The sourcing problem in the Lewinsky scandal

Part three of Internet journalism and the Starr investigation

During press coverage of past scandals such as Watergate or Iran-Contra, perhaps the biggest challenge facing journalists involved news gathering: teasing out enough information from reluctant sources for a solid story. In the Clinton sex scandal, information flowed like water. It was everywhere, but much of it was murky or polluted. The real challenge came in filtering the information to sort out fact from rumor. Authenticating the news became critically important in two ways:

• News organizations covering the story first-hand had to determine the reliability of the information obtained from sources with politically tinged motives (many participants had Republican ties and had a strong, visceral hatred of President Clinton from the outset of his 1992 presidential campaign) as well as from sources in the independent counsel’s office who were using the press by selectively leaking information to gain tactical advantage with reluctant witnesses such as Lewinsky. Reporters and editors worked out these calls based on their experiences, news judgment and gut instinct.

• News organizations, especially those from small and medium-size markets, had to wade through the digital datastream pouring through the newsroom from outside channels each day to decide what to publish. The difficulty was that even established news providers like the Wall Street Journal and Dallas Morning News were stumbling, while newcomers like cyber-columnist Drudge seemed to be wired to some reliable — if ever-anonymous — sources.

In the Clinton-Lewinsky case, editors had an especially difficult time determining what was fit to print. They were often troubled by the endless leaks and constant parade of unidentified sources, particularly when they had to rely on the judgments of other news organizations. A study commissioned by the Committee of Concerned Journalists found that in the early stages of the Starr investigation, 21 percent of the reporting was based on anonymous sources and almost half of those stories were based on one source only.

Dan Berko, online content editor for the 35,000-circulation Daily Camera of Boulder, Colorado, recalls, “We didn’t have correspondents in Washington, we didn’t have sources in Kenneth Starr’s office, we didn’t know anything firsthand. We were somewhat at the mercy of the big news outfits and the wire services. We trusted them to get it right, and I’m not sure they always got it right. But if we limited our coverage, were we doing a disservice to our readers?”

Large news organizations also wrestled with the sourcing problem. The editors at the New York Times were particularly wary of passing along reports based on unidentified sources. At one point the Times’ Washington bureau had four hearsay sources asserting there was indeed a witness to an intimate encounter between Clinton and Lewinsky. Executive editor Joseph Lelyveld says the Times came close to running a story, but couldn’t nail down the account to their satisfaction. “We got quite a coherent story from one person, and fragments supported by others. Then we got some very stiff denials of key elements from people said to be involved. In the end, it just didn’t seem good enough. It’s easy to slip up and make mistakes. It takes a lot of self-discipline to keep asking the question: ‘How do we know this?’ We’ve all heard the same stuff. We’re trying very hard to anchor what we put in the paper on our own reporting, but it’s a difficult standard. We’re all swimming in the same mucky sea.”

Eric Owles, national producer for the New York Times on the Web, says it would have been easy to publish the allegations by attributing them to another news source, such as the Dallas paper. But he says the paper’s web editors decided early on not to report any new development unless they had independently confirmed the report with the paper’s Washington bureau. “While the Starr investigation put new media in the spotlight, we didn’t want the pressure of 24-hour news to be used as an excuse to rush stories into print on the basis of unverified, unnamed sources,” Owles says.

Other media did the same. A wire editor at CNN was responsible for reconciling conflicting information on the scandal that came in from outside news providers. The Los Angeles Times sought to stick to its two-source rule and used a copy editor to source stories before they appeared in the paper or on the Web site. As a result, some stories, such as the initial reports about the famous stained blue dress, did not appear.

In a few cases, print and online publications ran stories pointing out the dubious nature of some of the news reports that were widely circulating. Nine days after news of the scandal broke, the Wall Street Journal ran down the major rumors in the case, including the eyewitness account by a Secret Service agent, the existence of Lewinsky’s dress with purported semen stains containing the president’s DNA, reports of phone sex, and whether Clinton was considering resignation. “Some of the allegations floating around the scandal have proved inaccurate, or simply can’t yet be substantiated, despite some media reporting that at least suggests otherwise,” the story stated.

Two days later, The New York Times ran a lengthier piece, detailing each of the reported allegations made against the president, its provenance (usually an anonymous source), the media outlet that broke the report, and whether the claim could be documented. The analysis by Jane Fritsch concluded: “For the most part, the evidence is the sort of second- and third-based hearsay that would be inadmissible in American courts. … Perhaps inevitably, allegations that first appear in qualified form in one news report have emerged in others as facts. But there are actually precious few uncontested facts in circulation.”

Those reality checks, however, were the exception rather than the rule. Marvin Kalb, director of the Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, says he was “ashamed” by the media’s hyperventilating early coverage. “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.”

Sandy Grady, Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, dubbed the early coverage “Monica Meltdown Week.” He wrote: “This was the worst performance by the American press my eyes and ears witnessed since I began covering Washington in 1974. I’ve never seen so many stories flying through the ether disconnected from sources, stories flatly wrong, overdramatized hype, hypothesis disguised as fact and toxic stuff circulating through the Internet, cable and mainline press.”

To be sure, the Lewinsky matter did not usher in a sea change in journalistic standards overnight, but it did accelerate trends that had evolved since the late 1970s, particularly the media’s reliance on unnamed sources, the rise of the argument culture and increase in strident opinion at the expense of reason, and the increased use of reporters’ opinions and speculation in place of factual reporting.

In their book “Warp Speed: America in the Age of Mixed Media,” authors Tom Rosentiel and Bill Kovach draw distinctions between a “journalism of assertion” and a “journalism of verification.” The former, Rosentiel says, involves “taking anything you hear and putting it out there, whether it’s rumor, an allegation or something you made up.” Political web sites and radio and TV talk shows have all added to the brew.

Journalism that verifies information, by contrast, puts rumors and allegations under a microscope to determine their veracity. Ferreting out the truth is hard work. Investigative reporting was needed in the Lewinsky saga, he says, to discover not only what happened, but what didn’t happen. If journalism is reduced to merely repeating charges that are buzzing around the ether, then a process of investigation and accountability that is essential to our democracy will become discredited.

Questions for students:

Should news organizations report accusations from anonymous sources because the reports are already “out there”? What responsibility do news organizations have to verify news reports before passing them on?

What standards or procedures should news organizations apply to this new stream of information and news? Are the past experiences of radio and television any guide?

Are news organizations giving enough thought to the competitive, economic pressures that push them into premature, erroneous reports?

Do they need to try to establish a code of ethics and standards?

How should the online medium’s strengths have been used to illuminate the crisis?

NEXT: The Starr Report

In this report

Introduction: Internet journalism and the Starr investigation

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