USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC

When media become part of the story

Can the media be trusted to cover itself? That's a pressing issue now that the president's lawyer has charged independent counsel Kenneth Starr with illegally leaking secret grand jury testimony to mainstream media, specifically the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and NBC News.

But they obviously are not alone in lining up for the latest devastating tidbit, leaving open the possibility that every major news organization is compromised by a desire to curry favor with Starr's office.

It's very simple: You can't write an honest story about leaks from the special prosecutor if you're living off those leaks. Get in bed with the cops and you become their flack. They teach that in Journalism 101, but many of my colleagues seem to have forgotten.

Starr is central to the story, and his tactics and ideological agenda deserve scrutiny. Has he kept Whitewater witness Susan McDougal in jail for 17 months in an effort to coerce false testimony unfavorable to the president, as she has claimed? Is he trying to coerce similar testimony from Monica Lewinsky by not offering her immunity, as her attorney has charged? Is it true that his staff has intimidated Whitewater witnesses and their children to get them to lie about Clinton, as some have complained? Important questions, but if news organizations are dependent on Starr's handouts, will they be inclined to look critically at his operation?

Take NBC News, which boasted four times in a report damaging to the president that 'sources in Starr's office have told NBC News . . . .' If there are people in Starr's office who are violating the law by leaking to the media, isn't that news? Shouldn't Tom Brokaw and company be put on the spot, just as the lowliest members of Clinton's staff have been, to learn if they have knowledge of the independent counsel violating the Does protecting sources extend to concealing official wrongdoing?

Why aren't the media camped outside the Wall Street Journal asking why it posted a story on its Internet site stating that a White House steward purportedly told the grand jury he had seen Clinton and Lewinsky alone in the study? The Journal ended up not running the story in its print editions and has since retracted it, but why no interest if the source was in Starr's office?

Most startling was the New York Times' two-column, front-page story claiming that Clinton's secretary, Betty Currie, told the grand jury that he coached her 'by asking a series of leading questions, such as: 'We were never alone, right?'

'That story suggested that Clinton suborned perjury when he 'led her (Currie) through an account of his relationship' with Lewinsky that differed 'from her own recollections.'

According to the story, the report of Currie's testimony was based on 'lawyers familiar with her account.' Only the New York Times knows who those lawyers are, and if they're members of Starr's staff, they have broken the law.

Currie's lawyer has called the report false, stating that 'any implication or suggestion that Mrs. Currie was aware of any legal or ethical impropriety by anyone . . . is entirely inaccurate.' Yet the Times has asserted in an editorial that the story is true. If its reporters were not shown a transcript, how can they be so certain of what Currie said? And if they were shown such a transcript by the Starr team, which would have been illegal, then that should be reported, since leaks from Starr's office have become central to the overall story.

While the need to cover breaking news is understandable, it is highly questionable for any news organization to make it a matter of highest priority to be first rather than right. Unfortunately, this now seems to be the norm.

Clearly, this feeding frenzy at the special prosecutor's door cannot be justified by the need to better inform the public. This is not one of those cases where the possible misdeeds of a public official are going unnoticed. Starr is eager to make a case against the president. And surely congressional Republicans will hold thorough hearings on his report. If the president has violated the trust of his office, it will come out eventually, so why the media's rush to judgment?

Is the goal for reporters to advance their careers by scooping rivals with the latest rumors? Or for media moguls to sell more newspapers and magazines and improve television ratings in intensely competitive markets?

Such motivations, if true, are a tawdry expenditure of the precious capital of the 1st Amendment. All the more reason for the media to be tough in covering their own role in this evolving story. Physician, heal thyself.