Media puts itself on the spot Self-analysis: Journalists decide they mostly covered the Lewinsky affair the way they should. But they also admit they were sometimes undone in the spin cycle.

October 21, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In the end, the initial news report about Monica Lewinsky's evidence-laced blue dress turned out to be right. The reports about the importance of the "talking points" to the independent counsel's case turned out to be wrong.

But, in general, despite criticism by both the White House and pro-prosecution forces, the media acted responsibly and cautiously in reporting on the Lewinsky scandal, according to a study by a consortium of news professionals and academics released yesterday.

"The research paints a picture of a news media culture that, in breaking stories, usually relied on legitimate sources and often was careful about the facts in the initial account," said Bill Kovach, chairman of the year- old Committee of Concerned Journalists that conducted the study of press coverage of the Lewinsky scandal.

At the same time, Kovach, curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, said it was a "dangerous oversimplification to say the press has been vindicated."

He noted that, even in the most careful news accounts, reporters sometimes too easily accepted the interpretations of their sources and failed to maintain adequate skepticism, leading to what he called a "dizzying battle of spin against spin."

In a panel discussion of the report yesterday, Kovach also cited the lack of reporting, especially early in Kenneth W. Starr's investigation into President Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky, on the methods employed by the independent counsel -- a traditional watchdog function of journalists.

The report also said the mainstream press -- generally through the talk-show arena -- blurred the line between fact and speculation and encouraged the circulation of unsubstantiated rumors by relying on the assessments of a new class of "activist pundits" who were treated as authorities.

In examining the accuracy and fairness of the media, the study tracked the development of six threads of the Lewinsky case as they were reported by major media outlets, both print and TV.

The report found that:

ABC was accurate in its first reporting about the semen-stained blue dress, though other news organizations followed with inaccurate reports.

Many major news outlets reported a supposition about the "talking points" that Lewinsky gave to Linda R. Tripp that was never proved -- that the memo had been written by agents of the president and thus amounted to obstruction of justice or witness tampering.

The earliest reports often overstated the role of Clinton's confidant Vernon E. Jordan Jr. in encouraging Lewinsky to lie about her affair with Clinton, compared with the Starr report's conclusion on that point.

The initial New York Times account of Betty Currie's testimony that Clinton "led her through an account of his relationship" with Lewinsky was accurate, though some other news organizations inflated the report in subsequent reports.

The press may have been "used" by the prosecutor when it reported that third-party witnesses had observed Clinton and Lewinsky in intimate acts.

Discussions of a "second intern" by pundits spawned some coverage of the rumor, though no evidence of another woman emerged in Starr's report.

The investigation of the president "was a story about breathless recklessness in high places and all that has come from that," said Jim Doyle, a veteran journalist and former special assistant to the Watergate special prosecutors who supervised the study. "But there has been a sense that the yardstick about recklessness applies here to a couple of other institutions -- the press and the prosecutor.

"My fear is that in the long run, as this story unwinds, it could undermine all three of those institutions."

Doyle was highly critical of Starr's contacts with the press, saying the independent counsel's discussions with reporters would have been unimaginable to the Watergate prosecutors who took the grand jury secrecy laws "extremely seriously." And he faulted the press for insufficient coverage of Starr's questionable tactics.

Doyle also contrasted some of the overheated or erroneous coverage of the Lewinsky affair with the cautious and restrained approach editors took during the Watergate scandal.

"The technology wasn't there, and that's a bad thing," Doyle said of the Watergate coverage. "But the outlets, the MSNBC and CNBC and all the rest of the all-cable, all-Monica, all-the-time wasn't there, and boy, that was a good thing."

Ben Bradlee, the famed Washington Post editor who was one of hTC the journalists on the panel yesterday, acknowledged that the competition from the various news outlets today "is driving us in a way that is potentially enormously dangerous."

Bradlee, now a Post vice president at-large, pointed to other elements that are making reporting and editing much harder for journalists today, asserting that, for one thing, sources lie to reporters now more than they did before.

"The word 'spinning' I really hate," Bradlee said, "because it's a nice, uptown way of saying 'lying.' "

Pub Date: 10/21/98

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