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.