February 18, 1998

The Clinton Crisis and the Press

Some Discoveries

In all, 21% of the reporting was based on anonymous sources. Given the nature of a story involving a grand jury and an ongoing investigation, that may not be so surprising, and some of this reportage three weeks later holds up well.

In general, however, the track record of stories with multiple anonymous sources appeared far stronger than those with one.

For instance, weeks later one story that stands out for being unproven–that Monica Lewinsky kept a blue dress stained with DNA evidence of an affair–was initially based on a single anonymous source.

Nearly a week after the blue dress story was first aired on ABC and then repeated in several news outlets, including The New York Times, the FBI reported it had found no such evidence. It is possible today that such a dress exists and perhaps even was returned to Betty Currie, the White House secretary, according to yet another anonymously sourced story.

Yet this also may be a textbook example of consider the source. ABC described its source as "someone with specific knowledge of what it is Monica Lewinsky says really took place." In a subsequent interview with the New York Daily News, Linda Tripp's literary agent friend Lucianna Goldberg, a woman with a history of antipathy for Clinton and for engaging in dirty tricks for the Republican party, openly said that she was the source for the blue dress allegation. "The dress story? I think I leaked that." Goldberg told the Daily News laughing in a way that suggested she was mocking the press with this and other leaks. "I had to do something to get their (the media's attention). I've done it. I'm not unproud of it."

Overall, the press often did little to offer audiences a hint of the possible bias of anonymous sources that might have colored the reliability or completeness of what they were leaking. This was particularly true in some of the stories that remain unverified. One such story, for instance, is that a White House steward told the Grand Jury that he had witnessed an intimate encounter between Lewinsky and the President. The Wall Street Journal attributed the story simply to "two individuals familiar with (the steward's) testimony." Similarly, another story that remains unproven was an ABC report that more than one White House staffer, perhaps secret service agents, witnessed an intimate encounter between Lewinsky and the President. ABC attributed this story simply to "several sources."

Many of the anonymous sources in this crisis–even those close to events–might have an axe to grind and needed to be treated with greater discretion than many of the stories demonstrated. In general, indeed, the press tended to make information look better sourced than it was.

When one news organization broke an especially controversial story that others couldn't confirm, there was widespread tendency by other media to pick it up without verifying it. The day after ABC reported the blue dress story, for instance, the percentage of reporting attributed only to other news organization spiked to 18%, the highest single day in the study.

Sometimes journalists seemed fascinated with the most salacious details, even if unverified, such as the meaning of oral sex or the background of Monica Lewinsky. On the Today Show January 22, for instance, Matt Lauer repeatedly tried to get Newsweek's Michael Isikoff to admit whether he had "heard anything" about a semen stained dress. Even after Isikoff said an answer would be irresponsible, Lauer pressed him, for the third time. "You're not telling me whether you've ever heard of it?"