The Project for Excellence in Journalism

 

 

Internet Journalism and the

Clinton-Lewinsky Investigation

 

By JD Lasica

 

 

Synopsis

 

The Internet, as it is known and used today, took years to evolve. Similar to the development of radio and television, the Internet first caught on in technologically savvy circles.  Slowly it made its way into a form of communication among the general public.  In 1995 only 14 percent of the public went online, according to a public opinion survey by the Pew Center for the People and the Press.  By 1997 that number had risen to 37 percent, but it was not until the summer of 1999 that half of those questioned reported that they used the Internet.

 

A pivotal moment in the Internet’s coming of age was an eight-month investigation of the President of the United States during 1998.  The investigation, led by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, examined whether President Clinton had had a sexual affair with a 24-year-old White House intern named Monica Lewinsky and had lied about it under oath to a federal grand jury.  The highly political scandal ended in impeachment for the president, though not conviction or removal from office.  But, more important for journalism, it forced the traditional media to overhaul their ways of presenting news online in order to meet the needs and demands of Internet users.

“The first generation of Web journalism was bland, irrelevant, and generally clueless,” says Jon Katz, an online columnist and new media scholar at the Freedom Forum.  “Nobody paid much attention to it.  Then came the Clinton scandal and the Starr report, and everything changed.”

“It was the first time.” he says, “that official Washington, journalism, and the Internet bumped into one another nose to nose.”

The Internet was used to break the news of the scandal, to voice new allegations, and to release in its entirety Starr’s final report on his investigation.  It provided the first detailed look at the differences in character between the Internet and the traditional broadcast and print media. It raises such questions as these for journalism:

The Internet may help journalists give the news faster and more in-depth, but does it make it more difficult to be accurate and fair?

How can journalists approach this medium in a way that upholds these journalistic principles?

This case examines three specific instances in the scandal:

1.  Reports based on shaky sourcing in the Wall Street Journal and the Dallas Morning News that the president and the intern had been seen together in a compromising situation.

2.  The final report issued by investigator Kenneth Starr and widely carried in full on the web. 

3.  The breaking of the story by Matt Drudge through his online newsletter.

These events consider the issues of sourcing, verification, timing and public interest in the then-new age of Internet reporting.

The story is born

 

Shortly after midnight, in the early hours of January 17, Tripp’s lawyer arrived at the Washington offices of Newsweek with two tape recordings.  The tapes had been made by Tripp of conversations she had had with Lewinsky.

Tripp and Lewinsky both had been transferred from the White House to the Pentagon, where they got acquainted.  After hearing the tapes, evaluating what they had and weighing Starr’s entreaties that they wait a week, Newsweek’s editors decided against running the story—partly in exchange for a promise that Starr’s office would give them a complete account for the following week’s edition.

 

About five hours after Newsweek decided to hold off, Matt Drudge—a one-man Internet gossip and news agency—was tipped off about the piece and he reported it, without verifying the facts.  His story appeared on his Drudge Report web site, in an e-mail alert sent to 85,000 newsletter subscribers, and later in his column on America Online (AOL).  Here is his report:

DRUDGE REPORT By January 1998, Newsweek correspondent Michael Isikoff had spent months pursuing tips and rumors about sexual activities of the President of the United States. He had covered the suit in Arkansas brought by Paula Corwin Jones, who accused Bill Clinton of propositioning her in a Little Rock hotel when he was governor.  He had also followed the investigation into Clinton’s activities in Arkansas by Kenneth Starr.  Now, back in Washington and with the help of Linda Tripp, who formerly worked in the White House, and her literary agent friend, Lucianne Goldberg, he had come up with a detailed story about Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky.

 

Web Posted: 01/17/98 21:32:02 PST—

NEWSWEEK KILLS STORY ON WHITE

HOUSE INTERN BLOCKBUSTER REPORT:

23-YEAR OLD, FORMER WHITE HOUSE

INTERN, SEX RELATIONSHIP WITH

PRESIDENT

**World Exclusive**

**Must Credit the DRUDGE REPORT**

At the last minute, at 6 p.m. on Saturday evening, NEWSWEEK magazine killed a story that was destined to shake official Washington to its foundation: A White House intern carried on a sexual affair with the President of the United States!

The DRUDGE REPORT has learned that tapes of intimate phone conversations exist.

The relationship between the president and the young woman became strained when the president believed that the young woman was bragging about the affair to others.

NEWSWEEK and Isikoff were planning to name the The DRUDGE REPORT has learned that reporter Michael Isikoff developed the story of his career, only to have it spiked by top NEWSWEEK suits hours before publication. A young woman, 23, sexually involved with the love of her life, the President of the United States, since she was a 21-year-old intern at the White House.  She was a frequent visitor to a small study just off the Oval Office where she claims to have indulged the president’s sexual preference. Reports of the relationship spread in White House quarters and she was moved to a job at the Pentagon, where she worked until last month.

