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 may also like