Below the Beltway: The Irresponsible Elites

Washington, D.C., March 5, 1998

A
s I write, the Monica Lewinsky affair—or perhaps episode is a better
term—is far from resolved, but it is possible to draw certain conclusions about
the role of the press. The most important is that the barrier separating the
elite media from the print and television tabloids—the Washington Post
from the New York Post or Meet the Press from Hard Copy—has
continued to crumble. There used to be a distinction between the kinds of
stories about the president of the United States that various media would choose
to run—no longer. Nor is there any longer a dramatic distinction between the
kinds of proof different media outlets require before a story is printed or
aired.

The barrier was first clearly breached when the Miami Herald and
Washington Post decided in May 1987 to investigate whether Democratic
presidential candidate Gary Hart was committing adultery. The stories the
Herald published and the Post threatened to publish (about another
Hart mistress) didn't lack adequate sources and proof; the question was what
justified the newspapers' peering through keyholes into bedrooms. From there, it
was only a short distance to the reports in February 1992 of candidate Bill
Clinton's relationship with Gennifer Flowers, which spread from Rupert Murdoch's
Star to the network news shows to the Washington Post and
Time. The Monica Lewinsky episode represents, however, an entirely new
hole in the wall.

The press certainly had to cover it, because the Justice Department-appointed
independent counsel was investigating whether the President had either committed
perjury in denying that he had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky or had
attempted to convince her to perjure herself. The question was how to cover the
story. There are ample grounds for arguing that however the tabloid press or the
internet rumor sites behaved, the elite media should have proceeded very
cautiously and discreetly with a view toward protecting not only this president,
but his office. Instead, it pursued this scandal with reckless abandon.

There were two kinds of reasons to proceed cautiously in this case, the first
having to do with the nature of the presidency, and the second with the peculiar
political circumstances of the Lewinsky scandal. The American presidency
combines the roles of head of state and prime minister. As head of state, the
president's private life and person is the subject of intense public curiosity
in the U.S. and abroad. As symbol of the nation's highest aspiration, he is
supposed to appear above reproach. Some presidents have fit the image without
subterfuge, but most have not, nor could have; the strain of public composure
required of a high official has seemed to invite private license. (Theodore
White is supposed to have said that of all the presidential candidates he
covered, only two didn't engage in extramarital affairs.) To fulfill this role
of head of state, presidents have needed the cooperation of the Washington
press—which has extended from not photographing Roosevelt in his wheelchair to
not reporting Kennedy's sexual dalliances. To do otherwise—to cover the
president, for instance, the way the National Enquirer covers a Hollywood
star—would threaten his performance as chief executive, making it more difficult
for him to carry out not only his symbolic duties, but also his substantive
responsibilities. In 1994, for instance, Clinton's attempt to get Congress to
pass comprehensive health insurance reform—an effort supported by the majority
of citizens—was seriously hampered by his having to answer questions about
decade-old land deals that had no direct relevance to his current performance as
president.

The second reason to proceed cautiously in this particular case is related to
this last example. Since the beginning of 1994, Clinton has been under furious
attack from conservative politicians, lobbyists, foundation executives, lawyers,
businessmen, and journalists who have attempted to undermine his ability to
govern—and the Democrats' ability to control the White House—by attempting to
paint him as either a philanderer or a crook. These efforts, spearheaded by the
billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, the American
Spectator
, and the highly partisan Wall Street Journal editorial
page, have become inextricably entangled with Paula Jones's civil lawsuit, which
is being funded by a conservative foundation, and with Kenneth Starr's official
inquiry. (And the same Scaife has provided for Starr a handsomely endowed chair
at Pepperdine University, which he can take when he relinquishes his
prosecutor's role.) It's not necessarily a "conspiracy," as Hillary Clinton
claimed, but it is an intricate web of political intrigue that surrounds what
would seem like a mundane legal case. The press has to be careful that it is not
being used by either unscrupulous political operatives or ambitious prosecutors
to legitimate charges that either are spurious or do not deserve to be aired. It
has not been careful.



Subscribe to The American Prospect



I would cite seven ways in which the press should have but for the most part
did not exercise caution in reporting this story. Some of these would apply to
any story, but some would apply primarily to this one.

1. The press should have rigorously followed normal rules of evidence—using
named sources, when possible, and if unnamed, a minimum of two sources
whose credibility could not be easily impeached.

