January 29, 1998
The media frenzy surrounding President Clinton's alleged affair has many people asking what constitutes responsible reporting in the age of 24 hour news. Following a discussion with a citizens' panel in Denver, Phil Ponce and guests analyze the media's coverage of the White House crisis.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
January 29, 1998
Experts discuss the media's coverage of the White House crisis.
January 28, 1998
Denver citizens discuss President Clinton's State of the Union address.
October 16, 1997
David Gelernter speaks with David Gergen about his book Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber.
June 6, 1997
Is there a revolving door between journalism and politics?
April 7, 1997:
A discussion on the increasing mistrust of the press.
January 16, 1997:
A look at media ethics in the wake of the Food Lion case.
January 25-29, 1996:
A Gergen Dialogue and Authors' Corner forum with James Fallows, author of Breaking the News: How the Media Undermined American Democracy.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of media.
PHIL PONCE: Now for more on the media's role, Frank Sesno is a senior vice president and Washington bureau chief for CNN. Richard Smith is president and editor-in-chief of Newsweek Magazine. Kathleen Hall Jamieson is the Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. And Marvin Kalb is a former chief diplomatic correspondent for CBS and NBC News. He's the director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University. And welcome all. Ms. Jamieson, your reaction to the coverage in the past week.
The media's coverage of the crisis.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON, University of Pennsylvania: The problem with the coverage of this important story has been that too often statements that ought to be very carefully sourced with careful confirmation, have been put forward in an environment that didn't let the audience do what the gentleman in your tape needs to do, which is make a good judgment about whether it wants to believe it or not. For example, there was a leak from the Clinton deposition. We don't know of any reporters actually seeing the deposition. At the beginning of stories reporters talked about it as being a report, reportedly, allegedly, identifying it as a leak, but at the stories progressed, the same stories treat it as a confirmed fact, raising the question had lied originally in 1992. That was inappropriate, given what the reporters actually knew. What they had was a leak. There was the allegation that there was a dress with a stain on it that had DNA evidence. It turns out now that there may not be a dress. The lawyer for Miss Lewinsky has said that that's not true; there is no such dress. There also is the possibility that Newsweek misinterpreted its tapes and has led us to believe there was a gift of a dress from the President when the tapes don't support that. In each of these instances, when the allegation came out, there wasn't a counter piece of information that let people say, oh, wait a minute, I was misled by that. And also there wasn't the kind of journalistic care in the next instance, which was a confirmation that there had been an observation of Clinton in a compromising position with Ms. Lewinsky. There wasn't when that was just confirmed a comparable set of reports that said, wait a minute, that hasn't been confirmed, we don't actually know that. So My biggest concern about the President is that it hasn't clearly distinguished what we do know and we have confirmed from what we have alleged. And we haven't also made clear the distinctions among the reliability of the kinds of sources that we got.
PHIL PONCE: You specifically alluded to Newsweek Magazine. Richard Smith, your reaction.
RICHARD SMITH, Newsweek: Well, I found much of what I heard in the focus group and some of the things Ms. Jamieson mentioned to be right on target. From the beginning we have attempted to be very, very careful about not only making sure that our sourcing is as clear as possible to the reader but also to suggest and to make clear to the readers that many of these sources have motives and political agendas that require editors and readers to add a grain of salt to what they--to what they're reading. From our point of view, the reason that we decided to keep reporting and hold onto the story past the first week's deadline was precisely because we wanted to be sure that there was some supporting evidence for some very dramatic allegations.
PHIL PONCE: Marvin Kalb, your concerns?
Mr. Kalb: "Right now, the whole standards of journalism seem to be very little verification is necessary, practically none."
MARVIN KALB, Harvard University: Well, my concern is first that I think this a very sorry chapter in American journalism, and I'm saddened to say that because I know a lot of the journalists were doing it, and many of them are superb journalists. So the question is: Why do such superb journalists engage in this kind of journalism now? The kind of journalism that we're talking about and Professor Jamieson alluded to--and I agree with her--ends up being about 10 to 20 percent hard, recognizable fact, and the rest of it ends up being gossip and rumor and innuendo. And there was a time during the Watergate affair, for example, when the Washington Post would report a story, and it had to be based on two clear sources. Right now, the whole standards of journalism seem to be very little verification is necessary, practically none. If information is out there, so to speak, it is simply picked up by one news organization after another as if that news organization had, in fact, checked it, but there is very little checking that goes on, with the net result that opinion and hard reporting tend to become intermingled, confusing the public, making it impossible really to find out what is real and what is not. And my final point here is I think there has been in press reporting over the last eight/nine days a presumption of presidential guilt. And it's almost as if the reporters are seeking to find the smoking gun and nail the President, I've got you, and that simply is not responsible reporting. And I think every reporter knows that.
