And Now...the Unedited, Unfiltered News
At long last, Jane Doe No. 5.
After months of buzz from online gossip Matt Drudge, fulmination from cable television host Chris Matthews and insinuations from House Minority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), Juanita Broaddrick's sexual assault allegation against Bill Clinton has flared in the serious press.
Ten days ago, Wall Street Journal editorial writer Dorothy Rabinowitz's interview with Broaddrick became the basis for a piece that ran on the newspaper's commentary pages. The next morning, The Washington Post published a long and pained news story on page one, explaining that it had interviewed Broaddrick months earlier--off the record--and had only won her consent to go public after the Journal piece appeared. Four days later, NBC aired an interview with Broaddrick that had been taped before the Journal story, and it was only then that millions of Americans tuned in.
What are we to make not only of Jane Doe No. 5, but also of how and when she became a story? The circuitous tale is a template for what might be called the New Mixed Media Culture, and it is a sign of things to come--bad things for the nature of public discourse. We are moving toward a journalism of assertion rather than a journalism of verification, and the cost for society is high.
Some will doubtless jump to accuse us of being either Clinton defenders or journalistic Luddites bent on preserving a dying order. On the contrary, we are not judging the merits of Broaddrick's allegation. Moreover, we believe strongly that more modes of communication, including cable TV and the Internet, benefit everyone. Our point is to reaffirm the value and the limits of journalism's function. Clinton's fitness for office is beyond the scope of reporters to decide. Rather, a journalist's job is to sift out the facts from the allegations, and to provide citizens with accurate reliable information upon which they can self-govern. That process is at risk.
First, some background: Broaddrick is a nursing home operator in Arkansas who now alleges that Bill Clinton forced her to have sex with him in her hotel room in 1978. She told friends about the incident at the time. She did not go to the police and avoided reporters. Years later, when contacted by Paula Jones's attorneys, she signed an affidavit denying Clinton had assaulted her. But when she was contacted by investigators working with independent counsel Kenneth Starr and offered immunity from prosecution, she retracted the affidavit.
Then, after Clinton's trial in the Senate had begun, she decided to make the allegation public, though it did not surface in the mainstream press until 10 days ago.
Why did this become a big story only after the impeachment process was over?
Actually, several leading news organizations had pursued this story since 1992 and had not been able to verify it. Broaddrick refused to go on the record, and the news organizations properly resisted going with only secondhand sources. Late last month, on the eve of the impeachment vote in the Senate, NBC News finally persuaded Broaddrick to sit for an on-the-record interview. In the ensuing weeks, NBC tried to confirm various elements of her account and held off running it while they did so.
NBC News made the right choice.
To begin with, Broaddrick's account is problematic, especially by legal standards. She told the story, denied the story, and then retracted the denial. With that record, she put her credibility in doubt and neither Jones's attorneys nor Starr were able to make a case with her testimony. Even the House managers who interviewed her chose not to use the allegation publicly in their efforts to convict Clinton.
There is also the question of Broaddrick's timing in going public. She did not come forward for nearly two decades, and then did so only when her allegations could have caused Clinton's removal while allowing her to escape entanglement in most of the legal process.
That timing gave NBC appropriate pause. There is a long tradition of fairness in the press of not dropping bombs at the last minute during elections or other public debates. This informal rule prevents stories from unduly influencing an outcome before the sorting-out process of journalism has been given a chance to work. In addition to the timing, the gravity of the charge itself should require a high degree of substantiation.
NBC News ended up taking a lot of heat for not running the interview earlier. That only goes to show that restraint is often more difficult than charging ahead. Making those calls--editing--is at the heart of journalism.
The importance of verification became all the more clear when viewers saw NBC's interview. The time taken to corroborate specific details of her story, to probe its weaknesses and to examine her failure to come forward sooner, made NBC's account more credible and valuable.
During the time NBC and other news organizations were working to verify Broaddrick's story, we saw the new, impatient culture of journalism at work. It is not a culture dedicated to establishing whether a story is true. It disregards verification and focuses on some secondary controversy in order to talk about the story.
