Stop me if you're heard this one before: There was this Washington intern, see, and she knew this Democrat who had Oval Office dreams. Then there was this other guy who liked to dredge up juicy bits of Beltway gossip and post them on his widely read Web site...
But although the "John Kerry and the Intern" story instantly flew around the Internet and dominated the conservative talk radio circuit for a day or two in mid-February 2004, similarities to the "Bill Clinton and the Intern" story more or less ended there. The difference was not just that this time Matt Drudge apparently got it wrong, as he often (but not always) does. A significant difference was the way the mainstream media handled the story-and, perhaps more important, communicated with the public about their decision-making processes. The ethical combination of temperance and transparency served them well.
The initial decisions were relatively simple. On Thursday, February 12, Drudge posted an "exclusive" on drudgereport.com announcing that "a frantic behind-the-scenes drama is unfolding." The drama, he said, involved a woman who had "fled the country" at the request of the Massachusetts senator and frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, with whom she reportedly had a two-year relationship starting in spring 2001.
Rush Limbaugh picked up the item and discussed it for much of the day. Other talk radio hosts did too, along with other Web sites. The story permeated the "blogosphere," the world of individual postings and cross-postings on personal "Web logs," which are chatty, and very trendy, online journals. Andrew Sullivan, a New Republic staffer and one of the Web's most popular bloggers, wrote about it almost non-stop, though largely to speculate on the source of the rumor and then "assure us he doesn't care," reported a different blog, Columbia Journalism Review's "Campaign Desk." Slate.com's Mickey Kaus, another influential blogger, opted to reference a 1998 Boston Herald story about a "statuesque blonde" visiting Kerry's home while his wife was away, according to CJR. And so on. The story was undeniably "out there."
In the mainstream media, by contrast, the story was nearly nonexistent. None of the national television networks or services, broadcast or cable, picked it up. Neither did the major print publications. Neither the source of the rumor nor the facts related to it were verifiable. Easy ethical call. Not that everyone made it-a number of local television stations from coast to coast ran with a story of the "bombshell" in the Kerry campaign. Some British media outlets also jumped on the rumor. But the great majority of the U.S. media passed.
The decision became more difficult on Friday, when Kerry publicly denied the rumor twice, once on Don Imus' radio show and once to reporters in Wisconsin, where he was campaigning. Now what?
For some media outlets, the senator's denial was a hard fact that elevated the story to the status of legitimate news; several metro tabloids, including the New York Post, played it big. By then, the woman's identity was known, and what the Philadelphia Daily News described in a Saturday story as a "global media scrum" descended on the home of her family in the upscale suburbs of Philadelphia. They learned that her father considered Kerry a "sleazeball" but had no evidence of any affair. Good enough for a story in a number of outlets, including ABC News. They now had what they needed to be "objective": a claim, a denial and even a comment from a third party.
Others were not so sure. Certainly, the nature of the story had changed with the senator's denial. But how to handle it was less clear. CNN's Aaron Brown opened his Friday night newscast by describing the dilemma:
Here is the question of the night. At what point, if at any point, does rumor become news? ... Yesterday, the net was abuzz about a rumor involving John Kerry, a nasty rumor at that. We didn't get near it. It wasn't news. It lacked facts but it was all over the net. Millions of people read it and hear it. Conservative talk radio ate it up all day, and today the story moved. Mr. Kerry denied it on a national radio program. So does that denial make it news? Is it fair to take the denial and use it to spread the rumor because that's what's happening?
CNN answered its own question by devoting a segment of Brown's hour-long show to a panel discussion of coverage of political rumors-without ever saying exactly what this particular rumor was. Amid this vertiginous attempt to walk an ethical tightrope, though, was insightful commentary by CNN senior analyst Jeff Greenfield, who was among the panelists:
In another time the press would know what to do with this kind of story, run it down, check it out, try to find out who is spreading the rumor and why, maybe even ask if it is true, does it matter? But this is our time, and in this brave new world of instant communications, literally tens of millions of people will know about the story no matter what the networks and top tier newspapers do. The press loves to talk about its gatekeeper function, separating fact from rumor from falsehood, but the truth is this role of the media has been effectively wiped out. As this and countless other stories demonstrate, Aaron, there is no more gate.
In their book-length dissection of the media's role in Monicagate, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel of the Committee of Concerned Journalists had made much the same point. In a media-saturated culture in which stories "come out in piecemeal, an allegation now, followed by the counterallegation a few hours later," they wrote in Warp Speed, "the press never rests to sum up: here is what we know at the end of the day. It is forever pushing forward, grasping for the latest twist or dollop. Stories appear more confusing, more contradictory. Separating fact and allegation becomes more daunting" (p. 32). They questioned whether the press could function as a gatekeeper for verifiable facts in such an environment.
But they hoped that it might. Indeed, they conclude, media organizations "increasingly will have to distinguish themselves- and establish their brands - by what they choose to report on and the values and standards they bring to their journalism" (p. 91).