PHIL PONCE: Frank Sesno, do you think there's been a lot of this, I got you factor in the reporting?
FRANK SESNO, CNN: Oh, I think there's been a fair bit of it. I must tell you, though, as I listen to Marvin and to the panel and through this exercise ad nauseam, ourselves, over at CNN, I'm beginning to think of the old Robert Kline routine, the comedian Robert Kline, how do we do it volume, and I think that that has become a real problem here, and I think the American public is sensing that as well. We look at the sources. We're very conscious of how we do it, but there is a certain threshold that is reached by sheer volume. You look at the--Ken Starr coming out of his office, and he's mauled by the cameras and the sound crews and the reporters, and the visual image is yuck, what's going on here, or you look at a Mike McCurry briefing, which we traditionally have not taken live, day after day after day, and he comes out and he prefaces them by saying, I'm not going to give you very much information there. But we take it live because it becomes interesting to us and we think significant how he answers the questions as much as what he answers in his--in the questions or in the responses. So the impression that is left, it's the old sausage analogy again. People are watching sausage being made, and they don't like it. And when we're under so much pressure to be filling this amount of time, we institutionally, as a group, you have a volume problem, and people are left with a bad taste in their mouth with that.
PHIL PONCE: Kathleen Jamieson, does the volume in and of itself send out a message about the--either the nature of the allegations or the nature of--the gravity of the allegations?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I think that what the volume suggests is that the journalistic community is taking this very seriously. And the question is: Is the journalistic community running too fast with too little and reaching conclusions that are premature? I agree with Marvin; there has been the presumption of guilt. And part of the place that you see that is in the polling, which very early in this process asks the American people whether or not they thought the President should resign or be impeached. And the evidence at that point did not justify asking those questions. Indeed, I don't think the evidence at that point--at this point justifies asking those questions. Yet, when you introduce the word "impeachment," the first night of the coverage of the story, the latitude of acceptable responses to it on the part of the American people has suddenly been dramatically altered, as has the whole nature of the circumstance.
FRANK SESNO: But wait a minute. I mean, should we not--if there are people such as George Stephanopoulos, close former aide to the President, uttering the "i" word, and if there are elected representatives, some of the President--
PHIL PONCE: The "i" word, the impeachment term.
FRANK SESNO: Yes. And if there are elected representatives uttering the "i" word or the "r" word, resign, and some of them close to the President, should we not report that, should we not ask people about that?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Frank, I know what you're saying, but it depends on whether--
FRANK SESNO: I agree with you here, I'm just asking a question--
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: But it depends on whether they uttered it in response to a question, which would be so Frank: Do you think the President is going to be impeached? Part of the problem with these statements is they become decontextualized. A reporter asks whether impeachment now is viable? The person uses the word "impeachment" in the response. The news segment does not show that the question framed about in such a way that almost inevitably the answer was going to raise the question of impeachment. And, as a result, there's a subtle shift toward the assumption that this person considers it a more viable option than the person may have. The person didn't volunteer that in that context but was specifically asked about it and had as an alternative saying, well, that was a stupid and premature question, which makes you look defensive on the air.
PHIL PONCE: Richard Smith, would you say--how do you respond to the concern that journalistic standards as a whole are dropping and that the kinds of stories that have been coming out in the past week would not have come out in years past?
Mr. Smith: "There are probably two dozen reporters in Washington right now who have good sources on these stories...."
RICHARD SMITH: I think there's a lot to that. I can't--I can't fundamentally disagree. I think part of the problem is the volume that you all have been talking about. There are probably two dozen reporters in Washington right now who have good sources on these stories and are in a position to make judgments about the quality of the sources and the quality of the information they're getting from the sources. And there are a thousand people chasing the story. That leads to speculation. That leads to a velocity of the story that is very dangerous. Just one--one point, though: For those people who feel that it's the media who's driving this story, I just make one comment, I think it is a special prosecutor, independent counsel with subpoena power, who is acting very aggressively, who is driving the story, and there is a vacuum of information from the White House that is also in its own way driving the story. I think we're reporting it aggressively, and some people are doing it well, and some people are doing it badly, but let's not forget who the two principal actors are in this drama.