In December, for instance, CNBC talk-show host Matthews broached the Broaddrick story without offering any indication that he had tried to verify it. Instead, he discussed how members of Congress were silently using the "rape accusation" to make up their minds on impeachment. "Why are members of the Republican caucus willing to read material that accuses the president of things like rape and make their decisions based on that information, but are not willing to disclose it after they learned it?" he asked Rep. Tillie Fowler (R-Fla.) during an appearance on his show. She was forbidden by law from talking about such matters, Fowler answered.
The same pattern followed on talk radio, on Fox News, on Matt Drudge's Web site, and in the Washington Times--reporting not on the substance of the allegation but on NBC News's hesitation about airing it, or speculation about pressure from the White House to kill the story.
Then, once the impeachment process had concluded, the story was ferried into the press as a political statement by the editorial writers of the Wall Street Journal. The Journal's editorial pages, it is worth noting, have been aggressive about airing allegations against Clinton that had not yet passed the paper's own test of news. The Journal essay forced reporters and editors at other news organizations to decide how to react, and whether to treat the allegations as a news story on their face or as a story about the political debate. The day after the Journal's Feb. 19 story on the editorial page, The Post ran its page one news story. The New York Times chose to run an account on an inside news page of how the story came to be.
In effect, the old press was trying to react to a new kind of journalism, one that is not concerned with fact finding but with influencing events--in this case, trying to damage Clinton.
The pressure of the new journalism of assertion is to go with stories before they have gone through the discipline of reporting--and that is what reporting is, a discipline. The foundation of journalism's role in society is its "ruthless respect for the fact," as Columbia Journalism School professor Jim Carey has said.
In part because investing in reporting is too expensive, and in part because shouting can generate an audience, much of the so-called "information revolution" is about speculation and argument, not gathering information. In addition, the continuous news cycle makes verification more difficult. Journalism is becoming less a product than a process, witnessed in real time and in public. First comes the allegation. Then the anchor vamps and speculates until the counter-allegation is issued.
The demand to keep up with and air this to and fro leaves journalists with less time to take stock and sort out what is true and genuinely significant. The public gets the grist, the raw elements. There is more "news" on the air, but it is delivered piecemeal with little context.
Why is it so important for journalists to verify rather than just dig up allegations and pour them out for others to sift through on their own?
A journalism of unfiltered assertion makes separating fact from spin, argument from innuendo, more difficult and leaves the society more susceptible to manipulation. Journalism is a forum for debate, but that does not generate truth unless it is built on a foundation of accurate information. An argument between two prejudices educates no one. It only inflames.
"Where all news comes at secondhand, where all the testimony is uncertain, men cease to respond to truths, and respond simply to opinions," Walter Lippman wrote more than 80 years ago. "The environment in which they act is not the realities themselves, but the pseudo-environment of reports, rumors and guesses. The whole reference of thought comes to be what somebody asserts, not what actually is."
More sources of news are better for everyone. But that is profoundly dangerous if journalists allow that to mean that their responsibility to first verify the facts is lessened. If anything, it is heightened. There is more misinformation and disinformation out there. And it does not simply sort itself out by argument.
How does the cycle end?
Quite possibly the current media--old and new--will come to disqualify themselves with the public. Fewer and fewer people will trust them until, eventually, they can no longer sustain themselves economically. The society suffers, until some new form of information dissemination evolves. But it will not be the talk show. Nor will it be the prime-time magazine infotainment hour. These are diversions, which compete with video games for people's time.
People are already drifting away from journalism as it has moved increasingly toward being a forum for conflict, an extension of what Georgetown University professor Deborah Tannen calls "The Argument Culture." This kind of journalism appeals to extremes, but it is a less reliable, less efficient way for citizens to learn and navigate their world.
In a society with growing choices, and one where the depth of information is potentially infinite, the highest value will be given to the source whose information is most dependable.
Every society throughout history has created its own journalism. In each, history reveals, the form that has prevailed was the most reliable one. In responding to the current wave of technological, economic and political change, journalists must not succumb to the pressure to lower their guard or abandon their standards of proof.
To maintain authority with the public, journalists would be wise to remember one of the old adages: When in doubt, leave it out. Being first and wrong is worse than useless. It damages both journalism and society.