October 20, 1998

The Clinton/Lewinsky Story

Overall Summary

Contrary to White House accusations, those doing the bulk of the original reporting did not ferry false leaks and fabrications into coverage of the Clinton/Lewinsky story. But in some important cases, the press leaned on the suspicions of investigators that did not hold up and downplayed the denials of the accused, according to a new study.

The findings of the study, conducted by the Committee of Concerned Journalists, raise questions about whether the press always maintained adequate skepticism about its sources.

There were occasions, moreover, when the press got ahead of the facts in its basic reporting. Others then used that work to engage in sometimes reckless speculation and propaganda.

Overall, while the initial reporting of certain well-known stories, such as the blue dress, were proven right, and none was made out of whole cloth, it is an oversimplification to say the press has been vindicated.

The study, conducted under the supervision of journalist Jim Doyle, former special assistant to the Watergate Special Prosecutors, was an attempt to discern the nature of the press coverage to date by examining several major threads of the story and comparing them to the Starr Report and its supporting evidentiary material.

The goal was to make a disciplined and detailed examination of the coverage in order to balance accusations on both sides that the reporting has been proven substantiated or that it had been manipulated by misleading leaks.

The study identified six major threads, tracking their first appearance and subsequent development in major news outlets in print, television and the Internet.

General Findings

Overall, the research paints a picture of a news media culture that in breaking stories usually relied on legitimate sources and often was careful about the facts in the initial account.

But even in these careful stories, the press at times tended to accept interpretations from those sources uncritically and may have had a penchant to emphasize the perspective of investigators over those being investigated. This may have been a factor in coverage of Betty Currie and Vernon Jordan.

At other times, reporting was based on sources whose knowledge was second hand, and this occasionally got journalists into trouble. This may have been the case in trying to report, without having heard the tapes, more subtle questions of law such as what Lewinsky told Tripp about Vernon Jordan. It also may have occurred in coverage of whether there was a third party witness to an intimate encounter of the president and Lewinsky.

On occasion, the press also ferried speculation, some of which could have been construed as threats, from investigators into news accounts, raising questions about whether the press was sufficiently wary of being used by sources, especially law enforcement sources. This may have been the case, for example, in reporting on the so-called “talking points” Lewinsky gave Linda Tripp and in accounts of a third party witness.

The Argument Culture

Lastly, so much of the news media culture today involves commenting on the news rather than reporting it, that in follow-up coverage, especially on television, the principle of keeping fact separate from suspicion and analysis separate from agenda- setting is no longer clearly honored. It was in the talk show arena that many of the rumors and unsubstantiated suspicions found their way into the mainstream media. The press itself has encouraged this by helping create a new class of activist pundits: loosely credentialed personalities who often thrive on their being provocateurs. These people are often treated as authorities, but they operate neither as news sources nor as opinion journalists. The argument culture may be undermining the reporting culture, and news organizations are helping that occur.

The Story Threads

The study identified six story threads that went to the crux of the Clinton-Lewinsky case: whether the affair occurred and whether the president had obstructed justice and tampered with evidence to hide it.

The six threads are: the existence of a blue dress with DNA evidence of the affair; the existence of witnesses of an affair; the existence of other staffers who had also had affairs; the existence of talking points for Tripp and Lewinsky to lie about what they knew; the role of Vernon Jordan and the role of Betty Currie.

On these, the study found:

The Blue Dress
ABC was accurate in its first reporting that a stained dress of Lewinsky’s contained traces of the President’s semen. That report cited a single source, which raised concern among many journalists. A good deal of misreporting of “the dress” by other news organizations followed.

The “Talking Points”
From the first disclosure that Monica Lewinsky had handed Linda Tripp a document entitled “Points to make in an affidavit,” many major news outlets emphasized a supposition that turned out not to be provable–namely that the memo was written by agents of the President and represented a smoking gun proving obstruction of justice or witness-tampering. That supposition may have reflected the suspicions of some investigators but it proved to be unsupportable. The Starr Report devotes only two non-judgmental sentences and one footnote to the talking points.

Vernon Jordan
The earliest stories often overstated what Lewinsky really told Tripp about whether Vernon Jordan told her to lie about her affair with Clinton. These news accounts also failed to adequately consider that Lewinsky might be exaggerating or misleading what she told Tripp. Lewinsky eventually told investigators that on the matter of Jordan’s role, she was exaggerating the truth. Subsequent press accounts of Jordan treated him with great suspicion. In the end, the Starr Report omits any mention of either attempted obstruction by Jordan, or the taped allegations of his telling Lewinsky to lie under oath. The other evidentiary materials also proved inconclusive.

