The Starr report

Continued | Back to The sourcing problem

On September 9, 1998, the House of Representatives received special prosecutor Starr’s report. The report — formally titled Referral From Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr in Conformity With the Requirements of Title 28, United States Code, Section 595(c) — was a document without precedence in U.S. history. It contained graphic accounts of Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky and alleged that the president had committed perjury, obstructed justice, tampered with witnesses and abused his constitutional powers. The report laid the foundation for Clinton’s impeachment by the House along party lines in December 1998; he was acquitted in his Senate trial two months later. Two days later, the House voted to release the report — on the Internet — and for one improbable afternoon and evening, the Net had the spotlight all to itself.

In the online melee that ensued, journalists scrambled to get a copy — but so did millions of ordinary Americans. Congress had made no provisions to handle the crush of traffic at the three official government Web sites posting the report. Its servers were hopelessly jammed. To compound the problem, legislative techies had posted the 445-page report in a clunky format that required users to download the entire document without being able to peek at its contents.

Then, at 2:45 p.m., CNN.com became the first news site to post the report, beating the competition by 15 minutes because of “good connections inside the Capitol,” says Scott Woelfel, general manager and editor in chief of CNN Interactive. By midafternoon, the free-for-all was in full swing. CNN.com’s front page was getting 300,000 hits per minute. MSNBC reported 1.94 million visitors that day, a record. Across the entire Web, traffic was up 175 percent over the previous day. All told, 20 million Americans read parts of the report online within 48 hours of its release.

The release of the Starr report was widely seen as the single most important event in the history of the Internet up to that point. “The real milestone of the Starr report,” Woelfel observes, “was that if you weren’t on the Net, you felt like you were missing part of the story.”

Journalists new to the Internet are sometimes surprised by how much nuts-and-bolts technical tinkering goes on in new media newsrooms, and this was never more true than on this day. At the Los Angeles Times, the entertainment staff joined the entire new media department in cutting and pasting text documents into smaller file sizes to enable users to scan through Webfriendly HTML pages. CNN placed the report on an internal server so TV correspondents could access it immediately while sitting at computer terminals. And at the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colorado, the 23-year-old Berko went to heroic lengths — working 27 straight hours — to download the report from an FTP server, upload it to the local site and then send it on to Scripps-Howard’s corporate site.

Many came to the same conclusion as an editor at the Providence Journal: “It’s clear to us that many readers want to get their hands on the raw data as opposed to information that has been filtered through editors and reporters. These are people who want to make their own judgment, and giving them the actual report is the only way to do that.”

Certainly, the Starr report’s availability on the Internet changed the dynamic of the deliberations inside newsrooms. Some decided to pass on the report because of its wide availability elsewhere. Others saw posting the full report on the news publication’s Web site as a civic responsibility. The fact that users had to proactively access the report on the web, rather than having it enter their living rooms through the airwaves or a family newspaper, was a decisive factor for them.

A nationwide survey of daily newspaper editors by Presstime magazine three days after the report’s release found that:

• 17 percent published the full report in print;

• 70 percent ran excerpts;

• 64 percent ran the full text online, and these sites saw an average 80 percent increase in traffic.

Once news organizations obtained the report, they faced a number of decisions:

• How to handle the explicit language and descriptions of lascivious conduct described in the report.

• Whether to print excerpts or the full text of the report.

• Whether to publish it online as it was available on the Internet.

• Should the report’s contents be filtered by the traditional news role of “gatekeepers”?

The report takes shape on the Web

Once online news publications had a copy of the report in hand and crafted an appropriate warning about its explicit content, they got down to the business of making it Web-friendly. “It’s not enough to just put up a 445-page document and say, ‘Here it is, everyone,’ ” says CNN’s Woelfel. “Our online staff had to figure out how to tame this multi-tentacled creature.”

While dozens of non-news sites, ranging from search engines like Lycos to financial services sites like Motley Fool, also made the report available online, some news sites provided a full complement of Web tools in dissecting the report.

At the Boulder Daily Camera web site, the Starr report was wrapped into the site’s “Clinton in Crisis” package, including an archive of past stories relating to the scandal and a biographical cast of characters that sketched out the major players and their role in the affair. The Dallas Morning News’ web site added the Starr report to its ongoing scandal package. Online newspapers often make too little use of their rich database, but dallasnews.com gave the report proper context by assembling in one place the scores of staff-written stories, press conference transcripts, biographical sketches, background profiles, a slide show that contained photographs of all the key players, video footage, reader forums, e-mail addresses of members of Congress and links to other sites. “I don’t know of anything written or said or photographed about this event that was not up on our site,” says online editor Cranfill.

At latimes.com, the release of the Starr report gave editors an opportunity to engage in “personal storytelling,” as new media director Gentry likes to call it. “The personal nature of the Web allows you to move through information at your own pace, access the material at multiple entry points, and seek out the elements you’re most interested in. The Web is a non-linear experience, and no two people move through the Web the same way.”

Latimes.com interwove the Starr report with the deep content of its “Clinton Under Fire” package: an interactive timeline of the major events, including video of the major participants; an archive of staff-written articles, columns and op-ed commentaries on the Clinton-Lewinsky matter; videotaped testimony and transcripts of testimony dating back to the Whitewater affair; e-mail addresses of members of Congress (which thousands of readers made use of); and lively discussion forums, which were now closely monitored because of a death threat made against the president on the “Clinton Under Fire” bulletin board on February 27, 1998. (The FBI and Secret Service were alerted and tracked down the culprit.) On the day of the report’s release, the paper broke with tradition when its Washington bureau filed midday off-cycle news stories to the Web site. The online reports included a reporter’s notebook, a Q&A on the Starr report, and another first for the site: several audio filings throughout the day in which an online editor interviewed various Times political reporters.

At CNN.com, a team of four staff members worked non-stop over three days to index the report and cross-reference the document with links from participants’ names to thumbnail sketches. Reporters from CNN and Time magazine’s joint AllPolitics team filed breaking news stories with congressional, White House and public reaction. Links were added from both the report and supporting materials to the site’s “Investigating the President” package, including photos of key players; video of Clinton’s admission of an affair; transcripts of interviews, press conferences and remarks by congressional leaders; lively discussion forum postings; polls; editorial cartoons, and dozens of online stories, archived by month. A search engine allowed users to browse the Starr report by table of contents, name, date or keyword. The resulting package set the standard for how to treat primary source material on the web.

The language issue

The Starr report raised questions about what content is suitable for family newspapers and live broadcasts. Many news organizations resolved this dilemma by heavily editing its contents in print and on air and then making the entire report available on their web sites along with prominent warnings about the report’s graphic content.

Some of the oddest moments in the media’s coverage of the Starr investigation came when broadcast journalists read excerpts of the report live on the air. CBS News correspondent Bob Schieffer reported the president and Lewinsky engaging in “a sex act of a kind,” and he edited himself as he thumbed through the report. CNN correspondent Candy Crawford, reporting live in front of an office computer, warned viewers that the report was explicit and then read excerpts off the Internet that described various sex acts.

“When you had broadcast journalists sitting down at a computer screen and showing the viewer passages from the report on the Web, it demonstrated vividly how completely reliant television journalists were on the Web for this story,” says James Naughton, president of the Poynter Institute, a media think tank.

Naughton is skeptical that most of the newspapers which 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? I think most papers wanted to publish it not because it was a newsworthy or historic document but because of its salacious contents.”

Questions for discussion:

If you were editor of a large news site, would you have run the report?

Would you have edited out some of the raw language?

NEXT: Speed vs. context and accuracy

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

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