I found the press coverage of the Monica Lewinsky story abhorrent. The fact that it focused on the tawdry and the titillating was merely an annoyance; the glee and excitement with which journalists and politicians seemed to savor the prospects of destroying reputations and careers, of bringing down the chief executive, of throwing the government into chaos, were frightening; and the fact that it was all based on what, for seven months, amounted to second-hand and unsubstantiated allegations was a moral affront.
I actually believed, even before Mr. Clinton’s mea culpa (such as it was), that there was more fire than smoke to this story; and what it says about the character of our president — not in his libido, but in his willingness to use the power with which we have entrusted him for personal aggrandizement — is appalling. But more appalling is the recklessness and vitriol with which the press pursued him: his misconduct, after all, reflects the failings of a flawed individual who will, in the end, be held to account by those who elected him; the misconduct of the press was systemic and unrestrained and it will still be with us long after Bill Clinton is history.
I sent this letter to Jerry Ceppos, the editor of the San Jose Mercury News, not for publication but merely to express my outrage. As I never received a reply or acknowledgement, I don’t know whether my message got through.
26 January 1998
Dear Mr. Ceppos,
I met you several years ago when I participated in a forum at the Mercury News about journalistic ethics. At this moment, reflecting on the week in which we were bombarded from every media source with speculation, rumor, and innuendo about what our president may or may not have done with a White House intern, and what he may or may not have urged her to say about it, I am wondering whatever became of that auspicious project.
For all the column inches and air time devoted to this story, for all the posturing and pontificating, for all the demagoguery and hyperbole, at this moment it still comes down to a lot of hot air about an unsubstantiated allegation — her word against his word (or, more accurately, her report to someone else about her word against his word). Does this strike you, or anyone else in your newsroom, as excessive, frivolous, and downright unfair? How is the public interest served by reporting titillating and scandalous accusations before they have been investigated? How is fairness and accuracy and objectivity enhanced by creating a public scandal before anyone has actually verified the private behavior behind it?
I might, perhaps, view this differently if the media was the only entity pursuing the facts of the case; certainly in the absence of a more formal investigation the media has a duty to bring such things to light. But even then, to print the story before completing (or even starting) the investigation would be rash and unethical. In this case there isn’t even that much justification because there is an official investigation — in fact, it was the official investigation which brought the initial story into view.
How would you (collectively, as “the media”, not as the Mercury News) have served the public less had you allowed the investigation to proceed (or paralleled it with your own reporters), and reported the result when you had actual facts upon which to base your stories? I can think of several way that such an approach would have served the public more.
This is not, in any way, an apology for the President. I have never trusted him to be what he claimed, didn’t vote for him, and believe he may very well be guilty of the current charges. But that is beside the point. As a matter of decency and fairness, I expect the media, no less than the judicial system, to thoroughly investigate charges against him (or anyone else) before making them public, to ascertain the facts before repeating the allegations.
It seems to me there is one short statement that should be included in your newly-developed code of journalistic ethics and beaten into the mindset of every reporter and editor:
I will not print unsubstantiated allegations that could damage anyone’s reputation or credibility, or hamper their ability to live their lives or perform the duties of their jobs. If unsubstantiated allegations of behavior worthy of reporting are made, I will endeavor to ascertain the facts, or allow any ongoing investigations into the facts to come to fruition, before reporting on them.
© Copyright 1998, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell