Searching for Facts in a Sea of Speculation
Two journalists sift through the evidence of scandal coverage.
As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel survey this chaotic scene, they conclude in “Warp Speed” that the news business is in a crisis that threatens its ability to influence in any constructive way the course of public affairs and at the same time is alienating the various publics the media rely on for survival. “Excess capacity” in the “multi-media” industry is, in their view, a significant factor in its degradation. There are now thousands upon thousands of “media” entities (and potentially millions of Internet Drudges) competing for the attention of finite audiences and for shares of a finite pot of advertising dollars. “Between 7 a.m. and midnight on a typical weekday in Washington…there are now 146 hours of news, information and talk available to viewers on the local cable television system,” the authors write. “A kind of Parkinson’s Law comes into play here: The news expands to fill the time allotted—even if there isn’t really enough news.”
We saw this vividly in the endless, day-and-night news programs, talk shows and other bloviations on the O.J. Simpson case. We saw it again in the absurdly over-covered and over-talked story of Princess Diana’s life and death. And we saw and heard it ad nauseum in the tawdry tale of President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, a tale that inspired this book.
As principals in the ad hoc Committee of Concerned Journalists (on whose advisory committee I and other mostly passive news people sit), Kovach and Rosenstiel commissioned a study to find out “what the press had reported in the first week of the story, what the sourcing was, and how much was actual reporting versus commentary and opinion.” Two follow-up studies were done along the same lines, all of them underwritten by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which is also the financial sponsor for the Committee and for numerous other programs of journalistic uplift.
From these studies, Kovach and Rosenstiel discovered the “extraordinary degree…reporting and opinion and speculation were now intermingled in mainstream journalism. About 40 percent of the industry output on the Clinton-Lewinsky affair was not factual reporting at all…but was instead journalists offering their own analysis, opinion, speculation or judgments—essentially, commentary and punditry.” As an example they cite Evan Thomas, the Newsweek Washington Bureau Chief who was a guest on the Charlie Rose talk show the day the story broke. “I think Clinton likes to tempt fate. He loves danger. I mean, how stupid could he possibly be? You know, he gets elected. He beats the rap. He’s in the White House, assuming that this is true, how crazy it is to take up with a 22-year-old girl who’s sure to have girlfriends, who’s sure to blab about it. It tells you Clinton likes being on the edge. He likes danger. He’s been slipping out of jams all his life, and he must get some kind of perverse thrill from it.”
That is an interesting plunge into Clinton’s psyche but it isn’t “truth” or “fact” or “evidence.” It certainly isn’t “news” by any reasonable definition of the term. But much of the early “news” coverage of the Lewinsky-Clinton affair was of this nature.
That same day, Tim Russert of NBC informed his audience, “One of [Clinton’s] best friends told me today, ‘If this is true he has to get out of town.’ Whether it will come to that, I don’t know, and I don’t think it’s fair to play the speculation game. But I do not underestimate anything happening at this point. The next 48 to 72 hours are crucial.” A few days later Sam Donaldson of ABC News declared, “If [Clinton is] not telling the truth, I think his presidency is numbered in days. This isn’t going to drag out…. If he’s not telling the truth, the evidence shows [he] will resign, perhaps this week.”
“Reporting” and speculation of this nature “permeate[d] coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky story,” Kovach and Rosenstiel write. It revealed “the degree to which the supposed information revolution is not actually about gathering information but instead about commenting on information that others have gathered.”
This form of parasitism—feeding off the work of others—is one of the cornerstones of modern journalism. The vast majority of “mixed media” entities do not dispatch correspondents around the nation or the world to report on wars, disasters or presidential scandals. They rely on a few commercial news services to perform those tasks—the Associated Press, The New York Times, Gannett, Scripps Howard, Knight-Ridder, The Washington Post and so on. Or they may simply plagiarize what they learn from other media—an NBC “exclusive,” election night voting returns or the progress and outcome of a sporting event. But if the supplier gets the story wrong, clients all over the world will get it wrong; these media outposts have no way to check the reliability of information pouring in from around the globe.
Ten days after the first Clinton- Lewinsky reports I wrote in a column that I very much doubted that any media organization, if hauled into court at that time, could prove the story we were reporting. So far as we knew, no journalist on the story had ever met, talked or corresponded with Monica Lewinsky or had ever discussed with the President his alleged relationship with the woman. We knew virtually nothing about her personal history, reliability or her veracity. With two or three exceptions, no journalist had heard any part of the Tripp-Lewinsky tapes—the key evidence in possession of the Special Counsel. The journalistic mob in Washington had to take it on faith that the tapes were authentic or even existed. It was working blind most of the time, and several times erroneous accounts of the White House romance appeared: a report, for example, that the lovers were seen in flagrante delicto by a presidential steward.
