed the news media were treating Clinton unfairly, and 74 percent said the media were giving the story “too much attention.” A Freedom Forum poll found that the top two adjectives used by Americans to describe the coverage of the story were “excessive” and “embarrassing.”

Two incidents in the early going stood out: reports in the Wall Street Journal and Dallas Morning News that, if they stood up, could have dealt a crippling political blow to Clinton’s presidency.

NEXT: Revisions on the fly: Two case studies

In this report

Introduction: Internet journalism and the Starr investigation (above)

Part 2: Revisions on the fly: Two case studies

Part 3: The sourcing problem

Part 4: The Starr report

Part 5: Speed vs. context and accuracy in covering the scandal

JD Lasica
Written by JD Lasica
JD Lasica is an entrepreneur, author, journalist, photographer and blogger. | CONTACT