The young intern wrote long love letters to President Clinton, which she delivered through a delivery service. She was a frequent visitor at the White House after midnight, where she checked in the WAVE logs as visiting a secretary named Betty Curry, 57.  Word of the story’s impeding release caused blind chaos in media circles;

TIME magazine spent Saturday scrambling for its own version of the story, the DRUDGE REPORT has learned. The NEW YORK POST on Sunday was set to front the young intern’s affair, but was forced to fall back on the dated ABC NEWS Kathleen Willey break.

The story was set to break just hours after President Clinton testified in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case.

Ironically, several years ago, it was Isikoff that found himself in a shouting match with editors who were refusing to publish even a portion of his meticulously researched investigative report that was to break Paula Jones.  Isikoff worked for the WASHINGTON POST at the time, and left shortly after the incident to build them for the paper’s sister magazine, NEWSWEEK.

Michael Isikoff was not available for comment late Saturday.  NEWSWEEK was on voice mail.

The White House was busy checking the DRUDGE REPORT for details.

 

Drudge had earlier broken an Isikoff story being held by Newsweek about a White House volunteer, Kathleen Willey, who said Clinton had fondled her. That story had not attracted much attention, but this one about a White House intern set off intense journalistic competition.

The story goes mainstream

 

The next morning, Drudge’s report was mentioned by conservative commentator Bill Kristol on ABC’s This Week with Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts. By Monday, January 19, the Washington bureaus of the major news organizations knew about the report. Drudge’s e-mail dispatch had been seen by a number of influential news managers who subscribed to it, such as Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times.  Journalists of all stripes were chasing the story.

While many mainstream news reporters found the sexual underpinnings of the episode distasteful, there was little disagreement that it was a legitimate news story.  The Office of the Independent Counsel was investigating whether the president had obstructed justice by encouraging Monica Lewinsky to lie under oath about their relationship.  The fact that the oath was taken for a deposition in a separate sexual harassment case against Clinton made it no less newsworthy.

“When you use the words president, sex, and intern in the same sentence, you’re going to get everyone’s attention,” says Leah Gentry, director of new media for the Los Angeles Times.  “For an online journalist, the story was a lot of fun to work on because it had constantly breaking developments, lots of web storytelling challenges, opportunities for multimedia, and high reader interest.  All the lights were green.  If stories were holidays, this story was Christmas.”

The public airing of the charges dimmed the independent counsel’s hope of eliciting tape-recorded corroboration of the allegations, and suddenly Starr and his staff made themselves more accessible to journalists.  Newsweek had lost its scoop.

In the early evening of Tuesday, January 20, Dave Willman, the investigative reporter at the Los Angeles Times covering Whitewater, walked into the office of his boss, McManus.

Willman told the bureau chief that Starr just had his mandate broadened to look into allegations of the affair and whether Clinton had told Lewinsky to lie and commit perjury.  Times reporters immediately went to work on the story and found that they had heavy competition.  “The Washington Post had the story the same evening, ABC News had the story the same evening,” McManus says.  “So there was clearly a lot of leakage.”

Late Tuesday night, the story hit the mainstream media.  In its early edition, the Washington Post announced in a four-column headline across the front page:

CLINTON ACCUSED OF URGING AIDE TO LIE;

STARR PROBES WHETHER PRESIDENT TOLD WOMAN TO DENY ALLEGED AFFAIR TO JONES’S LAWYERS.

The article, by Susan Schmidt, who had been working the same territory as Isikoff, was attributed to “sources close to the investigation.”  Minutes after midnight, ABC

News broadcast a story recapping the Post story on its radio network.  ABC’s Jackie Judd had also covering the Arkansas angles along with Schmidt and Isikoff.  And the Los Angeles Times also broke the story in its Wednesday edition with a front-page story headlined, 

 

STARR EXAMINES CLINTON LINK TO FEMALE INTERN.

None of these stories named a single source.

The story builds

 

A media feeding frenzy followed public disclosure of Starr’s investigation.  Revelation piled upon revelation, each more sensational than the one before.  Journalists scrambled to confirm them but often ran them with only anonymous sourcing.  During just the first week, various newspapers and networks reported the following, most of which proved false in the end:

That White House staff members once saw Clinton and Lewinsky in an intimate encounter.

That the two had engaged in phone sex.

That Clinton had left a message on Lewinsky’s answering machine.

That Clinton may have had sex with a second White House intern.

That Clinton said he does not consider oral sex to be adultery.

That he claimed to have had sex with “hundreds” of women.

That in his sealed deposition he admitted under oath to having an affair with another woman, Gennifer Flowers.

That he might have had an affair with a distant cousin.

That he had had an affair with the widow of a former ambassador to Switzerland who been exhumed from Arlington National Cemetery and buried in another site when it was discovered that he had fabricated his military record.

On top of the leaks came declarations from journalists that Clinton would be forced from office. Four days after the story broke, the prospect of impeachment or resignation was a major topic of discussion on the Sunday talk shows. Sam Donaldson, ABC’s White House correspondent, asserted on This Week with Sam and Cokie:

“Mr. Clinton, if he’s not telling the truth and the evidence shows that, will resign, perhaps this week.”

