The Real Clinton Scandal Is the Conduct of the Press

February 02, 1992|By ARNOLD R. ISAACS | ARNOLD R. ISAACS,Arnold R. Isaacs, now a free-lance writer, was formerly a reporter and editor for The Sun.

There is a Bill Clinton scandal, all right. The scandal is the conduct of the press. The handling of the Clinton story was a disgrace. It was hypocritical, damaging, and should be an embarrassment to everyone in American journalism.

"The tabloids made us do it," cried the Big Media character cops. Hogwash. For months before the Star's paid-for expose, major newsmagazines and newspapers -- including the one you are now reading -- missed few opportunities to tell their readers about "rumors" of Mr. Clinton's extramarital activities.

Those references -- never amplified, never sourced, printed anew virtually every time Mr. Clinton's candidacy was examined -- raised the issue of his sex life to the threshold of public attention.

Indeed, a case could be made that the "respectable" media lighted the way for the tabloids, not the other way around. It seems quite possible that without the buildup by this newspaper and others, the Star might not have decided to take checkbook (( in hand and go on the hunt for a witness ready (for a fee) to tell all.

Nor should it be overlooked that the despised Star ("The Bright and Slimy Star," a Washington Post headline writer called it) had a source for its story, named her and offered specific -- if not necessarily reliable -- who-what-when-where details. I do not recall The Sun or the Post or Newsweek or other presumably responsible publications doing any of those things when they reported the Clinton "rumors."

The Star's bought-and-paid-for story may not be good journalism. But it comes closer than the vague and unanswerable rumor-mongering in the mainstream media.

If paying a source is sleazy, reporting damaging rumors with no detail and no attribution is sleazier. Badgering the subject for a response and then using his denial as a pretext for publishing a completely unverified story is sleazier still. And keeping the story going, not with any new information but simply by hounding the subject for still more denials, is shameful.

Moreover, as Amy Schwartz, a Post writer, pointed out a couple of days ago, the questions that kept the story alive were really not susceptible to Mr. Clinton's answers, because the questions were the answers: "Do you feel you've put this behind you?" actually means, "Do you think we'll stop asking you this question?" She might have added that political reporters' analyses have the same self-referential character: "Can Clinton survive?" means "Are we going to keep this story going until we've destroyed him?"

It's probably too much to hope for, but it would be nice to think that in the aftermath of the Clinton story (if this is the aftermath), editors will remember that there's another way to handle unconfirmed and denied stories: don't print them.

It would also be nice if there were some re-examination of the "character issue," which has become a catchall justification for abolishing privacy altogether.

The vivisection of Mr. Clinton (and others unlucky enough to fall into similar circumstances) is appropriate, it's claimed, because the voters have a right to information bearing on his character. Again, hogwash. Reporters, who are paid to be careful about facts and about distinguishing the knowable from the unknowable, should be particularly conscious that motivation and character are elusive matters -- nowhere more so than in contexts as complex as marriage or sexual relationships.

Private conduct can be relevant to public life, of course. Compulsive, predatory sexual activity tells us something about a man. So does using power or position to force oneself on someone. Obviously, no rapist or child molester deserves high political office.

Those patterns of behavior, if substantiated, surely deserve to be reported. But the range of sexual conduct, inside or outside marriage, is a lot wider than that, and encompasses many acts that are no one else's business to know, or judge. Grown-ups know, or should, that a simple yes-or-no answer on marital fidelity is no basis for drawing conclusions about character. I doubt that many of the vivisectionists would welcome having their own character judged on that basis.

Moreover, in Mr. Clinton's case, here's a man with a fairly long public record that could, if anyone looked, tell us a good deal about his character. Yet somehow I do not remember any special post-Super Bowl interviews or extended Nightline shows exploring whether he keeps his word; whether his public positions have seemed expedient or principled; whether he has been honest in accounting for and taking responsibility for his actions.

A couple of suggestions come to mind, one specific, one general.

The specific suggestion is that reporters stop asking the open-ended adultery question. If there's a specific question ("Did you sleep with X?") and there is some reason why the answer is relevant to public concerns, ask it. But "Have you ever cheated on your wife?" should be put to rest, for good.

Any lingering doubts on this point should have been dispelled by the unctuous gentleman from CBS (talk about your bright and slimy stars!) who conducted the apres-sport interview with Bill and Hillary Clinton. His repeated demands for confession demeaned the Clintons, himself, his profession and the political process. If that spectacle hasn't convinced his colleagues not to go down that road again, we are beyond saving.

The general suggestion is that the press remember that its task is to unearth and report facts. The Clinton rumors, never verified despite considerable efforts by Arkansas and national reporters to do so, should never have been printed in the first place. The journalists and editors who handled this story were deeply unfair to Mr. Clinton. More importantly, they were also unfair to the rest of us who need, and deserve, fair, intelligent reporting of the choices and candidates before us.

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