Internet's Role in the Clinton-Lewinsky Scandal
Most journalism students today have grown up using the Internet as an important one way of receiving news. They are likely unaware of the various stages of its development and may accept current practices as the only possible way of communicating. This case study tries to help students think through the challenges the Internet created and the choices journalists have made.
The Internet slowly broadened from use by the technologically savvy circles to a form of communication among the general public. As late as 1997 only 37 percent of the public went online, according to public opinion surveys, but by the summer of 1999 half of those questioned reported having used the Internet (Warp Speed, p.11.)
The eight-month investigation of whether President Clinton had a sexual affair with a 24-year old intern was a central force in the Internet's coming of age. When Matt Drudge broke the news of the Starr investigation in January of 1998, Internet news was still in its infancy. Broadcast television, newspapers and magazines—old media—drove the often-inflammatory coverage. By the time the Starr report was released eight months later, the tables had turned: The Internet largely dictated how the story played out, and online news organizations responded with respectful, restrained, serious coverage. And by then the role of individual "cybermongers" like Drudge seemed to have faded.
The Starr investigation jump—started an industry that had been slow to embrace the ethos of the net. At latimes.com, live updates from the impeachment trial and more frequent use of multimedia were among the legacies of the Clinton-Lewinsky story. "One of the side effects of the scandal was the impact it had on the way we do things on the site," says Matt Stodder, online politics editor. "Just as the space program raised the level of technology in different areas of society, the scandal raised our competency level in dealing with audio, video, interactivity. It enhanced our proficiency in covering other major stories, like the Yugoslavian war and 2000 presidential election."
But in addition to the positive attributes of speed and depth, reporting on the Internet poses challenges to some of the most basic responsibilities of journalism: truth, accuracy and fairness.
This case study takes students through three specific instances in the scandal: 1) reports in the Dallas Morning News that the president and the intern had been caught in an intimate encounter and in the Wall Street Journal that a White House steward said he saw the two alone near the Oval Office; 2) the handling of the final report by issued by investigator Kenneth Starr and widely carried in full on the web, and 3) the "scoop" by Matt Drudge, using Michael Isikoff's story without verification, that brought the Monica Lewinsky story to public awareness.
These events consider the issues of sourcing, verification, timing and public interest in the then-new age of Internet reporting.
This case primarily explores the difference between the Internet and other forms of communication. It weighs the advantages of speed and open access with the potential problems of accuracy and verification. Students will think about how they can make use of the advantages while still providing responsible journalism. They can learn from early mistakes and also think about how the Internet has evolved since 1998.
The Clinton-Lewinsky case study offers not one central decision challenge but several that speak to the issues of Internet news. Therefore, you may want to open class discussion by posing one or more of the questions listed below. Try to get all of the class engaged and thinking about the Internet as a "new" medium—which it won't be to them. The discussion will probably be more effective if you focus not on how the Internet works today, but on the possibilities of its use and the responsibilities that go along with communication news information.
Many professors find role-play an effective way to lead the debate. You should, of course, teach the way that fits the class and your style. If you wanted to use role-play, you might pull out one student who voiced concern about verification on the Internet to play the role of John Cranfill, the Dallas Morning News online manager. You could ask, "Do you run the story on the web?" Press him or her to defend not running it even though the paper will likely get beat or fail to get much more verification even if it sits on it. Next, tag a student who is a big defender of the web. He or she is the reporter who got the story. How does he or she counter Cranfill's argument?
You could also refer to other recent Internet cases or even ask the class to think about how the Watergate story might have fared in an Internet world.
At the end of class you will probably want to come full circle and see if the class has any new views on the overarching questions. You might then give your own opinion at the end of class.
Much of the early coverage in this scandal emphasized speed, sensation and conjecture over accuracy and even-handedness. CNN's Scott Woelfel says he sensed in the early going that, "there was an attitude of, 'I don't know if we could put this in the paper, but we could put it on the Web site'."
1. As Cranfill of the Dallas Morning News said, "Most Internet-based breaking news stories advance faster than television, much faster than newspapers and at least as fast as radio." What advantages does the speed of the Internet in spreading news offer citizens? Are there drawbacks? How can a news organization resolve the conflict between meeting intense, constant competitive pressures while insuring that it gets the story right? How can a journalist argue to hold a story (in any medium) when others on the staff want to run it?
As we see in both the Wall Street Journal and the Dallas Morning News stories, speed remains an asset only as long as accuracy comes with it. In addition to the basic truth of the information, speed can put other aspects at risk, raising such needs as these:
These are all subtle elements that may not be required by every newsroom, but are important to responsible journalism. They strengthen and clarify the journalist's work. When time is cut short, these are often the first to go. The Wall Street Journal published on its web site what it knew as soon as it knew it without waiting for an official response.
Another element that can be harmed in the rush to inform is the editing process. Marvin Kalb, director of the Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, says he was "ashamed" by the media's hyperventilating early coverage. "I think it is one of the sorriest chapters in journalism in my lifetime. The Internet, cable news and the new technologies have speeded up the editorial process so that rumor and hearsay and innuendo are now passed off as journalism."
Journalists suddenly move from informing citizens of the facts to analyzing what they mean. This is often done before all the facts have even been assembled.
One class had a fairly heated debate about the use of the Internet as an incubator. One student suggested using it as a way of "testing" stories or putting out the pieces of information you have while you continue to gather facts. This at first sounded reasonable to some classmates, but the professor then asked how other news outlets should handle the information. Should they report it as fact even though it is only part of the story and perhaps not fully verified? And when does the public know it is final? The professor was surprised that some students did not see the problems with this at the outset, and would not have raised the issue herself. But by letting the students lead the discussion, they gained insight about the problems brought about by one of the Internet's strongest temptations.