The public disagreed. A Washington Post poll taken ten days after the story broke found that 56 percent of those surveyed believed the news media were treating Clinton unfairly, and 74 percent said the media were giving the story “too much attention.”  A Freedom Forum poll found that the top two adjectives used by Americans to describe the coverage of the story were “excessive” and “embarrassing.”  But the potential for impeachment and the constant stream of rumors and allegations hung like carrots in front of journalists.

Nearly all news organizations had established home pages on the web by this time, but few were taking advantage of the online medium’s inherent advantages of immediacy, interactivity and depth. The vast majority of newspapers updated their sites once a day, following the print cycle, preventing the web site from “scooping” the newspaper.  Most news sites relied almost exclusively on “shovelware”— content that had the twin disadvantages of being written for a different medium (print) and being untimely, i.e., yesterday’s news.  Breaking news, if covered at all, was left to a wire service feed on the site.  Interactivity was a novelty.  Some Internet news sites associated with television, such as CNN Interactive and MSNBC, were experimenting with multimedia, but most news sites used video and audio sparingly or not at all.  For the most part, users came, they clicked, they yawned.  It seemed that newspapers considered the web a reluctant obligation rather than the future of their business.

Perhaps inspired by competition to get the story first—or even by Drudge’s wide readership—many news organizations tried to build their online presence during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.  The immediate delivery of information on the web suddenly caught on as a way not only of offering background or analysis but of breaking news to the public. This case study looks closely at two early incidents in the coverage: A report in the Dallas Morning News, and a report in the Wall Street Journal, each of which could have dealt a crippling political blow to Clinton’s presidency.

Eye of the storm: Dallas Morning News The publication that found itself most squarely in the eye of the hurricane during early press coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky matter, was the Dallas Morning News.

On Sunday, January 25, ABC News reported on This Week that Starr was looking into claims that in the spring of 1996 the president and Lewinsky had been “caught in an intimate encounter” by either Secret Service agents or White House staffers, according to “several sources.”  The following day, David Jackson, a veteran member of the Dallas Morning News Washington bureau, received a tip from a source who put more meat and bones on the story. The source, a well-connected Washington lawyer, said he had knowledge that a federal employee had seen Clinton and Lewinsky in a “compromising situation” in the White House and had agreed to testify as a government witness.  The report, if true, dramatically escalated the stakes for the president.

Later Monday, the News spoke with the source again and amended the story to say that Starr’s staff had spoken with a Secret Service agent, a level of detail that added gravity to the charge.  The paper’s top editor, Ralph Langer, says the source confirmed the story after it was read to him.

But a News official would later say the source’s law partner called Jackson at 5 p.m. to warn the paper off the story.  Bureau chief Carl Leubsdorf acknowledged that he learned of the call around midnight Washington time but minimized the reservations expressed by the law partner.

At a meeting of senior editors early that evening, the story was discussed at length.  John Cranfill, managing director of the dallasnews.com web site, recalls he expressed doubts about the story’s accuracy.  “I was skeptical of the story.  It raised chill bumps on my arms.  I lobbied to wait on the story.  But the others felt we had it solid, and the decision was made to run it in the first edition.”  The story was then sent out to the Associated Press and Knight Ridder wires and posted on the paper’s web site.

On Monday night, the paper ran in its bulldog edition (which hit the streets that night but carried the next day’s date) and on its web site a story with this lead:

“Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s staff has spoken with a Secret Service agent who is prepared to testify that he saw President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky in a compromising situation in the White House, sources said Monday.”

Soon, all hell broke loose.  Wire services sent the story worldwide. Cable networks, radio shows and local TV newscasts led with the report.  Larry King interrupted his program to read the story live. Ted Koppel led Nightline with the news.  The story was so explosive that the White House called Nightline and denied the story on the air.

‘There’s a problem with the story’ By the end of Nightline the original source called the paper and backed off his claim, saying, “I don’t think I really said what you’re reporting.” (Both Langer and Cranfill suggest that White House pressure led to the source’s turnabout, but journalists reconstructing the piece for the Dallas Observer conclude it’s more likely that one of Starr’s staff members called the source to retract the claim—because it wasn’t true.)  A flurry of phone calls ensued.

Recalls Cranfill: “At 11:30 p.m. I got a call from the national editor, who said, ‘There’s a problem with the story, Ralph Langer says to take it off the site.’  We put up an explanation that the source had changed his statement.”

 

Langer pulled the story out of Tuesday’s second edition.  The News later substituted a story that said in part, “The source for the story, a longtime Washington lawyer familiar with the case, later said the information provided for Tuesday’s report was inaccurate.”

The Associated Press carried the newspaper’s report on the wire for nearly four hours that night before filing a “bulletin kill” at 1:02 a.m.