Betty Currie
The initial New York Times account accurately reported what Currie told investigators about Clinton having “led her through an account of his relationship” with Lewinsky and her retrieving gifts from Lewinsky. The Times, however, played in the 17th paragraph Currie’s response through her attorney. And some subsequent reports elsewhere inflated what the Times reported. The press was similarly careful about who initiated Currie retrieving the gifts from Lewinsky. Some commentators leaped to broad conclusions in speculating about what effect Currie and the gifts would have on Clinton’s future. In the end, Starr makes Currie a key part of the impeachment case, but acknowledges that he has conflicting testimony about what happened. Overall, the New York Times account, which constituted the principal source for other reporting, holds up well.

Third Party Witnesses
From the earliest days of the story, reports were widely published both that there were third party witnesses who had observed Clinton and Lewinsky in acts of intimacy, or, somewhat more cautiously, that Starr was reaching out to such potential eyewitnesses. Some subsequent reports included not-so-veiled warnings to Lewinsky that if she didn’t agree to cooperate soon, Starr wouldn’t need her much longer. Neither the Starr Report nor other supporting documents establish any eyewitnesses to acts of intimacy. Two serious problems are potentially raised here. One is that the press got ahead of the facts because it relied on second-hand sources. The other is that the press was being used by investigative or prosecutorial sources who wanted to employ the media to apply pressure on Lewinsky or other potential witnesses.

A “Second Intern”
The discussion of other women surfaced almost immediately, first by pundit Anne Coulter on CNBC’s “Rivera, Live!” and then Internet columnist Matt Drudge, who was asked about it on NBC’s Meet the Press. The allegation remained dormant until August, when Chris Matthews on CNBC and Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard on Fox News renewed the rumors. That spawned coverage in the New York Post and elsewhere. There is no evidence supporting a second intern, or anyone else, in the Starr Report or in the evidentiary material. Kathleen Willey’s account stands apart from this thread, as her accusation came from her own lips detailed in a “60 Minutes” broadcast.

There may be other threads to examine. The study did not focus on what the President said about the affair. His comments were limited, always recorded on video or on tape, carefully and well reported and it is clear that he did not tell the truth. The study also did not focus on what Lewinsky said about whether there had been an affair. The tape with the strongest evidence of the affair was the one conversation that any news organization (Newsweek) had heard for itself. After the first days’ accounts, moreover, Lewinsky said nothing. Thus the coverage, and the case, turned to corroborating evidence, such as the talking points, the dress, witnesses.

There is a general sense that over time the reporting of this story became more careful and that news outlets became more cautious about publishing rumors. A study by the Committee in March documented empirically that there was less reliance on anonymous sourcing and less punditry in the coverage in March than was true in January. However, in the late summer, there were some cases of rumors resurfacing. To track the anatomy of this rumor-reporting, the study added a seventh story thread:

The Cigar
Washington summer gossip included a rumor that Lewinsky had used a cigar as a sex toy while with the President. It started with an internet posting on “The Drudge Report,” was broadcast later the same day by Drudge on his Fox News Channel show, then spread to veiled references on the Sunday talk shows, then to the London Times, then to Jay Leno’s monologue, then to a column in The Washington Times and elsewhere in the mainstream press as references to “kinky sex,” including on Meet the Press and on one CNN talk program. In general, however, it is fair to say the press resisted spreading such rumors. The Drudge Report turned out to be wrong in some details, as did most of the reports flowing from it. But the Starr Report does include a sentence confirming a Clinton-Lewinsky use of a cigar in a sexual act.

Thus while there is much evidence of the press relying on legitimate sources, there are also cautions here about haste, about punditry, about relying on second-hand sources, and about presenting information thoroughly so that audiences will find it credible.

There are cautions, too, about whether the news media in an increasingly instantaneous and competitive media environment are always maintaining adequate skepticism–less about the facts than how and how quickly those facts might be interpreted. This is especially important in a case where the special prosecutor has indicated in at least one court paper that he makes no distinction between journalists and police informants.

It is important to recall that in studies such as this it is not always possible to fully measure the press’ caution, since the stories that were not aired because of diligence are impossible to credit. Mountains of accurate reporting, about the background of the players on all sides, and corroborating evidence about Lewinsky’s actions, about the constitution and the history of the White House all have deepened the public’s understanding and perceptions.

It is not the purpose of this study to deal with the question of the amount of coverage. We are only attempting to assess the quality. In addition, it was not meant to evaluate individual news outlets but rather the role of the news media in general in a slippery case like this to see what they do well and what they don’t.

Starr’s Dealings with the Press

If the coverage at certain points showed a penchant to reflect the suspicions of prosecutors and investigators out of balance with the denials of the accused, this would hardly be unusual, whether the case be Richard Jewell or countless of other accused citizens whose cases are covered in the press. It does, however, reflect a growing tendency of media coverage.

