Trying to fill the media maw — with purloined scoops

Tuesday, January 27, 1998

Let’s see if we can sum up the Story of the Century after more than a week: A talk-show blitz fueled by wall-to-wall network coverage accompanied by newspaper articles following up on an Internet gossip column about a news magazine story that got spiked.

Once we had a news cycle. Now we have a news circle.

There are kinder ways of looking at media performance in the mega-story of President Clinton’s alleged sexual misconduct, of course, but they seem somehow undeserved. The press itself has become an essential component of this story.

It is a story, in too many instances, of the few facts available racing to catch up to the coverage. For example:

Late Monday, CNN announced a significant news development: The Dallas Morning News had posted on its Web site a story that a Secret Service agent had told special prosecutor Kenneth Starr that he saw the president and Monica Lewinsky “in a compromising situation.”

The “news” spread quickly. A few hours later, however, the Morning News had to retract its story. CNN posted on its Web site a story about the retraction, but did not mention its role in publicizing the story. Interestingly, as late as Tuesday afternoon, the discounted story still could be accessed on the newspaper’s Web site.

At least the Morning News retracted its story. On Sunday, ABC News reported that someone in the White House, perhaps a Secret Service agent, had seen Clinton and the young intern during an intimate interlude. Thus far, there has been no real followup or retraction from ABC.

But that seems to capture the nature of this story: an army of journalists trying to nail down a story hanging from a mighty slender thread — the distraught ramblings of one young woman, feloniously tape-recorded by a “friend” who then went to the Starr chamber to get legally wired for further confessions.

Since then it has been a “story” with precious little substance and lots of leaks, innuendo, rumors, speculation, hearsay and instant polls reporting opinions not yet formed about allegations not yet proved.

It is inevitable, perhaps, that we would come to this place. There is a massive media maw to fill when a major story breaks. Hooked up to the World Wide Web, newspapers and news magazines now are going head-to-head with around-the-clock broadcast news operations. Cable news, the Internet and new media of various stripes add yet another dimension.

Filling up much of all of that time and space has been a procession of talking heads, most of them with either a sound bite or an agenda or both to offer as “the news” of the moment. Some of those talking heads have been journalists from one news operation dropping by for a chat on another news operation.

None of this is to say that there have not been responsible decisions made by the media. Judging from stuff that has made it into print or onto the air, some pretty tough stuff has been discarded. Newsweek editors did, after all, elect not to run the initial story because not all the facts had been confirmed to their satisfaction and they did not want to interfere with Starr’s investigation.

Somehow, Internet gossip-monger Matt Drudge heard that reporter Michael Isikoff’s story had been spiked and set the Net abuzz with the rumor. Once The Washington Post made the story official, Newsweek got to take credit for being responsible and for getting the scoop, too, by quickly putting up its own account on its Web site and sending out a parade of editors and Isikoff himself for talk-show appearances.

Overall, it was a good week for Newsweek, which drew praise from both of its chief competitors, Time and U.S. News & World Report.

When all is said and done, however, there is not much praise to hand out for the media performance so far in this story. There is an abundance of purloined scoops, borrowed information and expertise, and over-reliance on leaks from interested parties, supplemented by endless talk and groundless opinions.

The press can do better than this. The press must do better than this.

To preserve its First Amendment franchise, the press must reserve a place for patience and responsibility in reporting the news. Journalists must resist the temptation to go beyond the news and to exaggerate their roles — or, as some journalists have conceded in this particular instance, to lust in their hearts for payback time.

The ultimate praise for a journalist is that he or she has a nose for the news. Or the ability to smell a story a mile away. Matt Drudge has inserted his own malodorous take on that: “I go where the stink is.”

In following Drudge’s lead, too much of what passes for journalism these days has many people following their noses to the conclusion that the stink goes where the press is.