Media’s Rush to Judgment

A combination of Bill Clinton’s fictions and dissembling about his past extramarital affairs and the ferocious competition between the commercial press to be first with any snippet has produced not a media frenzy but a full-scale media riot.

Article and column after article and column in the reputable press kept referring to “allegations” about the President having sexual relations with a 21 year old woman and urging her to lie about it. Allegations from whom, I asked five Washington reporters? Silence for a moment and then the counter question: “well what would you call them?”

If the press is to avoid pulling a Senator Joseph McCarthy smear tactic, either an accuser needs to be openly available or a lawsuit filed or a prosecutor charging in court or at least some accusatory evidence of minimum credibility.

What did the press have? A partial transcript of telephone conversations recorded by a critic of Clinton, who once worked in the Bush White House, with an apparently distraught young woman talking about her relations with the President. The woman, Monica Lewinsky, has made no accusations to date and swore under oath in the Paula Jones litigation that she has had no sexual relations with our country’s political leader.

The press also had part-time Special Prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, who is the all-purpose investigator of Clinton matters while working actively as a senior partner with the corporate law firm of Kirkland & Ellis on behalf of major companies wanting something from — yes — the Clinton Administration. Starr’s office has the Lewinsky tapes and lots of leaks to reporters of unverified tidbits.

So what the newspapers, magazines and television-radio have been conveying to the public are rumors, speculation, hearsay, and gossip based on the excited utterances of Ms. Lewinsky in a private conversation with what she thought was a friend. The media validly could report an investigation under way, but who has made any allegations that would lead to the riotous, almost breathless behavior by the press corps in Washington, D.C.?

For example, how many times have you heard, “if the allegations are true, this is the end of the Clinton Presidency” or “he’ll have to resign in days,” or “he’ll be impeached by Congress.” From George Will to Sam Donaldson to Tim Russert to George Stephanopoulos to Cokie Roberts to the McLaughlin crew to E.J. Dionne to Richard Cohen to the experienced reporters at the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal and on and on, the rush to judgment has deprived them of judgment, restraint, and professionalism.

It was noteworthy that David Broder of the Washington Post paused long enough to graciously refer to the allegations as “still unproved.”

Washington Post Ombudsman, Geneva Overholser, who has been fielding irate calls from readers who agree with her that the press is far ahead of the facts, nonetheless said in her Sunday column that “the story was not insubstantial, there was much to go on. There were numerous anonymous sources but they were testable -­assertions of fact, not judgment or characterization.”

One problem, Ms. Overholser. They were neither tested nor testable, nor corroborated nor identified, nor were they even accusatory assertions. Starr says he is investigating, and the tapes were shaky conversations whose most titillating segments were contradicted under oath by Ms. Lewinsky herself. She also said to her friend on tape that she has lied her entire life.

Now the big story may yet firm up, may yet report evidence that leads to proven prevarication, suborning perjury and obstruction of justice. But until then, can the media please suspend leading so gravely with such oblique or doubtful personal conversations that do not rise to the level of reportable allegations?

Instead the feverish media are sprawling from unidentified or non-existent allegations to repeated hypothetical questions, such as “if these allegations are true, it’s all over for Clinton,” to media polls based on these hypotheticals which are then reported back to the people to further hype the reporting.

From Newsweek’s Evan Thomas (“explosion with the allegations”) to the New York Times, Frances Clines (“a variable universe of allegations”) to Tim Russert inviting the on-line, reckless sludge merchant, Matt Drudge, to his Meet the Press Table with columnist, William Safire, Newsweek’s Mike Isikoff and legal columnist, Stuart Taylor, the bottom fell out of establishment journalism this month.

The collapse of journalistic standards of fairness, accuracy and proportionality has precedents, to be sure. One could easily see it coming in recent years.

But this media meltdown will be partially shielded from depthless shame, only if the facts catch up to the rioters and spare them. Otherwise, lots of prominent but precipitous reporters and editors will have seriously damaged themselves and that precious asset known as public confidence and trust.

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