Tuesday. Darrell Christian, AP managing editor, said the news service tries to be cautious about repeating allegations supported only by unidentified sources.  He said he had no reason to doubt the Dallas paper’s account, based on its trustworthy track record.  “We take into account the news organization, the nature of the report, and the qualifications they give to the report,” he says.  “It’s hard to fault anyone for picking up that report. It passed the smell test.”

 

Just a few hours passed between the Morning News story and its retraction, but that was more than enough time for the news to circle the globe.  Dozens of newspapers, including the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune, carried the report the next day.  (The New York Post’s front page headline blared: “I SAW THEM DO IT”; the New York Daily News said: “CAUGHT IN THE ACT.”)  The papers were then forced to publish an account of the Morning News’s quasi-retraction the next day.

Retraction of a retraction

 

Yet a third version of the story appeared on the Morning News web site late Tuesday and in its print edition the next day.  This time, the paper partly reasserted its original claim—now seemingly based on multiple sources—saying that the first story was “essentially correct.”

Quoting two sources, the paper said “one or more witnesses” had seen Clinton and Lewinsky in “an ambiguous incident” rather than “a compromising situation.”  It also said an “intermediary for one or more witnesses”—and not a Secret Service agent—had “talked with independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s office about possible cooperation.”

Later, on Wednesday, the newspaper assembled more than 200 editorial employees in a ballroom of the Hyatt Regency Hotel to discuss the fiasco.  Editor Ralph Langer fielded questions from staffers with the aid of a wireless microphone while Carl Leubsdorf, the paper’s longtime Washington bureau chief, chimed in from a speakerphone.  Langer told the employees that the News had unwittingly relied on only one source to publish its original story, violating the paper’s two-source standard.

Senior editors mistakenly believed a second source existed because of a “miscommunication” between Dallas and the Washington bureau.  Pundits, politicians and press critics immediately pounced upon the paper’s retraction.  The New York Times devoted a story to the debacle under the headline, “Retracting a Retraction, Self-Defense and a Revelation.”  Reporter Janny Scott wrote: “The Dallas Morning News, the newspaper that made news by becoming the first news gathering organization to officially retract a front-page story on the White House sex scandal, went itself one better yesterday and retracted the retraction.  Sort of.”

 

The Wall Street Journal’s revisions

About three weeks after the story first broke, a Wall Street Journal reporter approached Joe Lockhart, the White House deputy press secretary, shortly before 4 p.m. on February 4, according to Lockhart.  The reporter was asking for a reaction to accusations that a White House steward had once seen Clinton and Lewinsky alone in a study next to the Oval Office.  The reporter said he needed the information quickly because the paper planned to publish the story on its web site.  Lockhart said he and the reporter agreed that Lockhart would get back to the reporter within 30 minutes unless the reporter paged him to say he had less time.  A few minutes later, the reporter paged him to say the story had already gone up on the Wall Street Journal online site.

The Journal’s online story reported that Bayani Nelvis, a White House steward, had testified before Starr’s grand jury that he had seen Clinton and Lewinsky alone together.  The story claimed the steward “found and disposed of tissues with lipstick and other stains following a meeting between Mr. Clinton and Ms. Lewinsky,” and that he had recounted the episode to the Secret Service because he was “personally offended” by it.  The report was attributed to “two individuals familiar with” the steward’s testimony.  Within minutes after the story was posted, the Journal’s Washington bureau chief, Alan Murray, appeared on the cable news channel CNBC—the Journal’s new television partner—discussing the scoop.  His remarks were later picked up by MSNBC and posted on the MSNBC web site.

Less than 90 minutes after the Journal first posted the story, Nelvis’s attorney issued a statement calling the report “absolutely false and irresponsible.”  Later that afternoon, the Washington Post and other news organizations sought to verify the original allegations, but the Post said its sources close to the grand jury strongly denied that Nelvis had given any such testimony.

At 6:40 p.m., the Journal posted a revised version of the story in which it added the strong denials from the steward’s lawyer, who had refused to comment when the Journal was preparing its initial report.  The softened story contained a second change as well: The steward reportedly spoke to Secret Service personnel, and not necessarily the grand jury, about what he had seen.  Meantime, both the original report and revised version had flashed to news outlets across the country.

Brian Duffy, who shared a byline on the story, justified the online publication this way: “We heard footsteps from at least one other news organization and just didn’t think it was going to hold in this crazy cycle we’re in.”  The following morning, February 5, yet another version appeared in the Journal, this time in the print edition.  The story, with a few small modifications, ran on page A24 under the headline, “Controversy Erupts Over Testimony to Grand Jury by White House Steward.”  Hours later, at his daily press briefing, Lockhart noted that in its haste to post the story, the Journal had not waited for a response from the White House.  “The normal rules of checking or getting a response to a story seem to have given way to the technology of the Internet and the competitive pressure of getting it first,” he said.  “I understand the competitive pressure that everybody is under. But I do think it’s a significant lowering of standards when getting it first supersedes getting it right.”