A generation ago, it was not uncommon for news organizations to have policies against naming the accused in cases until they were charged. Those policies are largely gone now, and while they may never have applied to politicians, these changing standards reinforce the importance of a press that is skeptical of being used by investigative arms of the government.

In Clinton/Lewinsky, the issue may be particularly important given the stakes involved. It may also be important because Starr himself in trying not to disclose his contacts with the press has alluded to his relationship with reporters as being analogous to a relationship with informants.

Starr has been accused of leaking prejudicial grand jury material in an attempt to shape opinion in the Lewinsky case. (His accusers include opposing counsel and an array of editorial writers, columnists and commentators including Anthony Lewis, Albert R. Hunt, Lars-Erik Nelson and Steven Brill.)

The judge in charge of the Starr grand jury gave credence to those accusations by ordering Starr to show cause why he should not be held in contempt of court for leaks. The judge’s order does not confirm prosecutorial misconduct, but places the burden on Starr to disprove the charge that he violated the Federal Rules of Criminal procedure by improperly divulging grand jury secrets. Johnson wrote: “The Court finds that the serious and repetitive nature of disclosures to the media of Rule 6(e) material strongly militates in favor of conducting a show cause hearing.”

Starr sought to stay a hearing on the subject by arguing that his anonymous dealings with reporters should be treated the same as an investigator’s dealings with confidential informants. (See footnote 1)

Some reporters found troubling the suggestion that Starr was using journalists as informants, but his argument to that effect got little attention in the press. The court is hearing arguments on the leaks in closed session. Heavily redacted transcripts are then released weeks or months later, if at all. Major news organizations went to court in an attempt to force these proceedings out in the open. (See footnote 2)

The story of who has been leaking and why has gotten little notice in the mainstream media because news organizations have invested time and resources to establish a relationship with the Office of Independent Counsel. (See footnote 3). It is also difficult for news organizations to cover a story in which they are actors, and in this case it may even hinder their relations with Starr. The story might be analogized to an elephant at a dinner party: if nobody pays attention, maybe it will go away. (See footnote 4)

Methodology

The study identified six major threads, tracking their first appearance and subsequent development in major news outlets in print, television and the Internet. The major media outlets were defined as ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, CNN World View, The Newhour with Jim Lehrer, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Time and Newsweek. In addition, using the Lexis database, searches were conducted of all available news outlets by key words and concepts to expand the universe. Then other research sources such as the Hotline, were consulted to further expand the universe.

The Committee of Concerned Journalists is a consortium of journalists founded in 1997 from various media interested in reflecting on the performance and responsibilities of their profession. The group is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Footnote 1: Starr filed an emergency motion before the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia seeking to stay Judge Johnson’s “show cause” order. This motion was heavily censored before release but contains the following argument against a hearing to disclose the OIC’s contacts with the news media:

[Censored] “It is impossible to disclose the Government’s contacts and communications [Censored] without revealing confidential investigative information.

[Censored] (“Long recognized at common law, the informer’s privilege serves important individual and societal interests in protecting the anonymity of citizens who cooperate in law enforcement.”) Subsequently, Timothy J. Burger of the N.Y. Daily News quoted “legal sources outside the prosecutor’s office familiar with the proceedings” as confirming that Starr argued “he wanted to keep confidential the information received from reporters, and their identities.”

Footnote 2: The leaks investigation continues under a shroud of secrecy. Judge Johnson has appointed a special master to hear evidence but has not disclosed the master’s identity.

Footnote 3: The release of the Starr Report itself may raise questions about disclosure of grand jury secrets. The Starr Report was delivered to the House Judiciary Committee the afternoon of September 9. Officials immediately placed everything under lock and posted armed guards. No member of the House had access to it. Yet the next morning, details of the Starr Report appeared in newspapers across the country. The stories cited as sources “lawyers familiar with the report” (the New York Times), “allies of Mr. Starr” (the Wall Street Journal) and “sources close to the case” (the Washington Post). At the time, only the Office of Independent Counsel knew what was in the Starr Report. If Starr’s office briefed the press before the House decided to release the material, some might argue that constitutes another “prima facie” violation of Rule 6(e) comparable to those cited earlier by Judge Johnson. The material was grand jury material. Starr’s mandate allowed him to deliver it to the House, but Rule 6(e) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure still applied to Starr in his dealings with the press and the public. House officials, not subject to Rule 6(e), publicly released the material September 11, two days after stories describing the material appeared.

Footnote 4: The Washington Post and the New York Times did occasional stories on the leaks controversy. On Feb.6 the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer devoted a long segment to “the battle over leaks and unnamed sources.” On Sept. 30, the NewsHour did a long piece on anonymous sources, which featured prominent print journalists.