As is well known, most of the networks and the print media reported the
entirely unsubstantiated rumor about Lewinsky's semen-stained dress, and the
Wall Street Journal claimed that a White House steward told the grand
jury that he saw the President and Lewinsky alone in a study off the Oval
Office. These were not the tawdry exceptions to an otherwise commendable
performance. For instance, on January 29, Jeff Gerth and Stephen Labaton
reported in the New York Times that Clinton had tried to get Lewinsky to
avoid testifying against him. As their source for their dramatic and very
damaging account of Clinton's meeting with Lewinsky, they cited a single
anonymous "associate of Ms. Lewinsky."

According to the Committee of Concerned Journalists, a watchdog group run by
former Los Angeles Times media critic Tom Rosenstiel, the Washington
Post
went far beyond the New York Times in its use of single unnamed
sources. The Washington Post relied on named sources only 16 percent of
the time (compared to 53 percent for the New York Times) and relied on
single anonymous sources in 26 percent of its attributions (compared to 8
percent for the New York Times).

2. When reporting what sources said, the media should have been careful
not to edit out statements that might, if included, have reduced the aura of
scandal by making charges appear less dramatic or convincing.

On February 11, Washington Post writer Susan Schmidt reported that
retired Secret Service officer Lewis Fox had claimed that Lewinsky "spent at
least 40 minutes alone with Clinton while Fox was posted outside the Oval Office
door." But in her story, which created an immediate sensation, Schmidt failed to
mention that Fox had explained the week before to a local newspaper that it
would have been difficult for Clinton and Lewinsky to have had a sexual encounter
in the Oval Office because of its many windows and because an attendant
was usually on duty in a pantry next to the office while a security guard was
posted outside the door. Including these details, however, would have diminished
the story's impact.

3. While the press could not have avoided mentioning the overt sexual
facts of the case, it should have taken care not to sensationalize them nor to
engage in prurience simply to attract readers.

Newsweek, which has become a low-brow version of George,
reported a poll that it conducted asking respondents whether "Clinton should
resign if it's proved he had oral sex with Lewinsky." Time also had fun
with fellatio. It ran one story with a black boxed headline of the word "sex" in
large white letters and a red asterisk next to it. The asterisk referred to
another large black box on the next page with the statement in large white
letters reading, "It was only oral. It was passive. So that does not count."

4. The press should have sought to frame the legal story politically so
that the reader could judge events and charges against the motives of different
people involved.

None of the media seriously attempted to put the legal story in a
political context until after Hillary Clinton had charged that the entire
episode was part of a "right-wing conspiracy." Even then, the press made fun of
or ignored her charges. Newsweek on February 9 printed a silly chart,
accompanied by a commentary in which the elements of the "conspiracy" were
introduced with such phrases as, "Now if you asked the left . . ."

5. The press should have been careful not to fan the hysteria that
surrounded the story by broaching the subject of impeachment or resignation in
an irresponsible manner.

In its first issue after the scandal, the normally staid U.S. News and
World Report
tried to outdo owner Mort Zuckerman's other publication, the
tabloid New York Daily News. The magazine asked on its cover in bold
letters, "Is He Finished?" The day after the scandal hit, the Washington
Post
ran two stories that hyped the scandal. An article by Ruth Marcus was
headlined, "Allegations against Clinton Could Lead to Impeachment," even though
readers of the judicious story learned that the charges against Clinton would be
"particularly difficult to prove." A story by Dan Balz was headlined, "President
Imperiled as Never Before." Balz declared that "the newest allegations of sexual
misconduct and possible obstruction of justice represent the most perilous
charges yet lodged against him, analysts across the political spectrum said
yesterday." To demonstrate this point, Balz cited the opinions of a former White
House aide, the Republican head of the House Judiciary committee, a Democratic
consultant, and Brookings Institution political scientist Stephen Hess. Of these
only Hess could safely be described as an "analyst," and he failed to say
anything about the peril to the President, while consultant Geoff Garin warned
(correctly) that it was too early to draw conclusions.

6. The press should have distinguished its coverage from that of tabloids,
not only by the quality and care of reporting, but also by explicitly
repudiating the irresponsible practices of tabloids and internet rumor sites.

