Lewinsky scandal: Case study teaching notes

The following teaching notes accompany Internet Journalism and the Starr Investigation as part of Thinking Clearly (Columbia University Press, 2003), a textbook on journalism case studies.

By J.D. Lasica


Most journalism students today have grown up using the Internet as an important way of receiving news. They are likely unaware of the various stages of its development and may accept current practices as the only possible way of communicating. This case was designed to help students think through the challenges the Internet created and the choices journalists have made.

Use of the Internet slowly broadened from use by the technologically savvy to use by the general public as a form of communication. According to public opinion surveys, as late as 1997 only 37 percent of the public went on line, but by the summer of 1999 half of those questioned reported having used the Internet (Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach, Warp Speed [New York: Century Foundation, 1999], p. 11).

The eight-month investigation as to whether President Clinton had had a sexual affair with a 24-year-old intern was a central force in the Internet’s coming of age. When Matt Drudge broke the news of the Starr investigation in January of 1998, Internet news was still in its infancy. Broadcast television, newspapers, and magazines-old media-drove the often inflammatory coverage. By the time the Starr report was released eight months later, the tables had turned: the Internet largely dictated how the story played out, and online news organizations responded with respectful, restrained, serious coverage. And by then the role of individual “cybermongers” like Drudge seemed to have faded.

The Starr investigation jump-started an industry that had been slow to embrace the ethos of the Net. At latimes.com, the posting of live updates from the impeachment trial and the more frequent use of multimedia news sources established practices that were among the legacies of the Clinton Lewinsky story. “One of the side effects of the scandal was the impact it had on the way we do things on the site,” says Matt Stodder, online politics editor. “Just as the space program raised the level of technology in different areas of society, the scandal raised our competency level in dealing with audio, video, interactivity. It enhanced our proficiency in covering other major stories, like the Yugoslavian war and 2000 presidential election.”

But in addition to the positive attributes of the Internet, enhanced speed and depth of reporting, the Internet poses challenges to journalists in meeting some of the most basic responsibilities of journalism: truth, accuracy, and fairness.

This case study takes students through three specific elements of the scandal: reports in the Dallas Morning News that the president and the intern had been caught in an intimate encounter and reports in the Wall Street Journal that a White House steward had said he saw the two alone near the Oval Office; the handling of the final report that was issued by investigator Kenneth Starr and widely carried in full on the Web; and the “scoop” by Matt Drudge, using Michael Isikoff’s story without verification, that brought the Monica Lewinsky story to the public’s awareness. Looking at these elements will allow students to consider the issues of sourcing, verification, timing, and public interest in the age of Internet reporting.

This case study primarily explores the difference between the Internet and other forms of communication. It weighs the advantages of speed and open access against the potential problems of reduced accuracy and more difficult verification. It encourages students to think about how they can make use of the advantages while still providing responsible journalism. They can learn from early mistakes and also think about how the Internet has evolved since 1998.

Teaching Plan

The Clinton-Lewinsky case study offers for study not one central journalistic decision, but several that speak to the issues related to Internet news. Therefore, the teacher may want to open the class discussion of the case by posing one or more of the questions listed below. The teacher should try to get all of the class engaged and thinking about the Internet as a “new” medium-which it will not be to them. The discussion will probably be more effective if the focus is not on how the Internet works today, but on the possibilities of its use and the responsibilities that go along with communicating news information.

Many teachers find role-playing an effective way to begin the debate. But of course each instructor should teach the way that fits the class and you’re his or her teaching style. If role-playing is used, a student who has voiced concern about verification on the Internet might be called on to play the role of John Cranfill, the online manager for the Dallas Morning News. The instructor might ask this student, “As Cranfill, do you run the story on the Web?” then press the student to defend a decision not to run it even though the paper will likely get beat in the race to be first to publish the story and fail to get much more verification even if it sits on the story. Next, the teacher might tag a student who is a big defender of the Web as the reporter who got the story. How might he or she counter “Cranfill’s” argument?

Recent Internet cases could be referenced, or the class could even be asked to think about how the Watergate story might have fared in a world with the Internet.

