Media Culpa!

The media’s hypocritical self-blame game in the Monica Lewinsky scandal

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Two stories are now regular fixtures in the furious reporting on President Clinton’s alleged affair with Monica Lewinsky: the Anonymous News Break and the Probing Media Analysis. CNN, the network that perhaps best embodies the feeding frenzy, recently held a special interactive town hall meeting that promised “a look at whether the mainstream media have reached a new high in lurid lows” in their reporting of unconfirmed tales from unnamed sources. Yet, just days later, the lead headline on CNN’s Web site read, “Sources: Lewinsky visited White House three dozen times.”

This contradiction between CNN’s own reporting and its media criticism may be transparent, but that transparency itself represents the industry’s latest trend: mea culpa journalism. When CNN, the Washington Post, CBS News and the rest offer up polished admissions of guilt, they’re actually validating their tabloidom.

CNN is certainly not the only player in the mea culpa game. The Washington Post‘s Howard Kurtz writes daily dispatches on the press’ mistakes. One column boldly announced that “The furious, almost blinding pace of coverage of alleged scandalous behavior in the White House has all but shattered traditional media standards and opened the floodgates to a torrent of thinly sourced allegations and unrestrained speculation.” Yikes. But Kurtz’s story is a handy disclaimer for the Post, which used unnamed sources as the basis for Page A1 Monica stories every day from Jan. 21 through Jan. 31. Readers will be relieved to know that the Post is aware of these “shattered standards,” while they devour the newly opened torrent of articles over their morning coffee.

James Warren, Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune and an outspoken critic of the Monica coverage, was gracious enough to include his own newspaper in his assessment: “For sure, newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, and the major TV networks were caught in a bind amid heated claims being reported by competitors.” But he also pleads with readers to cut him some slack. “If one could not verify those claims independently, but they were still being heralded everywhere else, what should one do?”

Over at CBS News, Dan Rather echoed Warren’s helplessness. He explained on CNN that he had to leave the Pope in Havana for Monica in Washington, “because if you want to stay in the anchoring business, you had two choices. You get back to Washington and cover this big breaking story, or you ask for asylum in Cuba.”

Instead of crying that the competition made them do it, the Baltimore Sun admits its overzealous coverage was done to give the readers what they want. “Feeding the hunger for information, reporters have at times stretched to the limit in trying to shed light on key figures,” explained the Sun. Its own reporters were forced to join the frenzy: “The Sun, eager to characterize Tripp, quoted her gas station attendant and insurance adjuster about her allegedly difficult personality.”

Both the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle blame changes in the ever-accelerating news biz. Speaking to the Baltimore Sun, the Times‘ D.C. bureau chief Doyle McManus said, “I’ve never seen so many journalistic ethics issues being forced to a decision so fast. The decisions you normally might wrestle with for three days have to be made in 10 minutes.”

The Chronicle meanwhile, offers “not excuses, but explanations” for the fury. “First, news is disseminated quicker than ever…. Second, there is a media glut, especially with the spread of news and quasi-newsoperations on TV. … Third, for whatever reason, public discourse in the United States is less delicate than it used to be.” So nothing about competition, ratings, or advertising, huh?

The Seattle Times offers some apology, but also plays a variation of the mea culpa game: Blame the Beltway. “Some of what the national press has done…reflects the worst elements of pack journalism and the Washington Beltway mentality, especially in the use of anonymous sources. … Editors on the news desk at the Seattle Times have tried to stay true to our journalistic standards as we’ve handled the story. It hasn’t been easy.”

And if the Beltway won’t work, why not blame other papers? The Times concludes, “When faced with that barrage of stories, we are somewhat at the mercy of the judgment of the editors at those other papers—The Post, Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, etc. We have to trust them to publish factual, responsible stories.”

The St. Petersberg Times also shifts the blame. The paper claims that it avoids the use of unnamed sources “unless there is a compelling interest.” And since it has determined some “compelling interest” in the Monica story, it’s forced to rely on the coverage supplied by national papers. In his paper’s mea culpa, managing editor Neil Brown says his crew has “become a whole lot more circumspect about the reports we use…. It’s a treacherous story because we want to give readers an accurate understanding of what is being said and what is going on. But the truth is elusive at this point.”

The media mea culpa grants reporters extra leniency—to use unnamed sources, to run and then retract unsubstantiated rumors, to pay more homage to competition than accuracy—but how long will the public buy it? NPR’s Ray Suarez summarized the media’s next dilemma on CNN: “We’re already well into self-flagellation mode on day eight, and the public is already mistrusting us, so even if we get the body English right over the next couple of days, the public is still going to be mad at us. It’s not too late to repent, but every day we postpone it makes it worse.”


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