From feeding frenzy to media melee

Thursday, January 22, 1998

Even for the harshest critics of the press, it was hard to believe, but there it was up there on the television screen Thursday morning: The noisy, brawling, roiling mass of journalists clambering for a glimpse of Kenneth Starr, the special prosecutor who has a leading role in the unfolding presidential scandal.

In lurid color, it was the ugly side of journalism as it’s practiced in the nation’s capital. Friends of the press who hope it was showing only on CNN triggered their remotes in vain. There it was on every network: A mob of reporters and photographers, shoulder-to-shoulder, back-to-belly, bristling with sound and video equipment, all clamoring for a photo of Starr, who had promised to come outside his office building and walk around so the media could have a fresh “visual” to take back to the newsroom.

When Starr finally emerged, the shouting and shoving mass surged forward. The press of people was so intense that it was almost impossible for Starr to make his way to the microphones that had been set up in case he responded to their shouted requests for “just one question.” Elbows and epithets were flying, some of the mikes were knocked over.

It was not a pretty scene, but the photographers recording the event were as transfixed as the rest of us. They didn’t have the presence of mind to turn away from their colleagues’ shame. The press somehow had managed to transcend the feeding frenzy and become a media melee.

One battered and embarrassed veteran of Washington reporting returned to his newsroom, muttering to his colleagues, “I’m never going through this again.”

We shouldn’t heap all the blame on the hapless journalistic working stiffs out there on the street, however. The real responsibility belongs to their bosses, snug in their newsrooms, demanding that even the most trivial of sound bites or visuals must be obtained without due regard for life, limb or reputation.

The only consolation for the press is that millions of Americans probably didn’t witness this rude display. They didn’t see it because they were sitting in front of their computers patiently waiting their turn to access The Drudge Report, so they could get the real news.