WASHINGTON -- Ever since the shocking death of White House deputy counsel Vincent Foster, the news media have been torn between two impulses -- exploring what happened, and showing proper sensitivity to what was a genuine personal tragedy.
Not surprisingly, Clinton White House insiders and many Americans at large have been appalled at the spectacle of television and the press probing into the open wounds of Clintonites crushed by the event. It has seemed to many a heartless performance, and in some of the more excessive cases it has been.
Foster's own indictment of Washington as a place where "ruining people is considered sport" casts what goes on here in the worst light, and is not altogether unfounded. Yet there has been more than curiosity or titillation involved for reporters in a town where skullduggery by individuals in politics over the last three decades has bred skepticism, and cynicism as well.
Until last November, voters in every presidential election since 1960 expressed their mistrust of Washington by increasing apathy. And in 1992, their lack of confidence was seen in the 19 percent won by a "non-politician," Ross Perot.
There was a time, believe it or not, when citizens thought Washington officials could be trusted to tell the truth. The turning point is generally identified as the Watergate scandal of 1972-74 when President Richard Nixon declared that "I am not a crook" but was found to have behaved like one and to have covered up the ample evidence.
But a decade before that dismal episode, there was the deception of President Lyndon Johnson in engineering the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution that gave him a free hand to escalate U.S. involvement in Vietnam. A minor encounter with North Vietnamese forces in the gulf was distorted -- some say actually invented -- to serve Johnson's purpose.
Since Watergate, the illegal funding of the Nicaragua contras and the diversion to them of profits of illegal arms sales to Iran -- the Iran-contra affair -- has been only the most sensational of high-level government lies driving press and public to new levels of cynicism.
The real and alleged philanderings of candidates, and such congressional scandals as the savings-and-loan debacle and the BCCI fiasco, all have added to public disgust -- and to the need for vigilance and probing by the Fourth Estate.
The blurring of responsible journalistic sleuthing by the mainstream press with the gossip-mongering of supermarket tabloids -- and in the Clinton womanizing allegations the mainstream press following the lead of the gossip tabloids -- has further undermined public confidence and has generated considerable soul-searching by the mainstream media.
At the same time, Foster's note discovered after his death is likely to keep the matter afloat with its references to "plotting" within the White House to discredit first lady Hillary Clinton over costs of redecorating the executive mansion, and to a Republican coverup of "a prior investigation." Wherever there are charges involving official conduct, there will be reporters seeking the truth, as it should be.
Other press behavior has been clearly out of bounds, such as the New York Times "reporting" with no evidence that the Washington Times was working on a presumably derogatory story on Foster, a report the latter newspaper categorically denied.
Then there was an article in the New Yorker magazine reporting that "rumors whipped through the city" and repeating them -- "perhaps" that the Washington Times was preparing a story saying Foster's suicide was intended to cover up some personal secret (two specific speculations were mentioned), again without any evidence. Some writers seem to think that as long as something appears somewhere in print, it's perfectly legitimate to repeat it elsewhere, without any responsibility for spreading an unproved rumor.
Such behavior is fodder, legitimately, for those who would discredit all press inquiry. That is all the more reason that the news media must tread carefully, and responsibly, in this area. Not only deference to the memory of Vincent Foster and to the sensitivities of his family, but also protection of the reputation and credibility of the press, require it.