The ‘it’s out there’ beat: This time, restraint defeats rumor

Monday, January 11, 1999

The good news is that the American mainstream press thus far has shown
admirable restraint in not making public the latest, apparently unfounded,
rumor about alleged pre-presidential sex-capades.

The predictable news is that many major news organizations were hot on the
chase — just in case.

In his latest report, Matt Drudge douses his earlier report about a
particularly salacious story a U.S. tabloid was pursuing. A convenience of
Internet gossip-mongering, of course, is that it allows you to report your
rumor and to refute it, too, all within a matter of days or hours.

That “convenience” is problematic enough for an Internet columnist but when
it infects the reporting of the mainstream press, the impact on credibility
is inevitable.

Despite that inevitability, however, rumors — often identified by the
presence of the words “alleged” or “anonymous sources said” in the same
paragraph — have been a fixture of the reporting on the
Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

It’s been a year now since that story broke, and since then, the media have
published or broadcast dozens of rumors and rumors of rumors, most of which
no one bothered to confirm or retract. They just flashed across the media
firmament as momentary diversions, then faded.

True, there was a great deal more responsible journalism in the coverage
than the press generally is given credit for, and the basic story has held
up remarkably well. What few journalists are comfortable discussing,
however, is that too many stories were thinly sourced at the time they were
reported, too many were based on the reporting of others, and too many were
incremental developments masquerading as breakthroughs.

That’s precisely what readers and viewers want to discuss, though. They may
seek out the tabloids for gossip and garbage, but they expect more from
their daily newspapers and newscasts.

So how does so much garbage wind up in the mainstream press?

Typically its presence is justified by the refrain from nearly every
newsroom in the country: “We have to report it because It’s Out There.”
“It’s Out There” means that someone somewhere has proffered an

Often that allegation originates with individuals or groups with a personal,
political or pecuniary agenda who peddle their “stories” to someone in the
world of media bottom feeders — the British or American tabloids or an
Internet Web site or gossip columnist.

Once uttered, however, the allegation quickly gains the status of a story.
It is “out there,” and once “out there,” it is red meat for the mainstream
press. Rather than ignoring it or at least confirming it or refuting it, the
impulse too often is to pass it on. If someone is talking about it, then
everyone must be apprised.

The newsroom debate over whether to give it credence by publishing or
broadcasting typically looks less like journalistic reasoning (or even
competitive rationalizing) than it does an ethical roundelay.

The unspoken rule in too many newsrooms has become: “When dealing with
trash, don’t be first but for heaven’s sake don’t be left out.” The
corollary: “If you don’t have the resources to report the story yourself, go
ahead and report what others are reporting — or are about to

Thus, many reporters and correspondents have decided that as long as a nose
for news is defined as being able to sniff out the landfill, they will
patrol the ‘out there’ beat and they will be rewarded with bylines on the
front page or face time on the 6 o’clock news.

As long as the press is captive to the ‘out there’ beat, the rest of us will
have to sort through the trash to get our dose of daily news. That is
unlikely to change until the media bosses have the courage to concede that
readers and ratings don’t add up to credibility, and that without
credibility those circulation and ratings figures can be mighty fickle
measures of importance and impact.

In fact, having the numbers is a lot like having a sexy reputation in
school: You may be talked about but you won’t get asked to the prom —
or introduced to family and friends.

It’s awfully difficult to hold onto our esteem for the press when the press
itself is trying to wrest it from us. The fact that many in the media have
exercised restraint in the face of this latest rumor is a happy indicator
that some at least may be getting that message.

Paul McMasters may be contacted at