 

Richard Tofel, a spokesman for the Journal, denied the White House’s assertion of declining journalistic standards and said the newspaper had merely updated a breaking news story, a standard practice for news organizations. “In the wire service business, this happens all the time,” Tofel said.  Paul Steiger, the paper’s managing editor, released a statement saying, “We stand by our account of what Mr. Nelvis told the Secret Service.”  He said the Journal posted the story when the editors “felt it was ready.”  The Journal didn’t wait for a response because the paper felt the White House had made it clear it wouldn’t answer questions about the case.

On Monday, February 9, the Journal reported that, contrary to its earlier story, the steward had not told the grand jury he had seen Clinton and Lewinsky alone. In fact, far from seeing something, Nelvis turns out never to have seen the two alone and had testified to that before the grand jury. “We deeply regret our erroneous report of Mr. Nelvis’s testimony,” the Journal quoted Steiger as saying.

During the week, while several wire services filed reports about the Journal story and its later retractions, the Associated Press didn’t touch it.  Darrell Christian, the managing editor who had earlier picked up the Dallas Morning News story, said this time “we went to our own sources and tried to check it out and were pretty much convinced that there were enough doubts about the accuracy of the report that we would not go with it.”

As it turned out, no eyewitness to an intimate act by Clinton and Lewinsky has ever come

forward. Supporting documents to the Starr report show that White House steward, Bayani Nelvis, had complained to the Secret Service about having to collect towels that had lipstick on them.  This is as close as any evidence comes to there being a witness.  The Starr report, in the end, was mute on the subject.

The scars remain

 

Nearly two years later, it is apparent in the Dallas Morning News newsroom that the scars from the episode remain.  “The conventional wisdom is that the Dallas Morning News really screwed up,” John Cranfill says, a bit brusquely.  “But it was the witness who changed his story.  During those early weeks there was a lot of rumor and innuendo flying around, and a lot of news organizations were put in the position of trying to sort out the truth.  We had sources swearing to us up and down that certain events happened, and it turned out it wasn’t true.  There was a lot of pressure to put the next revelation up without as much confirmation as we needed.”

While it may sound like a convincing argument to go slow on a big story and not worry about scooping the competition, Cranfill doesn’t see it that way. “News coverage is always sloppy. You don’t have the luxury of being able to pore over the documented facts like a historian and say, ‘Here’s what really happened.’  When you’re in the heat of the moment, you’re at the mercy of what people who step forward tell you.  We’re especially vulnerable on the web.”

Cranfill, who became the web site’s news projects editor in 1999, adds: “Most Internet-based breaking news stories advance faster than television, much faster than newspapers and at least as fast as radio.  Anyone who has had any experience reading wire service bulletins learns quickly that the initial reports on the wire are partly right and partly wrong, and only time will tell which is which.  Now, if you’re running a news web site, are you going to sit on what you’ve got, or are you going to report it?  If you hold off, I’ll guarantee you people will pick up the phone and ask us why we’re not publishing the news.”

The issue of sourcing

 

During press coverage of such past scandals as Watergate in 1974 or Iran-Contra in 1987, perhaps the biggest challenge facing journalists involved news gathering—teasing out enough information from reluctant sources for a solid story.  In the Clinton sex scandal, information flowed like a flooding river.  As a result of the Internet, it was everywhere, but much of it was murky or polluted.  One organization sometimes cited another organization as its source, or linked to another organization’s web site story.

Once something made it into the public airways, it was hard to slow it down.  A study commissioned by the Committee of Concerned Journalists found that in the early stages of the Starr investigation, 21 percent of the reporting was based on anonymous sources and almost half of those stories were based on one source only.  Sandy Grady, Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, dubbed the early coverage “Monica Meltdown Week.”  He wrote:

 

“This was the worst performance by the American press my eyes and ears witnessed since I began covering Washington in 1974.  I’ve never seen so many stories flying through the ether disconnected from sources, stories flatly wrong, over-dramatized hype, hypothesis disguised as fact and toxic stuff circulating through the Internet, cable and mainline press.”

The real challenge came in filtering out fact from rumor.  In particular:

News organizations covering the story first hand had to determine the reliability of the information obtained. Some sources had politically tinged motives—many participants had Republican ties and had a strong, visceral hatred of President Clinton dating back to the outset of his 1992 presidential campaign and before.  Some sources in the independent counsel’s office were using the press by selectively leaking information to gain tactical advantage with reluctant witnesses like Lewinsky.  Reporters and editors worked out these calls based on their experiences, news judgment and gut feelings.

News organizations, especially those from small and medium-size markets, had to wade through the digital data-stream pouring through the newsroom from outside channels each day to decide what to publish.  Even established news providers like the Wall Street Journal and Dallas Morning News were stumbling, while newcomers like cyber-columnist Drudge seemed to be wired to some knowledgeable—if anonymous—sources.

In this story, editors had an especially difficult time determining what was fit to print.  They were often troubled by the endless leaks and the constant parade of unidentified sources, particularly when they had to rely on the judgments of other news organizations.

