Washington's Scandals Spotlight Journalistic Ethics, Too

After every great national scandal, journalists embark on an orgy of self-examination about the quality of their coverage. We did it after Watergate - and after the O.J. Simpson trial, and the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. And though the story involving President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky is still unfolding, the press is engaged in yet another assessment of its performance.

This is a good thing. The profession of journalism is not without blemish. We journalists spend a lot of time examining the ethical deficiencies of others. It is only fitting that we examine our own.

The American press is probably the freest in the world. It is one of the most technologically advanced. But are our ethics improving or deteriorating?

On the one hand, thousands of journalists all over the country - generally honest, mostly hard-working, sometimes underpaid - are doing a good job. Day after day they cover city halls and police departments, legislatures, state and federal agencies, and funnel a flow of necessary and useful information to their readers and listeners and viewers.

Earlier this month I spent several days in New York on a jury of editors charged with selecting nominations for the Pulitzer prize from some 1,500 submissions. The entries came from newspapers large and small and they did a lot to restore my confidence in the quality of American journalism. There were brilliant examples of spot news coverage, superb photographs, heartwarming feature stories, and examples of investigative reporting that redressed wrongs and brought change and improvement to many communities.

Clearly, the press can be a constructive force for good. On the other hand, the corridor talk at the Pulitzer judging focused entirely on the quality of reporting on the Clinton-Lewinsky story, and on some deficiencies in that reporting.

Should the private lives of public figures be off-limits to scrutiny by the press? I don't believe so. That scrutiny is the price that must be paid by those who seek to lead. A president who lies to his wife and family may lie to the voters.

But the scrutiny by the press must be responsible and purposeful, not merely prurient. The decision to publish or not to publish should be case-by-case, generally based on whether the private peccadilloes affect the individual's public performance.

The press would be derelict if it had not covered the issue of the relationship between Clinton and Lewinsky. But we journalists are obligated to ask questions about the care and accuracy with which we have pursued the story.

Some very prestigious news organizations have made mistakes. In the heat of the chase, they published uncorroborated stories which proved inaccurate and which they had to retract. There was over-use of anonymous sources. The reader did not know what credibility some of these sources had, where they worked, nor what their motives were in providing the information. Were they leakers in the special prosecutor's office, or were they leakers in the White House seeking to discredit the special prosecutor?

The dramatic growth of the Internet was a complicating factor, because anybody can get on it and "publish" as fact the most astounding rumors. I like the New Yorker cartoon that shows a dog pounding away at the computer keyboard. Looking down at a doggy chum beside him, he says: "Once you're on the Internet they don't know you're a dog." It's funny, but makes a serious point: A lot of "reporting" that moves on the Internet is by gossips and non-journalists without the legitimacy that a report by a reputable news organization should have.

One more problem is the preoccupation with celebrity sleaze in an increasingly competitive media market. The daily newspaper is beset by competition from the supermarket tabloids, television "news" magazines that are no more than electronic gossip sheets, proliferating talk radio, and fast-expanding cable channels. When millions are glued, say, to live coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial, it takes determination for an editor to resist the trend and get readers to focus on other stories of local, national, and international import.

Happily, responsible journalism is still practiced. Newsweek deserves great credit for holding its Clinton-Lewinsky scoop a week because it just wasn't happy about the completeness of its story. Accolades too to those TV anchors who decline to read on air initial fragmentary bulletins whose veracity they doubt. Kudos to newspapers which feature the Clinton-Lewinsky story when there's a significant development, but don't let it dominate their pages to the exclusion of all else that's important.

In journalism it is satisfying to be first.

But if it's a choice between being first and being right, it's better to be right.

* John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is currently the editor of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City.

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