'Scandalous story' -- whither truth?

October 07, 2001|By Gene Foreman | By Gene Foreman,Special to the Sun

One Scandalous Story: Clinton, Lewinsky, and Thirteen Days That Tarnished American Journalism, by Marvin Kalb. The Free Press. 306 pages. $26.

Three years ago, the journalists who covered the Clinton-Lewinsky saga looked back on their seven months of reporting and pronounced that they got it right: Clinton did have an affair; he did lie about it; there really was a semen-stained dress.

So why does this book's subtitle say the case tarnished American journalism? In this marvelously detailed post-mortem, the former CBS and NBC correspondent counts the ways:

Once the story was "out there," the television networks and the major newspapers discarded traditional verification standards in their haste to match what their lesser cousins had already reported. "The wall that used to separate tabloid from traditional news was breached and in some cases shattered," Kalb writes.

Reporters rushed to judgment about Clinton, and their bias showed in their stories. "They operated on a presumption of presidential guilt. ... The reporters didn't need facts to confirm their instincts -- indeed, on occasion, the facts seemed to get in the way."

Reporters blurred the line between reporting and commentary. As they engaged in punditry, they succumbed to "the temptation to perform, to pontificate, to rise above the story."

Reporters' excessive reliance on anonymous sources undermined the public's trust in the media: "Many reporters used flimsy, questionable sources; some struck secret deals with government officials to get the jump on a story. ... Where were these 'juicy' details, allegations, rumors, gossip coming from? Who benefited from these leaks?"

As Kalb sees it, a disaster like Clinton-Lewinsky was bound to happen, a consequence of two fundamental changes in the media. One is in technology -- the explosion of cable television in the late 1970s, followed by the rise of the Internet. The other is in ownership, as media organizations are merged into companies more interested in entertainment than journalism.

Kalb argues that those two changes have "transformed the news business from one tied to public trust to one linked to titillation and profit." As the 24-hour cable channels created an enormous demand for programming, talk shows proved to be a cheap combination of news and entertainment. On the Internet, gossipmongering sites such as Matt Drudge's masqueraded as news sources. These elements of the contemporary media environment had a telling impact on Clinton-Lewinsky coverage.

One Scandalous Story reconstructs the news coverage of the eight days leading up to the breaking of the story, the day it broke (Jan. 18, 1998), and "the next four days, when journalists focused on the scandal as if nothing else in the world mattered." Kalb sees this tight focus as a way to describe the revolutionary change in journalism values that he has tracked in the last three decades. To reveal how journalists got their stories, he has interviewed scores of fellow journalists as well as other principals in the drama. The 18 pages of end notes make fascinating reading while lending authority to his own reporting.

The book is a sobering study in journalism ethics. In Clinton-Lewinsky, journalists influenced the drama even as they reported it. As a documentary of this profound case, One Scandalous Story is important to anyone who cares about journalism and worries about where it is headed.

Gene Foreman is Foster Professor in the College of Communications at Pennsylvania State University, where he teaches news media ethics. Before joining the Penn State faculty in 1998, he worked in newspapers for 41 years, the last 25 as managing editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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