Faced with Bush rumor, media debate when a story is worth running

August 12, 1992|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Staff Writer

Once again in the 1992 presidential campaign, the press confronts the question of when a rumor becomes a story.

"Reports about this woman have been around for some time," Reese Cleghorn, dean of the University of Maryland's College of Journalism, said of allegations that President Bush had had an affair with a longtime aide.

When those allegations made it to the printed page of a book, then to the front page of the New York Post, it was enough for Mary Tillotson of Cable News Network. She asked the president about the alleged affair at a news conference yesterday morning.

Later in the day, Stone Phillips of NBC asked a similar question during an Oval Office interview for broadcast on a network news program lastnight. Suddenly, the rumors were all over the wires and headed for the country's major media.

"From what I understand, many of the top news organizations in the country have checked these stories out and have decided that they were not proven to their satisfaction, so they have not run them," Mr. Cleghorn said.

"My question is why it then becomes a story worth running -- because the allegations are printed in a book? Does that mean any rumor printed in a book is a story? Now, the New York Post is a cut above the supermarket tabloids, but did it do anything to try to confirm the reports?"

It was, of course, a supermarket tabloid, the Star, that first printed allegations about an affair between Democratic candidate Bill Clinton and Gennifer Flowers early this year. Much of the establishment press followed up on the story, particularly after Ms. Flowers held a news conference. The allegations seriously damaged the Clinton campaign.

"What happens is that some slug or another fires a bullet in the air -- in this case it was the woman who wrote this book, in Clinton's case it was the Star -- and the rest of the herd stampedes," Richard Ben Cramer, author of the book "What It Takes," said of the media's behavior.

"It's not like Bush's life has not been reported on," said Mr. Cramer, a former Sun reporter whose book chronicles the 1988 campaign. "If it so happens that he has fallen into bed with someone other than his wife during his 68 years of life, that doesn't take away from the fact that he is a 100 percent dedicated family man who has held some of the most responsible jobs this country can ask a person to do. But all of that gets lost in the stampede."

Richard Vatz, professor of rhetoric at Towson State University, said: "You can almost see them all sitting around talking about who would be the one to stand up and confront a sitting president with this story. Not that it's very relevant to anything, but it does get the reporter noticed."

However, some said they thought there was a matter of fairness involved. "This story was in the LA Weekly four years ago and more recently in Spy magazine," Mark Crispin Miller, a media critic at Johns Hopkins University, said of the allegations of Mr. Bush's infidelity.

"But Bush has never had to face up to it the way Clinton had to face the Gennifer Flowers story," he said. "I think the press is obliged to pursue the story because of the way it pursued Clinton. To do otherwise would be unfair. Then such stories should be forgotten about."

But Benjamin H. Bagdikian, former dean of the journalism school at the University of California at Berkeley, said that now was the time to end such pursuits:

"I have come to the conclusion, whatever my partisan feelings, that the private lives of people that don't have a definite effect on their public performance should remain their business."

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