Reading between lines of latest scandal tale
Media coverage of Juanita Broaddrick's story speaks to a changingdefinition of 'news.'
NEW YORK — News, as defined by The Concise Oxford Dictionary, is "information about important or interesting recent events."
So how did Juanita Broaddrick's allegation about a sexual attack that she says occurred 21 years ago - an event that was never reported to any authority, was recently denied in a legal affidavit, and may be impossible to ever substantiate - how did that come to the sudden attention of the nation's media during the past week?
The answer, say many media critics, is that in today's hotly competitive media environment the definition of news is not what it used to be.
In fact, some say, the media's handling of Mrs. Broaddrick's allegation against Bill Clinton may have finally obliterated any traditional notion of what constitutes "news."
Such notions have been eroding for some time, under pressure of intense competition brought by a proliferation of media outlets and fueled by the Internet's gossip mongers. But the Broaddrick story is serving to redefine news, especially for much of the national press.
"If journalists believed that news by definition was something that had to be serious and had to impact people's lives, the Juanita story would not be in the paper," says Marvin Kalb, a media analyst at Harvard University. "But since news today merely has to titillate, appeal to the curiosity factor - sex - then Juanita is the story."
Others argue that the seriousness of the allegation does constitute news in the traditional sense, particularly because Broaddrick's story was a factor in several House members' decision to vote to impeach President Clinton. Still others say it reaches that threshold because it reflects on the president's character.
But media critic Ed Fouhy says the most interesting fallout from the debate could be about the media themselves. "It's been a lesson in the differences among news organizations, and the values and news standards that they have," he says. "And that has played out in public, when it usually plays out in private."
Editors and producers around the country this week debated, argued, and in some cases agonized over how to handle the story that had lived quietly in the media's shadows as rumor and innuendo since 1992.
BROADDICK'S allegation was first revealed publicly as part of an extensive legal filing last spring by Paula Jones's lawyers. NBC News' Lisa Myers then reported on the allegation in detail.
But Ms. Myers wanted more - an interview with the mysterious woman who had come to be known as Jane Doe No. 5. Myers regularly called and pleaded, finally landing an interview in January, at the height of the impeachment trial.
NBC News then sat on the story, checking and cross-checking facts, it says. But Matt Drudge, the media's Internet nemesis, got wind that NBC was holding the interview and began beating the cyber-drums, indignant that such an explosive allegation had not aired.
Then Robert Bartley, editor of The Wall Street Journal's decidedly anti-Clinton editorial page (The Columbia Journalism Review once called it "Bartley's Believe It or Not"), heard on CNN that NBC was holding its story. Mr. Bartley bypassed his news editors and sent columnist Dorothy Rabinowitz to interview Broaddrick.
And so last Friday, in the guise of an editorial piece about NBC's decision to hold the story, The Wall Street Journal laid out in detail Broaddrick's allegation. The wire services picked up the story, and so did The Boston Globe and The Washington Post. The Post followed the next day with a front-page story that characterized the allegation as "sensational yet ancient and unproven."
"When I read that, I thought, 'So what's it doing on the front page?' " says Professor Kalb.
With the genie out of the bottle, White House lawyer David Kendall issued a statement denying that Mr. Clinton had ever assaulted Broaddrick. That gave the story an official patina, and many regional papers ran wire-service stories about the president's lawyer's denial.
But many also refrained from publishing anything about it. The San Jose Mercury News only mentioned it Wednesday in a short piece about NBC's decision to finally air the interview, which it did that night. Managing editor David Yarnold said the story lacked corroboration and had too many holes to rush into print.
"We also asked how we would handle it if it was a local story. So often, the national stories get treated differently - our values can get challenged," says Mr. Yarnold.
The New York Times held off running the story until Wednesday as well. Then it ran a story about the unusual route the allegation took before becoming public - laying out in detail the unsubstantiated charges. The editors said they felt it was "news" because it was a factor in the impeachment debate.
Steve Brill, founder of media watchdog Brill's Content, finds good and bad news in the handling of the Broaddrick allegation. He does not believe that the story passes the test as "news" by any definition. But he's encouraged by the fact that there are a host of alternative news organizations that "can drop a dime on NBC" if it holds a legitimate story.
"That's very good," says Mr. Brill. "The downside of that is that we've all been in a situation where an editor holds a story for very legitimate reasons, and the person who's done the story conjures up all kinds of conspiracy theories, when in fact it's just not a good story. Then you have to be vigilant about your reporting."