Dan Berko, online content editor for the 35,000-circulation Daily Camera of Boulder, Colorado, recalls: “We didn’t have correspondents in Washington, we didn’t have sources in Kenneth Starr’s office, we didn’t know anything first hand.  We were somewhat at the mercy of the big news outfits and the wire services.  We trusted them to get it right, and I’m not sure they always got it right.  But if we limited our coverage, were we doing a disservice to our readers?”

Large news organizations also wrestled with the sourcing problem.  The editors at the New York Times were particularly wary of passing along reports based on unidentified sources.  At one point the Times Washington bureau had four hearsay sources asserting there was indeed a witness to an intimate encounter between Clinton and Lewinsky. Executive Editor Joseph Lelyveld says the Times came close to running a story, but couldn’t nail down the account to its editors’ satisfaction.  “We got quite a coherent story from one person, and fragments supported by others.  Then we got some very stiff denials of key elements from people said to be involved. In the end, it just didn’t seem good enough.  It’s easy to slip up and make mistakes.

It takes a lot of self-discipline to keep asking the question: ‘How do we know this?’  We’ve all heard the same stuff.  We’re trying very hard to anchor what we put in the paper on our own reporting, but it’s a difficult standard.  We’re all swimming in the same murky sea.”

 

Eric Owles, national producer for the New York Times on the Web, says it would have been easy to publish the allegations by attributing them to another news source, such as the Dallas paper.  But he says the paper’s web editors decided early on not to report any new development unless they had independently confirmed the report with the paper’s Washington bureau. “While the Starr investigation put new media in the spotlight,” Owles says, “we didn’t want the pressure of 24-hour news to be used as an excuse to rush stories into print on the basis of unverified, unnamed sources.”

 

Other media did the same.  A wire editor at CNN was responsible for reconciling conflicting information on the scandal that came in from outside news providers.  The Los Angeles Times sought to stick to its two-source rule and assigned a copy editor to see that stories were acceptably sourced before they appeared in the paper or on the web site. As a result, some big stories, such as the initial reports about the now-famous stained blue dress worn by Lewinsky during one encounter, did not appear.

The Starr report

 

On September 9, 1998, the House of Representatives received special prosecutor Starr’s report.  The report—formally titled “Referral From Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr in Conformity With the Requirements of Title 28, United States Code, Section 595©”—was a document without precedence in U.S. history.  It contained graphic accounts of Clinton’s sexual affair with Lewinsky and alleged that the president had committed perjury, obstructed justice, tampered with witnesses and abused his constitutional powers.  The report laid the foundation for Clinton’s impeachment by the House along party lines in December 1998; he was acquitted in his Senate trial two months later.  Two days after it got the report, the House voted to release it—on the Internet—and for one improbable, and historical, afternoon and evening, the Net had the spotlight all to itself.

In the online melee that ensued, journalists scrambled to get a copy—but so did millions of ordinary Americans.  Congress had made no provisions to handle the crush of traffic at the three official government web sites posting the report. Its servers were hopelessly jammed.  To compound the problem, legislative techies had posted the 445-page report in a clunky format that required users to download the entire document without being able to peek at its contents.

At 2:45 p.m., September 11, CNN.com became the first news site to post the report, beating the competition by 15 minutes because of “good connections inside the Capitol,” says Scott Woelfel, general manager and editor in chief of CNN Interactive.  By mid-afternoon, the free-for-all was in full swing.  CNN.com’s front page was getting 300,000 hits per minute.  MSNBC reported 1.94 million visitors that day, a record.  Across the entire web, traffic was up 175 percent over the previous day.  All told, 20 million Americans read parts of the report online within 48 hours of its release.

The release of the Starr report was widely seen as the single most important event in the history of the Internet up to that point.  “The real milestone of the Starr report,” Woelfel observes, “was that if you weren’t on the Net, you felt like you were missing part of the story.”

Journalists new to the Internet are sometimes surprised by how much nuts-and-bolts technical tinkering goes on in new media newsrooms, and this was never truer than on this day.  At the Los Angeles Times, the entertainment staff joined the entire new media department in cutting and pasting text documents into smaller file sizes to enable users to scan through web-friendly HTML pages.  CNN placed the report on an internal server so TV correspondents could access it immediately while sitting at computer terminals.  And at the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colorado, the 23-year-old Berko went to heroic lengths—working 27 straight hours—to download the report from an FTP server, upload it to the local site and then send it on to Scripps-Howard’s corporate site.

Many came to the same conclusion as an editor at the Providence Journal: “It’s clear to us that many readers want to get their hands on the raw data as opposed to information that has been filtered through editors and reporters.  These are people who want to make their own judgment, and giving them the actual report is the only way to do that.”

Certainly, the Starr report’s availability on the Internet changed the dynamic of the deliberations inside newsrooms.  Some decided to pass on the report because of its wide availability elsewhere.  Others saw posting the full report on the news publication’s web site as a civic responsibility.  The fact that users proactively had to access the report on the web, rather than having it enter their living rooms through the airwaves or a family newspaper, was a decisive factor for them.