With the Kerry story, many media organizations chose not to snatch at the bait, even after Kerry's denial made it both more tempting and more tangible. A good decision, as it happens; this particular story died a natural death a few days later, when the woman in question, reached in Kenya where she was visiting the parents of her fiancﾂ, unequivocally stated that it was untrue. The mainstream media largely were vindicated in their decision not to run the story. Sometimes, journalists make good choices and get lucky.
But now comes even better news from an ethics perspective. With this story, many journalists went beyond waiting to run the story until they could confirm it. Although the 24/7 cacophony turns up both the volume and the heat, this basic truth-seeking tenet of journalism is hardly new. That journalists are learning how to handle the Internet (with restraint) and assess its constant flow of wildly assorted information (with skepticism) is commendable, but they are no different from a majority of Americans in that regard.
What is more commendable, however, is that a number of media outlets in addition to CNN took the opportunity afforded by this story to offer readers and viewers insight into their decision-making processes. From an ethical standpoint, these contributions toward making news production more transparent have a much greater impact than the contents of the news product disseminated on one February day.
A small sampling:
* The Boston Globe ran a pair of items, one a piece by media reporter Mark Jurkowitz exploring "the divergent standards, practices and priorities of the players in an increasingly diverse and unwieldy media landscape" and the other a column by the paper's ombudsman, Christine Chinlund. She described how the Globe, which acknowledged the rumor as part of Kerry's denial, handled the story and offered "some insight into the Globe's reasoning" that addressed reader concerns about bias toward a candidate the paper's editorial board had endorsed.
* Near the other end of I-95, Palm Beach (Florida) Post ombudsman C. B. Hanif gave the paper's managing editor a chance to explain the distinctions its journalists make in deciding what is news. "The Internet circulates a thousand rumors, with more every day, about the famous, near-famous and infamous," managing editor John Bartosek said. "The Post rarely reports any of them. We publish stories that have facts in them, based on statements and records. One good example: When the White House released records of Bush's military service and discussed his time in the National Guard, then we had statements and records. That's when it reached the front page, and not before. The Kerry rumor was just that, until Monday, when the woman released her statement. To date, there are no facts supporting it. We'll report if there are any more developments."
* In Buffalo, New York, the News offered a bylined editorial, headlined "Separating Fact from Fiction," explaining that the paper's editors, "like many others throughout the country, made a decision not to print a rumor," with supporting quotes from media experts. Alex Jones, a Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times reporter who is now director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Policy at Harvard University, was quoted as saying "the responsible media got it right. ... Sometimes gossip is true, and sometimes it isn't. If you're going to be in any way responsible, you've got to wait until you know."
There were others, as well, along with a bevy of media analysis articles and columns about journalists' decision to cover (or not) the story. Notable among these was James Pinkerton's piece for Newsday contrasting the practices of journalists in "Tidy City," the bastion of the mainstream press who sometimes "go slumming," and "Mucky City," the "fly-by-night-y" outlets "operated by scruffy types who might not know grammar, let alone Journalistic Ethics."
Journalism think tanks also weighed in, led by the Poynter Institute. Poynter offered, among other items, a Q&A series of guidelines for editors from ethics group leader Aly Colon. "What do you do when rumors emerge about a political candidate?" Answer: Proceed with deliberation and caution. "What if the story already exists on the Internet and is being reported by other news media outlets?" Answer: "Remember your organization's standards and practices. ... If you don't have any formal policies, consider identifying some."
All in all, then, the story of "John Kerry and the Intern" had a short but markedly noble life. As news, it wasn't, and the temperance of most journalists in looking hard before they leaped served various stakeholders well. But as a springboard for public articulation by a wide variety of media folks about what they do and why they do it, it was a valuable story indeed. More such transparency can serve both press and public in excellent stead as what promises to be a nasty presidential campaign, full of daily challenges for political journalists and for the nation's voters, hits full stride.
As for Matt Drudge, he immediately got back to work on his next scoop: Kerry's campaign finance director, he reported, once had an affair with...
Blog Report. (2/13/04). "Drudgery." Columbia Journalism Review Campaign Desk.
Bunch, William. (2/14/04). "Media Mayhem in Malvern." Philadelphia Daily News.
Chinlund, Christine. (2/23/04). "When Do Rumors Become Real News?" The Boston Globe.
CNN NewsNight Aaron Brown. (2/13/04). Transcript.
Colon, Aly. (2/14/2004). "Journalists, John Kerry, and Reporting Rumors." Poynteronline.
Drudge Report. (2/12/04). Archives.
Hanif, C. B. (2/22/04). "No Coverage If There Are No Facts." Palm Beach (FL) Post.
Jurkowitz, Mark. (2/23/04). "Kerry Rumor Shows How Scandal Travels in the Media." The Boston Globe.
Kovach, Bill, and Rosenstiel, Tom. (1999). Warp Speed: America in the Age of Mixed Media. New York: The Century Foundation Press.
Pinkerton, James P. (2/17/04). "Kerry Rumor-the 'Mucky' Media Whiffed." Newsday.
Violanti, Anthony. (2/20/04). "Separating Fact from Fiction." Buffalo News.
The above article was published in Media Ethics , Spring 2004 (15:2), pp. 4,15-17.