2. How might news organizations have used the capabilities of each medium—print, broadcast, and the web— to best report this story?
The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal spurred such major publications as the Washington Post and USA Today to abandon their practice of not publishing stories online until they appeared in print. Throughout the scandal, the Post published stories in mid-afternoon on its web site that would appear in the paper the next morning. Cooperation between online and print staffs increased at many publications.
A number of online publications made their first foray into multimedia by covering such elements of the Starr investigation as Clinton's videotaped testimony and the Tripp-Lewinsky audiotapes. Web sites prize workers with such diverse skills. "Today a journalist has to be prepared to work in multiple media," says CNN's Woelfel. "Anyone who thinks he's still working for a newspaper or a TV station is not paying attention."
In debating this issue students can draw on their knowledge of current news outlets that operate multiple media. Ask them what they expect from the various media? Are there times when they want to read the newspaper rather than the web? What does television offer? What are some of their favorite news outlets? Then probe them on how the good aspects of those could have been used in covering the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal?
We also found many students unaware of the tension that exists among reporters within a news organization. For example, many Tribune Company news outlets now produce print, Internet and television all under the same roof. There are often hostile feelings among reporters the three media as each one wants to break the story.
3. What criteria should wire services and news organizations use when deciding whether to report serious allegations put forth by a newspaper, especially when anonymous sources are used? Is the old justification still valid that once one news organization has put out a story, it's OK for others to report it, even if there are serious doubts about its validity?
Citing other news organizations as the source for your story has become more and more common since the Lewinsky scandal. In other words, the fact that another news organization reported something suddenly makes it newsworthy—whether it can be verified or not. This was what happened in the Dallas Morning News report of an eyewitness. Within hours it had become the center of national news. Larry King, Nightline and others all jumped on the story and began dissecting the implications. Finally the original source of the information had to take it into his own hands to put a stop to it.
It may sound simple to craft a rule about where your information must come from, but there are always complexities. What if the information could put a person or nation in danger? What if you know who their sources were?
Posting the Starr Report
Jon Katz of the Freedom Forum applauds news sites that published the report online but suggests that newsrooms are being dragged reluctantly into a new era of openness created by the Internet.
4. If you were the editor of a newspaper and your web site ran the Starr report verbatim, would you edit out the sections not fit for all eyes? How would you explain your decision to readers?
"The overwhelming majority of newspapers would not have published the Starr report in print if the Internet did not exist," Katz says. "They're afraid of being marginalized into irrelevance." But he thinks newspapers did not go far enough and may have missed a historic opportunity to embrace the ethos of the Net.
"A woman in the Midwest wrote to me saying her paper had edited out all the most explicit parts of the Starr report while her 12-year-old son was upstairs reading it on the computer screen," Katz says. "Nothing makes newspapers look more ridiculous than withholding information that kids can obtain with the click of a mouse. Newspapers have to realize the world has changed. Journalists are now competing with a medium that is the freest part of the information culture. Online, people can question authority, they can be sexually explicit, they can hold you accountable for your reporting. Journalism is losing an entire generation of young readers because they haven't adapted their newsroom culture to the new freedom that's in the hands of today's young adults."
Jim Naughton of the Poynter Institute is skeptical that most of the newspapers which published the full report did so out of civic virtue. "If this were a 445-page report of dry legalese about perjury and obstruction of justice but contained no mention of sex, would they have run it? I think most papers wanted to publish it not because it was a newsworthy or historic document but because of its salacious contents."
5. Did news organizations help further the cause of Starr and Republican lawmakers by posting the report on their web sites? Some lawmakers told reporters the report was released for political reasons: they felt that the contents of the report would so disgust the public that Americans would come to favor impeachment.
The Matt Drudge Phenomenon
By breaking the Clinton-Lewinsky story through appropriating (or misappropriating?) the report Newsweek's Michael Isikoff had carefully put together, Matt Drudge became a media celebrity. Brill's Content hailed him as the "town crier for the new age" and even Newsweek came to describe him as "the Internet's intrepid reporter." He was hot on the lecture circuit and he had his own television show on Fox TV. But when his ratings fell, Fox TV canceled the show, and opinions about him started to change. Brill's Content now saw him as "a one-trick pony" whose "pipeline into the Lucianne Goldberg-Linda Tripp camp" enabled him to get his one big story.
Yet New York Times columnist Frank Rich says Drudge left a legacy that elevated rumor and gossip to the regular news budgets of mainstream media.
While the Drudge Report may have faded as a major online news site, the possibility remains for individuals to reach large audiences on the Internet through their own websites. With no editors going over their reports to insist on checking the facts, they can readily put out erroneous information.
6. Are individual cyberjournalists like Matt Drudge bound by the same responsibilities of truth checking that the public applies to traditional journalists? Does the First Amendment give them free reign to spread rumors?
Implications of the Internet
7. Has the Internet, by making basic government documents and reports available directly to the people, contributed to the development of democracy?
8. Since the Internet has made the time frame for online news sites one continuous stretch, requiring news to be reported when it is learned, does that make it acceptable to report unverified stories immediately and then to make any needed corrections or add balance later?
9. Would arguments would you, as a reporter, use to hold a story you think is not complete when the editor or producer wants to run it?
1. Warp Speed, by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, Century Foundation Press, 1999.
2. The Starr report: published in various forms as discussed in the text.