A nationwide survey of daily newspaper editors by Presstime, the magazine of the American Newspaper Publishers’ Association, found three days after the report’s release that:

17 percent published the full report in print;

70 percent ran excerpts;

64 percent ran the full text online, and these sites saw an average 80 percent increase in traffic.

The report takes shape on the web

 

Once online news publications had a copy of the report in hand and crafted an appropriate warning about its explicit content, they got down to the business of making it web-friendly.  “It’s not enough to just put up a 445-page document and say, ‘Here it is, everyone’,” says CNN’s Woelfel. “Our online staff had to figure out how to tame this multi-tentacled creature.”  News organizations faced a number of decisions:

How to handle the explicit language and descriptions of lascivious conduct described in the report.

Whether to print excerpts or the full text of the report.

Whether to publish it online in the same format as it was available on the Internet.

Whether the report’s contents should be filtered by the traditional news role of “gatekeepers.”

While dozens of non-news sites, ranging from search engines like Lycos to financial services sites like Motley Fool, also made the report available online, some news sites provided a full complement of web tools in dissecting the report.

At the Boulder Daily Camera web site, the Starr report was wrapped into the site’s “Clinton in Crisis” package, including an archive of past stories relating to the scandal and a biographical cast of characters that sketched out the major players and their role in the affair.  The Dallas Morning News web site added the Starr report to its ongoing scandal package.  The paper’s dallasnews.com gave the report context by assembling in one place the scores of staff-written stories, press conference transcripts, biographical sketches, background profiles, a slide show that contained photographs of all the key players, video footage, reader forums, e-mail addresses of members of Congress and links to other sites.  “I don’t know of anything written or said or photographed about this event that was not up on our site,” says online editor Cranfill.

At latimes.com, the release of the Starr report gave editors an opportunity to cover multiple elements of the story and allow readers to engage in “personal storytelling,” as New Media Director Leah Gentry likes to call it.  “The personal nature of the web allows you to move through information at your own pace, access the material at multiple entry points, and seek out the elements you’re most interested in.  The web is a non-linear experience, and no two people move through the web the same way.”

 

Latimes.com interwove the Starr report with the deep content of its “Clinton Under Fire” package: an interactive time-line of the major events, including video of the major participants; an archive of staff-written articles, columns and op-ed commentaries on the Clinton-Lewinsky matter; videotaped testimony and transcripts of testimony dating back to the Whitewater affair; e-mail addresses of members of Congress (which thousands of readers made use of); and lively discussion forums, which were now closely monitored because of a death threat made against the president on the “Clinton Under Fire” bulletin board on February 27, 1998. (The FBI and Secret Service were alerted and tracked down the culprit.)  On the day of the report’s release, the newspaper Los Angeles Times broke with tradition when its Washington bureau filed midday off-cycle news stories to its online site.  The online reports included a reporter’s notebook, a Q&A on the Starr report, and another first for the site: several audio filings throughout the day in which an online editor interviewed various Times political reporters.

At CNN.com, a team of four staff members worked non-stop over three days to index the report and cross-reference the document with links from participants’ names to thumbnail sketches. Reporters from CNN and Time magazine’s joint AllPolitics team filed breaking news stories with congressional, White House and public reaction.  Links were added from both the report and supporting materials to the site’s “Investigating the President” package, including photos of key players; a video of Clinton’s admission of an affair; transcripts of interviews, press conferences and remarks by congressional leaders; lively discussion forum postings; polls; editorial cartoons, and dozens of online stories, archived by month.  A search engine allowed users to browse the Starr report by table of contents, name, date or keyword.  The resulting package set the standard for how to treat primary source material on the web.

The Starr report raised questions about what content is suitable for family newspapers and live broadcasts.  Many news organizations resolved this dilemma by heavily editing its contents in print and on air and then making the entire report available on their web sites along with prominent warnings about the report’s graphic content.

Some of the oddest moments in the media’s coverage of the Starr investigation came when broadcast journalists read excerpts of the report live on the air.  CBS News correspondent Bob Schieffer reported the president and Lewinsky had engaged in “a sex act of a kind,” and he edited himself as he thumbed through the report.  CNN correspondent Candy Crawford, reporting live in front of an office computer, warned viewers that the report was explicit and then read excerpts off the Internet that described various sex acts.

“When you had broadcast journalists sitting down at a computer screen and showing the viewer passages from the report on the Web, it demonstrated vividly how completely reliant television journalists were on the web for this story,” says James Naughton, president of the Poynter Institute, a media think tank.

A role for analysis, synthesis and context.  On the day the Starr report swooped into cyberspace, news sites saw their online usage surge. A poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that the public turned to Internet sites in large numbers as a news source during the scandal.  Journalists should be heartened by the knowledge that online users gravitated to the major national news sites: MSNBC, CNN Interactive, USAToday Online, nytimes.com, washingtonpost.com.