Former congressional staffer Tim Russert, elevated to host of NBC's
Meet the Press, invited internet gossip columnist Matt Drudge to be a
commentator on the scandal on his January 25 show. Last fall, Drudge printed an
entirely unsubstantiated rumor that there were "court records" showing White
House aide Sidney Blumenthal guilty of wife beating. It was a classic case of
libel that should have ended Drudge's career on the spot, but Russert greeted
him as an equal to the New York Times's William Safire and asked him for
information about the Lewinsky scandal, as if Drudge had conducted his own
investigation of the principals. (Russert: "Matt Drudge of the Drudge
Report
, you've been covering this rather aggressively on the Internet.
What's your take?") The next week, Slate editor Michael Kinsley, whose
judgment is not the equal of his wit, defended Drudge in Time, on the
basis that "there ought to be a middle ground between the highest standards and
none at all."

7. The press should not have inserted itself into the story in a way that
would make it even more difficult for a president to perform his regular duties
as head of state and chief executive.

After Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair had made opening
statements on policy toward Iraq on February 6, CNN correspondent Wolf Blitzer
jumped up and, without being called upon, demanded to know what Clinton would
"like to say to Monica Lewinsky." Clinton, of course, didn't answer, so Blitzer
didn't elicit any new information about Clinton and Lewinsky. What he did was
enhance his own reputation as a media heavy and cast a pall over an occasion
meant to address U.S. and British policy toward Iraq.

T
here are multiple reasons why the press behaved so shamelessly. With
the advent of cable and the Internet, networks, news magazines, and many
newspapers have gone to war over markets. At the same time, journalists—once
ink-stained wretches at the call of a tyrannical editor—have become independent
entrepreneurs who can sell their ability to create scandal and buzz to the
highest bidder. There is, however, a missing middle term in this explanation: it
is the abdication by media owners, publishers, top editors, and bureau chiefs of
the leadership role they once played.

There is no question that the CEOs, publishers, and top editors of major
publications and networks have the power to shape the public understanding of
government, politics, and world affairs; the question is whether they exercise
this power responsibly, with their eyes firmly on what they believe are the
nation's interests. In the past, publishers like the Post's Eugene Meyer
and Philip Graham or Time's Henry Luce and bureau chiefs like the New
York Times
's Scotty Reston participated in the deliberations of policy
groups; they talked to and advised high officials; and they conceived their role
as the guardians of those institutions the officials occupied. Sometimes, this
led to publishers' agreeing to suppress information about foreign or domestic
policy that the public needed to know, but other times it led to commendable
caution about creating crises where none need have existed. The Washington
Post
's finest moment, of course, was when publisher Katharine Graham made an
anguished decision that the dimensions of the Watergate scandal warranted the
paper's closest attention even if, as a result, the presidency was imperiled.
Graham understood that Watergate was not about Nixon's swearing or making anti-Semitic
remarks in the Oval Office; it was directly about what he did as the
nation's chief executive.

Most of today's publishers will never face this kind of conflict because they
no longer conceive of themselves as guardians of the republic. The networks are
owned by conglomerates; and most newspaper publishers have become businessmen
and businesswomen who judge the success of their enterprise entirely by the
balance sheet. A case in point is the current leadership of the Washington
Post
and Newsweek. The chairman of the corporation, Donald Graham, is
obsessed with expanding the paper's markets. When a New York Times
reporter asked him this January about the paper's achievements, he talked
entirely about its circulation figures. The reporter Iver Petersen remarked,
"What is missing in this inventory of success are accounts of the articles
themselves." Washington Post editor Leonard Downie insists that he is not
merely above partisanship—a commendable position for an editor—but above taking
positions on serious questions. Downie has transformed objectivity into a
pretext for ignoring a powerful newspaper's national responsibilities.

The triumph of business standards has steadily undermined not only the role
of the elite media, but also that of the journalist. Just as today's publishers
are obsessed with profits and losses, today's reporters and editors have become
fixated on their ability to generate controversy and sensation. The highest
achievement for a print journalist is to be invited to appear on television,
while the highest achievement for a television reporter is to become—like
Blitzer—a part of the drama that he is merely supposed to observe.

Washington's press corps reacted predictably to the outbreak of the Lewinsky
scandal—with unmitigated glee. Few worried that the scandal they were uncovering
could result in a president and a presidency being crippled over what may amount
to a sexual peccadillo. For most, the principal concern was whether Russert or
John Mc Laughlin, or some other arbiter of contemporary morals, would invite
them into a television studio where they could share "their take" on the scandal
with the likes of Matt Drudge. Meanwhile Reston, Joseph Alsop, Walter Lippmann,
and the other ghosts of Washington past—who, whatever their faults, judged their
craft by its contribution to the national good—turn slowly in their
sepulchres.




You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)

Connect
, after login or registration your account will be connected.
Advertisement