March 27, 1998

The Clinton Crisis and the Press

Does Specificity Equal Quality?

Does Specifity Equal Quality?

Having a more detailed characterization of sources is no guarantee that a story is accurate. Some stories that have held up well have barely characterized the sources. The Washington Post's publication of the details of Clinton's deposition in the Paula Jones litigation effectively offered no guidance at all about the source–even as to whether it was a person, a document or whether the reporter had watched a video of the interrogation. Yet the level of detail and texture in the story raised little doubt that the reporter had an extraordinarily comprehensive account of the event to work from, and no one has substantially challenged the accuracy of the story.

Stories like the Clinton deposition, however, are fairly unique. Most journalism of this sort comes in drips and drabs, and journalists acknowledge they often rely on the vagaries of instinct and experience to decide whether a source is on the level.

The Los Angeles Times had numerous sources outlining Monica Lewinsky's affair with her high school drama teacher days before that story broke, but decided not to publish because "the allegation required a high level of confirmation"–preferably the teacher or Lewinsky themselves–and the paper did not have either, according to the paper's Washington Bureau Chief, Doyle McManus. What's more, there was the question of "relevance," whether Lewinsky's sexual history had anything to do with her potential credibility. The story eventually broke when the teacher went public.

The paper similarly held off running another story that other news organizations eventually went with: the allegation that Lewinsky had a blue dress that contained DNA evidence of an affair with the President. "It was left out because of insufficient evidence," a taped conversation that the paper's reporters hadn't themselves heard, and which may or may not reflect the truth, McManus said.

New York Times Washington Bureau Chief Michael Oreskes recalled a moment when the paper was ready to go with an explosive story about Lewinsky and the President that "several sources swore was true." On deadline, one of his reporters came into his office with a sinking feeling about it. Something about the way the sources were talking made him uncomfortable. Based largely on that reporter's gut instinct, Oreskes said, the paper held off.

The story proved problematic when published elsewhere, and Oreskes credits his reporter for persuading the paper not to publish.

"We've exercised restraint and we're not sorry about it," agreed Baltimore Sun bureau chief Paul West, who cited still others cases at his paper.

These examples demonstrate also that the press may have often demonstrated more restraint than is obvious from what the audiences see. Yet public perceptions of press coverage of events may be more heavily shaped by the worst cases than by the best.

How a source might know information and what if any bias the source may also take on added significance when the source is characterizing an event like a conversation or a relationship where the tone and context become critically important.

Consider the New York Times story that implied that the President might have tried to influence his secretary Betty Currie's grand jury testimony.

Part of that story hung on the characterization that the President might have tried to influence how Currie viewed his relationship with Monica Lewinsky by summoning Currie to the White House and "leading her through an account" of his relationship by asking Currie "a series of leading questions" about it.

The White House version is that Clinton was simply trying to judge whether his own testimony had been accurate, so he was checking his recollection with Currie–not trying to manipulate her.

To weigh these different versions, it makes a significant difference whether the sources for the Times story, described as "lawyers familiar with (Currie's) account," are working for Currie, Kenneth Starr and Paula Jones or someone else.

The journalist's instinct for full disclosure alone might suggest news organizations should try to offer the most specific characterization of a source possible so that readers have the most information to judge the accuracy of the news.

The fact that news organizations have not done so might suggest that reporters have ceded too much power to sources in negotiating ground rules. It might also suggest that in an increasingly competitive atmosphere, news organizations are willing to bargain more freely to get stories.

But if being more specific about a source would make readers or viewers more skeptical about the story, perhaps because the source might appear biased, that may also be a signal to the news organization that the story hasn't been adequately sourced.