In Scandal's Mudfest, Media Spatter Themselves

Critics say reporters' zeal to cover scandal has eroded traditional journalistic standards.

Never before in American history has a news story moved with the speed, unpredictability, and potentially destructive force of the Lewinsky scandal.

It started as a rumor, picked up speed with independent counsel's Kenneth Starr's investigation, and blew an eight-month storm of hearsay, innuendo, and leaks until Monday, when the president's videotaped testimony blanketed the country in an almost surreal four-hour broadcast.

Throughout the process, the media has given critics plenty of fodder, bolstering their contention that traditional standards have eroded in the face of the intense competition brought on by proliferation of media outlets.

The severity of the damage, they argue, has transformed journalism from a self-regulating craft with a clearly defined set of standards to a rudderless, aggressive business endeavor.

"Following the right process matters," says New Yorker media critic Ken Auletta. "Just because you throw a tomato up against the wall and some of it stays up there, does that make it right?"

But for others, the media have won points for their deft handling of an unprecedented public scandal and the release of thousands of pages of secret and sometimes titillating testimony. Albeit, that's after losing their initial bearings in the early feeding frenzy.

"In the spirit of openness, the news media is doing a commendable job of providing all of the information that it can within a responsible context," says Robert Giles, executive director of the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center in New York. He notes that much of the more salacious detail has been edited out of stories.

But where Mr. Giles sees "openness," other critics see undisciplined excess.

"They've managed to be the attack media that Americans know and hate, and to be manipulated like crazy by all parties involved," says Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington.

From the start, the media have infuriated the public with a seemingly insatiable appetite for the story and a willingness to jump to conclusions based on the slightest leak. Last January when the story broke, seasoned reporters were gravely talking about "smoking gun" documents and predicting the president would be out in a matter of days. Several newspapers found themselves retracting incriminating, single-sourced stories that turned out to be wrong.

"I'm beginning to be concerned about whether or not American journalists truly are independent or whether they've willingly allowed themselves to be co-opted by sources on an important story like this," says Bill Kovach, curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

Reliance on leaks

Many reporters will justify their reliance on leaks, noting that in a supposedly secret legal proceeding of paramount importance to the public, sources are the only way to get the story out.

But critics contend there's now such a race to get everything and anything on the air or into print before their competitors, journalists sometimes end up misleading, rather than informing the public.

For instance, the weekend of leaks prior to the airing of the videotape heightened expectations the nation would see its consummate politician irate and out of control. The actual tape proved to be anticlimactic, at best.

"I see no reason why journalists couldn't allow us to wait for us to see the tape and make our own decision about how the president looked," says Mr. Kovach.

Many critics are also questioning the need for every network to drop its daily fare of soaps and talk shows to air the raw and essentially unedited tape. While the major networks did have tape-delay capacity that allowed NBC to break in before some of the more graphic questions were asked of the president, the 24-hour news channels just threw it on the air willy-nilly.

"The First Amendment doesn't say no editing; the First Amendment says the government doesn't edit," says Steve Brill, founder of Brill's Content, a media watchdog magazine. "Somebody should step into the breach."

But the networks' ratings soared, and CNN hit new audience peaks. Although critics note the audience for news has shrunk so significantly, it doesn't take much to double it.

What CBS's Dan Rather calls "this fiercely competitive pit" has also significantly lowered the bar on what the so-called press of record will report about individuals' personal lives.

Delving into personal lives

The story that House Judiciary Committee chairman Henry Hyde had an affair 30 years ago is a case in point. The online magazine Salon first reported the story Sept. 16. Mr. Rather said CBS was investigating it, but had no intention of running it. Even after Representative Hyde's office issued a statement acknowledging the affair, Rather says CBS was still not going to run with it.

Then, during the evening broadcast, one of his competitors led with it, "hit it hard." It was then Rather decided to run a 20- second reader about Hyde, a decision, he says, he'd rather not have had to make.

In the outrage that followed the overall Hyde coverage, other unsubstantiated allegations that the White House was behind the story got full airing, and so did calls for an FBI investigation.

"That's really chilling stuff," says Mr. Auletta. "There's a kind of mindless thing going on here which is very dangerous."

Auletta says that many reporters are now "strutting around like peacocks," contending that much of their earlier reporting - although clearly not all of it - has been proven true. But he says that what they're forgetting is that in journalism, knowing you're correct before you air a story is the true test of credibility.

Some critics believe the media have gotten so out of hand, they have no choice but to improve.

"I think the country over the last 15 years been moving to an impasse saying, 'Enough is enough, we can't conduct ourselves this way anymore,' " says Richard Harwood, executive director of the Harwood Institute in suburban Washington. "So in the longer perspective, I think this is going to be good for the country."

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