At the end of class, the teacher will probably want to come full circle and see if the class has any new views on the overarching questions. The instructor might then give his or her own opinion.

Discussion, Questions and Analysis

Much of the early coverage of this scandal emphasized speed, sensation, and conjecture over accuracy and evenhandedness. CNN’s Scott Woelfel says that in the early going”there was an attitude of, ‘I don’t know if we could put this in the paper, but we could put it on the Web site.'”

Competitive pressures

Question 1: As Cranfill of the Dallas Morning News said, “Most Internet-based breaking news stories advance faster than television, much faster than newspapers, and at least as fast as radio.” What advantages does the Internet offer citizens as a result of its speed in spreading news? Are there drawbacks? How can a news organization resolve the conflict between meeting constant intense competitive pressures while ensuring that it gets the story right? How can a journalist (in any medium) argue that a story should be held when others on the staff want to run it? As we see in the cases of both the Wall Street Journal and the Dallas Morning News stories on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, speed is an asset only when accuracy comes with it. In addition to jeopardizing the basic truth of the information, speed can put other elements of responsible journalism at risk, making it necessary for reporters to do the following:

• Take time to think through any questions that might be raised.

• Look at the story another way.

• Put themselves in the shoes of the subjects.

• Ask colleagues to review the story.

These steps are all subtleties that may not be required by every newsroom, but taking them is important to responsible journalism. They strengthen and clarify the journalist’s work. When time is cut short, these are often the first to go. The Wall Street Journal published what it knew about the scandal on its Web site as soon as it knew it, without waiting for an official response.

Another element of responsible journalism that can be harmed in the rush to inform is the editing process. Marvin Kalb, director of the Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University, says he was “ashamed” of the media’s hyperventilating early coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal: “I think it is one of the sorriest chapters in journalism in my lifetime. The Internet, cable news, and the new technologies have speeded up the editorial process so that rumor and hearsay and innuendo are now passed off as journalism.”

The speed afforded by the Internet can spur journalists to suddenly move from informing citizens of the facts to analyzing what they mean. This is often done before all the facts have even been assembled.

One class studying this case had a fairly heated debate about the use of the Internet as an incubator. A student suggested using it as a way of “testing” stories or putting out the pieces of information a reporter has while he or she continues to gather facts. At first this sounded reasonable to some classmates, but the professor asked how other news outlets should handle these pieces of information. Should they report them as fact even though they are only part of the story and perhaps have not been fully verified? And how can the public know when a story is complete and “ready” to be accepted as truth? The professor was surprised that some students did not see the problems at the outset and would not have raised the issues themselves. But letting the students lead the discussion allowed them to gain insight about the problems brought about by one of the Internet’s strongest temptations.

Question 2: How might news organizations have used the capabilities of each medium-print, broadcast, and Web-to best report this story?

The Clinton Lewinsky scandal spurred such major publications as the Washington Post and USA Today to abandon their practice of not publishing stories online until they had appeared in print. Throughout the scandal, the Post published stories on its Web site in midafternoon that would appear in the paper the next morning. Cooperation between online and print staffs increased at many publications.

A number of online publications made their first foray into multimedia journalism by covering such elements of the Starr investigation as Clinton’s videotaped testimony and the Tripp Lewinsky audiotapes. Web sites prize workers with such diverse skills. “Today a journalist has to be prepared to work in multiple media,” says CNN’s Woelfel. “Anyone who thinks he’s still working for a newspaper or a TV station is not paying attention.”

In debating this issue students can draw on their knowledge of current news outlets that operate multiple media. The instructor might ask them questions such as these: What do you expect from the various media? Are there times when you want to read the newspaper rather than something posted on the Web? What does television offer? What are some of your favorite news outlets? How could the good aspects of those have been used in covering the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal?

In test-teaching this case study we found many students unaware of the tension that exists among reporters within a news organization. For example, many Tribune Company news outlets now produce print, Internet, and television stories, all under the same roof. There are often hostile feelings among reporters in the three media, because each wants to be the one to break the story.

