Dallas Morning News no ‘poster child’ for online journalism ills, editor says

Friday, February 27, 1998

Dale Peskin...
Photo by Martha FitzSimon
Dale Peskin

NEW YORK — The Internet has been the source of much hand-wringing about standards of
reporting in news organizations and how they seem to be declining in the
rush to get the story out first — which today means on-line.

And, since The Dallas Morning News‘ posting on Jan. 26, and
retraction on Jan. 28, on its Web site of a story about a Secret Service
agent who was prepared to testify that he had seen President Clinton and
Monica Lewinsky in a “compromising situation,” the News has been
held up by columnists and media critics as the “poster child” of the
Web-made-me-do-it mentality.

But the Web did not make the News do it, said Dale Peskin, assistant
managing editor at the News, at a Media Studies Center seminar on
Thursday. “The problem with the [Clinton-Lewinsky] story was not that it
was somehow rushed out there on the Internet,” Peskin said. “The problem
was with the traditional reporting and the sourcing of the story. … The
story broke on the Internet and then it was picked up everywhere, on
“Nightline,” for example, very, very quickly prior to [print] publication
in the pages. The source saw the story on “Nightline,” the White House saw
the story on “Nightline,” and the White House made some telephone calls.
The source got worried. The source called us back and essentially changed
[his story].”

This sourcing problem was reported in a January 28 story on the News‘ site. But the News also countered that former U.S. Attorney Joseph di Genova, who is not directly involved in the case, confirmed its original story. “In essence, your story is correct,” di Genova said.

Like many news organizations, The Dallas Morning News generally uses the informal, two-source rule when using anonymous sources. When a source wishes to remain anonymous, whatever he or she says needs to be confirmed by another source. However, in the case of the News story, the second source was weak in that he “was removed by at least two people from what actually occurred in the Oval Office,” Peskin said.

Peskin said he and others at the News, had they been given the
chance, would have argued that, even with the second source, the story was
not strong enough to run. “But you have to understand what else was going
on at the time. There was a lot of similar reporting which tended to lend
credibility to this kind of reporting. … And they were all making
decisions, and I think all talking to the same sources I might add, about
what was going on.”

Though the News‘ Web site saw traffic soar after the publishing of
its original story, Peskin believes that, in the long run, the credibility
of the News, and indeed of all news organizations, was damaged.