PHIL PONCE: Marvin Kalb, do you think the story might also be driven by the fact that one of the key factors in this story is the topic of sex?
MARVIN KALB: Well, there's no question about that. I mean, sex, of course, is driving this story, and the people who make editorial decisions at magazines, newspapers, television networks understand that, and they understand that people will say two diametrically opposite things to pollsters. One, that they really think that the press ought not to get into this stuff, that it's not serious, and that the press ought to deal with more substantive stories. At the very same time the ratings goes skyrocketing. And that would only indicate that the people at the very same time are watching these stories. There's a larger issue, I think, though, and that is that we are living in a totally different cultural environment. The press is only one part of that cultural environment. A colleague of mine mentioned just today that in 1980 in the United States was the first time that a divorced man was elected President of the United States. In 1987, a presidential candidates was asked the "a" question, have you committed adultery, and now we have 11 years later this kind of story with the most salacious details about the President of the United States. The President has become Hollywoodized. He's become such a celebrity--part of it, by the way, his own fault, not the press's fault--where he is simply there to be examined as if he were a movie star. He was the one who talked about his underwear to some interviewer a couple of years ago. And he has been cutting back the distance between himself as a leader and the people. At the same time, the people today seem to be saying, we accept the way in which he governs, and they're saying that by a significant majority--70 some odd percent. They don't like the sex stuff, but they're titillated by it. If there were incontrovertible evidence that the President has lied, after going on television and saying he's never had this kind of affair, that's another ball game. But until that time, I have a feeling that journalism ought to go back to something very old like checking before you report, rather than report before you check.
PHIL PONCE: Frank.
FRANK SESNO: There's a term of art that's come that's come into use over at the White House I know because I've spoken to people over there, and they say this is more about repeating than it is reporting, and I think there's something to that. And I think Marvin touched on it, because we do have a town full of reporters. And the fact of the matter is there are a handful of players who know anything about this case, who are remotely close to the principals and a very small number of reporters who have any access to those people. So where does that leave everybody else? It leaves them on the outside, straining to peer in and trying to grab whatever little shred of information or supposition they've got.
MARVIN KALB: But, Frank, it does not take more than editorial courage. You know what a story is. You know if there's good sourcing. You can say no, this should not go on the air, as well as say, yes, it belongs on the air.
Mr. Sesno: "Nature abhors a vacuum, and we have a vacuum here. It's created by a gag order; it's created by a White House that's under siege...."
FRANK SESNO: We do. Look, you know, I don't want to turn this into a commercial, but there are plenty of people and you know, Marvin--you know, Marvin, there are plenty of people who are saying no. It is a question of volume. There is confusion over sourcing. Nature abhors a vacuum, and we have a vacuum here. It's created by a gag order; it's created by a White House that's under siege, and because its lawyers are telling them so, they're not divulging anything, and Mike McCurry goes out there every day saying, well, let's have a little more theater of the absurd, I'm not going to tell you anything, and we're taking it live. It's starting to throttle back. I want to be a little counter-intuitive here and make one point, though.
PHIL PONCE: I want to follow up on what you said. It's starting to throttle back. Do you think the news coverage right now is in the process of reassessing stepping back, Kathleen Jamieson?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Yes, I think we've seen it in the last day, but the reporting in mainstream press of an inappropriate comment by Dick Morris suggests that that throttling back has not encompassed all the available areas that ought to have been throttled. It's completely inappropriate, in my judgment.
PHIL PONCE: Dick Morris speculated about the sex life of the first couple.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: And Dick Morris speculated in a context in which his own statement said that he doesn't know anything about this; this is just hypothetical. So in that context why that constitutes news and why one would then report the full extent of that statement and not simply say if one thinks what's interesting is that there is, you know, this former adviser making these strange statements, that he has made these statements and the White House isn't going to talk to him anymore, I think is very, very interesting, and the pattern of this, I think, is revealing because once one news outlet reports something, the others feel as if the threshold has been lowered, and now they can at least report that it's been reported. And so, for example, what we saw was on Sunday of last week CBS reports that they have sources that confirm that Clinton has been observed in an intimate situation with Monica Lewinsky. In that environment CBS--I'm sorry--ABC is providing what they believe is evidence. Sam Donaldson then says it's been confirmed when, in fact, it hasn't. CNN had not aired that up to that point, although CNN had heard the rumors. However--
PHIL PONCE: I'm going to have to interrupt you. I'm sorry. We are out of time. Thank you all very much.