Question 3: What criteria should wire services and news organizations use when deciding whether to report serious allegations put forth by a newspaper, especially when anonymous sources are used? Is it still valid to say that once one news organization has put out a story, it is fine for others to report it, even if there are serious doubts about its validity?

Citing another news organization as the source of a story has become more and more common since the Lewinsky scandal. In other words, the fact that another news organization has reported something suddenly makes it newsworthy-whether it can be verified or not. This was what happened in the Dallas Morning News report of an eyewitness to Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Within hours it had become the center of national news. Larry King, the producers of Nightline, and others all jumped on the story and began dissecting its implications. Finally the original source of the information had to take it into his own hands to put a stop to this feeding frenzy.

It may sound simple for a reporter to craft a rule about where his or her information must come from, but there are always complexities. What if the information could put a person or a nation in danger? What if the reporter knows the sources of another medium’s story?

Posting the Starr Report

Jon Katz of the Freedom Forum applauds the news sites that published the report online but suggests that newsrooms are reluctantly being dragged into a new era of openness created by the Internet.

Question 1: If you were the editor of a newspaper and your Web site had run the Starr report verbatim, would you edit out the sections you deemed not fit for all eyes? How would you explain your decision to readers? “The overwhelming majority of newspapers would not have published the Starr report in print if the Internet did not exist,” Katz says. “They’re afraid of being marginalized into irrelevance.”

But Katz thinks many newspapers did not go far enough and may have missed a historic opportunity to embrace the ethos of the Net. “A woman in the Midwest wrote to me saying her paper had edited out all the most explicit parts of the Starr report while her twelve year old son was upstairs reading it on the computer screen,” Katz says. “Nothing makes newspapers look more ridiculous than withholding information that kids can obtain with the click of a mouse. Newspapers have to realize the world has changed. Journalists are now competing with a medium that is the freest part of the information culture. On line, people can question authority, they can be sexually explicit, they can hold you accountable for your reporting. Journalism is losing an entire generation of young readers because they haven’t adapted their newsroom culture to the new freedom that’s in the hands of today’s young adults.”

Jim Naughton of the Poynter Institute is skeptical as to whether most of the newspapers that published the full report did so out of civic virtue. “If this were a 445 page report of dry legalese about perjury and obstruction of justice but contained no mention of sex, would they have run it?” he asks. “I think most papers wanted to publish it not because it was a newsworthy or historic document but because of its salacious contents.”

Question 2: Did news organizations help further the cause of Starr and Republican lawmakers by posting the report on their Web sites?

Some lawmakers told reporters the report was released for political reasons: they felt that the contents of the report would so disgust the public that Americans would come to favor impeachment.

The Matt Drudge phenomenon

Question: Are individual cyber-journalists like Matt Drudge bound by the same responsibilities of fact-checking that bind traditional journalists? Does the First Amendment give them a free hand to spread rumors?

By breaking the Clinton-Lewinsky story by appropriating (or rather misappropriating) the report Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff had carefully put together, Matt Drudge became a media celebrity. Brill’s Content hailed him as the “town crier for the new age,” and even Newsweek came to describe him as “the Internet’s intrepid reporter.” He was hot on the lecture circuit, and he had his own television show on Fox Television. But when his show’s ratings fell, Fox canceled it, and opinions about him started to change. Brill’s Content came to see him as “a one-trick pony” whose “pipeline into the Lucianne Goldberg-Linda Tripp camp” had enabled him to get his one big story. Yet New York Times columnist Frank Rich says that Drudge left a legacy that elevated rumor and gossip to the regular news budgets of mainstream media. Although the Drudge Report may have faded as a major online news site, it remains possible for individuals to reach large audiences on the Internet through their own Web sites. With no editors going over their reports to insist that they check the facts, they can readily put out erroneous information.

Additional questions to ask if time permits

Implications of the Internet

Question 1: Has the Internet contributed to the development of democracy by making basic government documents and reports available directly to the people?

Question 2: The Internet has made the time frame for the release of online news one continuous stretch, pressuring all news media to report information when it is learned. Does that make it acceptable to report unverified stories immediately and then to make any needed corrections or add balance later?

JD Lasica
Written by JD Lasica
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