Journalist questions his taste for scandal

(U-WIRE) NEW HAVEN, Conn. — I was in Sterling Memorial Library last semester when I bumped into one of my English professors. We had become friends, and he knew I wrote for the Yale Daily News. He was clearly surprised to see me there and asked, “What are you doing here in the library? You’re a journalist!”
Later that evening, I decided the real meaning of my professor’s remark was probably:
1. You will be lucky to get a B in my class. As a tenured professor, I spend every day in this library. I know you do not come here. I also know you haven’t read your Chaucer.
2. The library is a place for quiet reflection and careful thought and study. Journalism is a fast-paced, deadline-driven business. Academics come to libraries to read and discuss books in search for noble ideas and evasive truths. Journalists, however, thrive on scandals, rumors and third-person hearsay.
At first I thought my professor was definitely wrong, on both counts. I thought I could pull off an A in his class, even if I wasn’t exactly caught up with all my reading. I thought journalism was a noble, exciting profession. After all, had it not been for Woodward and Bernstein’s persistent and thorough reporting during the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon might have gotten away with the crimes of the century.
Well, as is usually the case, I was the naive one, and my professor — the wise old bird that he is — was right.
I got a B in the class (there’s never enough time during reading week). And, in the past two weeks, American journalism has sunk to an abysmal, all-time low.
The recent coverage of President Bill Clinton’s alleged affair with a former White House intern has been so unprofessional that I am ashamed to call myself a journalist. Going down to Washington, D.C. last week confirmed my worst fears about this profession.
What is currently being reported as fact is often attributed to unnamed sources and third-hand reports. It is sloppy and vile work. Consider, for example, some of the following allegations and the sources news organizations have cited:
The Dallas Morning News reported last Monday that the President and Monica Lewinsky were seen in a compromising situation by a Secret Service agent. The story, which was picked up by The Associated Press, cited “a source familiar with the case” who had been interviewed by a member of Independent Prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s staff. Only a few hours after its story was posted on the World Wide Web, the newspaper retracted it. Then, on Wednesday, the Dallas Morning News claimed that part of the story was still true, even though it had been retracted. The person who saw the president and Lewinsky “might not have been an active Secret Service agent;” the situation was “ambiguous,” not “compromising;” and “Mr. Starr’s staff had not interviewed him,” according to the New York Times. Oops.
Last week, ABC News’ “Nightline” aired a long piece in which they cited “sources” that claimed Clinton and Lewinsky only engaged in oral sex, and that Clinton had said before that oral sex was not adultery. This claim was first made several years ago in The American Spectator, a popular conservative magazine. “Nightline” did not reveal the sources for its story.
Perhaps the most egregious reporting came the day the story first broke, when journalists speculated as to whether or not Bill Clinton would be impeached for perjury or have to resign as president. As James Naughton wrote in Sunday’s New York Times, “Never mind that no one has been charged with any crime in this case, that perjury is hard to prove, that even if it were proved it might not be found in these circumstances to constitute high crimes and misdemeanors.” Forget all that. The press was out, from day one, to hang the president, and — for now at least — there’s no stopping them.
What was going on down there in D.C.? I spent last Tuesday in a small press room on the third floor of the Capitol building waiting around for the State of the Union to begin. Once inside (which took some doing — who is the Yale Daily News, anyway?) I started talking with the reporters there from the Washington press corps. These were the old, seasoned, Capitol Hill veterans. Hunched over their laptop computers with cups of coffee, these were the guys who had seen it all.
“This is the greatest,” a reporter from a Boston paper told me. “Normally, we have to be out for blood, but the president shot himself on this one.”
Indeed every member of the press I talked to was thrilled with the scandal. Finally, they said, there was something more interesting to write about than budget surpluses and health care.
I came back from D.C. earlier than I had planned. I felt like Lucien Chardon, the protagonist in Balzac’s “Lost Illusions” who discovered, much to his chagrin, that the Paris journalist of the 1830s had “a little weasel-face as pallid as an underdone white of egg, with a pair of eyes, soft blue in colour, but appalling in their malice.”
Journalism, I learned, at least the way it is practiced now, might not be the profession for me. I don’t have the taste for blood. I have a problem with printing rumors from motivated sources which could bring down a president and imperil our nation. Nor am I eager to knock on the door of the woman whose daughter was killed in a car accident a few hours ago and ask for her “comment.”
It’s true, I don’t spend a lot of time in the library with my copy of “The Canterbury Tales.”
Maybe it’s time to start anew.
Either way, though, it is clear that as journalists, we certainly have room for improvement.
Ben Diamond’s column originally appeared in Monday’s edition of the Yale Daily News.