But they should not be smug or complacent about their role in cyberspace, for millions of users accessed the report directly—without the filter of the news media.  As late as 1995, such a document could have been conveyed to the public only by journalists. Now it was instantly available to anyone with an Internet connection to read, dissect, forward to others, debate in an online forum, or print out and share with friends and neighbors.

Online columnist Katz says he received 25 or 30 copies of the report that people had e-mailed to him within a span of five minutes.  “This was the first time in American history that millions of citizens were given access to a critical document at the same time as their elected representatives and the news media,” he says.  “People reached their own conclusions about the document fairly quickly, without the Washington press corps, the pundits and Beltway politicians telling us what to think.  People in positions of power have been rattled by the Net because they sense they’re losing control over the civic agenda. The Net spreads the agenda-setting around.”

Still, though millions perused the report online, few read the full 445-page document.  Fewer still read the hundreds of pages of supporting materials.  Does this mean there still a need for journalists to divine the significance of news and put events into perspective?  Or can people get what they want for themselves?  Is there no longer a need for the work the Los Angeles Times produced for its paper and later posted on its web site—a comprehensive look at the Starr report’s most significant findings, congressional reaction, local public sentiment, a look at how the media covered the report on television, a story on how to answer children’s questions about the scandal, a business story on the stock market’s reaction to the Starr report (stocks were up because the report contained no bombshells), and an editorial on the scandal?

The release of the report raises another interesting aspect of the Internet. The report on the Watergate investigation years before the development of the Internet has never been released. Nor was it written as a narrative, according to Jim Doyle, former special assistant to the Watergate Special Prosecutors.  It was an index to the documents, all of which were sealed from the public by members of Congress.  In the current case, Starr expressed apparent chagrin at the release of the report.  But some Republican lawmakers told reporters that 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 and conviction after opposing it for nearly a year.  If that is true, the Internet, which made the wide and immediate release of the report so easy, takes on a new political role:

It lifted long-held documents from the hands of government and placed them in the realm of direct democracy.

In the end, this attempt at direct democracy to change public opinion backfired.  The public did not change its mind and the president was not convicted.  So, what does the Internet mean for democracy?  Does it move us toward direct democracy?

The report’s aftermath

 

The Starr report remained newsworthy far longer than just the week it came out. CNN’s Woelfel observes: “As more materials became public and as the impeachment process moved forward, we were able to link new stories back to the Starr report to add context to what was happening.  It became a living document that we used over and over. It’s still up on our site for that reason and we plan to keep it up indefinitely.”

At the outset of the scandal, the Internet was still in its infancy. 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.

By late 1998, Internet news had turned into a mass phenomenon.  Washingtonpost.com saw its traffic jump from 25 million page views in December 1997 to about 70 million a month one year later.  Other news sites saw similar gains.  But perhaps more important than the phenomenal growth in visitors are new questions journalists must address as they continue to deliver the news.

Epilogue: A still-evolving medium

 

Ten days after the online stampede for the Starr report, a new round of web mania erupted as visitors flocked to watch video of Clinton’s August 17, 1998, testimony before Starr’s grand jury.  The House Judiciary Committee voted to make public the four hours of ostensibly sealed testimony the president had given before a federal grand jury the previous month.  Latimes.com saw a significant bump in traffic that day.  “We were frankly amazed at the tens of thousands of people who demonstrated they will use even low-quality video when something is of interest to them,” Gentry says.  The site was able to provide both the live feed of the pre-recorded event as it was released by the House, and RealVideo snippets of key highlights.

Remarkably, several cable news operations reported wider viewership on their web sites than on their cable channels, tapping into the thousands of workplaces with PCs and high-speed net access but no with television sets.  Because bandwidth-hogging video travels far slower over modem lines than does text, CNN.com removed all its other video from the site so that users could call up the grand jury video segments at a reasonably brisk pace.  Two years later, it remains the site’s busiest day yet for serving video.

News sites flexed their multimedia muscles again 11 days later when they posted audiotapes and transcripts of Linda Tripp’s phone conversations with Monica Lewinsky, released by the House Judiciary Committee.  Until the Starr investigation, few news sites had gone through the trouble of producing video or sound files.  As 1998 drew to a close, multimedia had become another quiver in the arsenal of many news sites.

By the summer of 2000, Internet usage had risen to 54 percent, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.  More striking was the extent to which the credibility of on-line news had risen.  In fact, among the more well-known news organizations, the public often awarded more credibility to the organization’s web site than to the organization itself. For example, 44 percent of respondents rated ABCNews.com (the website of ABC News) highly credible while only 29 percent gave that rating to the network itself.  Fully 54 percent gave CNN.com a high believability rating, compared with only 40 percent that felt that way about CNN’s cablecast.  At least for the time, the public seems to value the Internet as a way to get unfiltered, unanalyzed information.  Whether that trust grows or dwindles to the levels of print and broadcast news is yet to be seen.

The Author

 

JD Lasica is Internet Correspondent for the American Journalism Review.