To limit somewhat the room for error in cases of this kind, Kovach and Rosenstiel call for a more responsible use and at least an ideological or partisan identification of “sources,” anonymous sources in particular. In the early days of the scandal, their studies revealed, 40 percent of all reporting was based on information from a single anonymous source and “a large percentage of the reportage had no sourcing” at all. Only one percent was based on two or more named sources.
This was a flimsy foundation, in their view, for publishing allegations as serious as those in the Clinton case. “Six assertions or allegations dominated the coverage. The most common was that Clinton was in big trouble. The second was that Clinton was denying there was any sexual relationship. The third was that Lewinsky had alleged sex and perjury. The fourth was that Lewinsky was negotiating immunity. The fifth was that Clinton was dissembling. The sixth was that impeachment was a possibility. “Interestingly, three of [these] assertions…were essentially subjective or interpretive: that this spelled big trouble, that Clinton was not telling the truth, and that impeachment was a possibility.”
I’m not at all sure this criticism, including my own at the time, is entirely fair. From the beginning, the behavior of the President, his lawyers and the White House in responding—or not responding—to these allegations was strange, to say the least. They contributed mightily to much of the misinformation that found its way into the media. Furthermore, the Attorney General of the United States and the special federal court supervising independent counsels took the allegations seriously enough to authorize Kenneth Starr to proceed. In that context, speculation about the President’s veracity and the troubles he might be facing was not unreasonable. How could the press not explain that to the American people?
Other speculations about the meaning of it all were another matter. “At times we heard that the scandal variously would be the end for Clinton, a boon for the GOP, a repudiation of the Christian Right, a triumph for Newt Gingrich. We heard that impeachment would be short-circuited, that a Senate trial would be avoided and that live witnesses were a certainty,” “Warp Speed’s” authors recall. “Perhaps more important than the accuracy or inaccuracy of any given prediction is the awkwardness of the press turning public affairs into a kind of Vegas-style game of prediction.”
Kovach and Rosenstiel toy with a philosophical proposition that only the most high-minded among us would entertain: Even though you whole-heartedly believe a story is true, you should not print it if it is “thinly sourced,” meaning, I assume, a single source. Would those in agreement with that proposition have applied it in the case of Watergate and the source known as “Deep Throat”? Reports about a blue dress stained with Clinton’s semen surfaced long before they were ultimately verified by DNA tests. “Was the reporting of the blue dress vindicated because it turned out to be accurate? Some [unnamed] journalists have argued no. It is not good enough that stories turn out to be correct, they argue. ABC [first to air the report] was lucky, they contend, not good. The ends—whether a story is true—do not justify the means—a thin level of sourcing. That judgment may be too harsh. If ABC had good reason to believe its lone source—and it contends it did—that may be the result of having reliable sources, not luck…. Accuracy is certainly the first goal of journalism, but it is not the only one. Credibility and clarity are important as well.”
This small book raises many more ethical and practical issues confronting the press today. The authors worry that we are on a slippery slope that could lead to disaster in terms of credibility and our survival as a relevant institution in a political democracy. Some of their prescriptions for reform may seem impractical in the competitive world in which we live: the proposal, for example, that news organizations should have written policies governing the relevance of “sexual behavior of public officials,” the number of sources needed to go with a story, and what reporters should or should not be allowed to say on talk shows. But they deserve conscientious consideration and could usefully serve as an agenda for a long and thoughtful conversation among the gatekeepers of the news.
Richard Harwood, a 1956 Nieman Fellow, retired in 1988 as Deputy Managing Editor of The Washington Post and since then has written an editorial column on the media for The Post and its clients. He began work in journalism at The Tennessean in 1947 and was succeeded in his job as a political writer by Bill Kovach.
During the past half-century or so, we have created in this country an immense “mixed media” industry in which, as “Warp Speed: America in the Age of Mixed Media” reminds us, “the cultures of entertainment, infotainment, argument, analyses, tabloid and mainstream press not only work side by side but intermingle and merge.” Its products are spewed out around the clock and around the world, 365 days a year by a labor force of remarkable diversity: Scholars, writers and editors of great distinction work alongside “spin doctors and dissemblers,” “pseudo-experts,” demagogues, high school dropouts, unemployed politicians and ex-beauty queens. It is not an unreasonable stretch to say that today, virtually anyone can be a “journalist,” “commentator,” “news reader,” ideological provocateur or talk show impresario. There are no “professional” standards for entry into this “mixed media” world. There are no “professional” standards governing the quality or marketability of the industry’s output. And with the birth of the Internet the very concept of standards is an oxymoron. Gossip, rumor and fact, truth and falsehood (with rare exceptions) have equal standing under the law and, in practice, universally coexist in the unending “news” stream saturating the environment.