It Was All About Sex
One Scandalous Story: Clinton, Lewinsky, and Thirteen Days That Tarnished American Journalism
By Marvin Kalb
The Free Press
288 pages; $25.00
Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp
Carl Sessions Stepp (firstname.lastname@example.org), AJR's senior editor, teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.
News is divided into two kinds of big stories: the Big Big Story, like
Watergate or Vietnam, and the Little Big Story, like the O.J. Simpson
case. You need to appreciate that distinction in evaluating coverage of
the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.
While the press treated Clinton-Lewinsky as one of history's Biggest Big
Stories, the public all along knew better. In his new book, Marvin Kalb
doesn't frame the discussion in these terms. But the book underlines
that Clinton-Lewinsky was, from beginning to end, largely about sex. It
was gossip, pure and simple, a five-star Little Big Story.
The problem wasn't that the press should not cover this stuff. Juicy
gossip has always made news. Instead, the press floundered because it
tried to stretch its protocols for important stories and apply them to a
soap opera sideshow.
Even now, just a couple of years later, it seems unreal that this mess
actually led to impeachment. What lingers isn't the vestige of a
national emergency, but a sordid, sad and classically sensational tale
of lust and faithlessness; not a matter of state, but a gripping
melodrama featuring glamorous people in the mundane and unseemly
clutches of carnality.
Kalb, the former CBS newsman and Harvard policy center leader, offers a
conventional critique of the scandal coverage. His examination is not as
analytical as Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach's "Warp Speed," nor as
insiderish as reporter Michael Isikoff's "Uncovering Clinton," nor as
dramatic as Steven Brill's 1998 article, "Pressgate" (all three of which
Kalb heavily relies on).
But Kalb, who like Brill uses the tick-tock format to chronicle the
first few days' coverage, does capture well the spirit of those times:
the competitive frenzy, the backstage jockeying, the editorial
vacillation and, best of all, the furious and perfidious byplay between
journalists and their sources. What Kalb adds to the record, mostly
through interviews with the key journalistic players, is retrospective
detail and context.
Readers will enjoy the many inside glimpses. For example, Kalb is, I
believe, the first to publish a pointed critique of the New York Times'
coverage, ordered by top Times editors and prepared by Martin Baron,
then a Times editor and now editor of the Boston Globe.
Baron identified "two major lapses" and they were big ones: bad sourcing
and sloppy editing. In the Times' lead story the day after the scandal
broke, Baron pointed to phrases such as "were said to be," "amid reports
that," and "in another reported disclosure." He criticized the Times for
"quotes we never heard but felt free to recount without attribution,"
"repeating sensational reports of others without confirming them,"
"speculation" and "overstatement."
Kalb also offers a strong recapitulation of Newsweek's "incredible
seven-hour dialogue" that ended with a decision not to run Isikoff's
original scoop on the scandal; new insights into the digging of ABC
correspondent Jackie Judd and, especially, her producer Chris Vlasto;
and interesting backstage vignettes on how papers like the Los Angeles
Times and Chicago Tribune leapt into the chase.
Kalb's work underlines several points best made in the Rosenstiel-Kovach
First is the galvanizing role that the Internet, notably Matt Drudge's
Web site, played in driving the story. What the Web provided, in a way
that probably permanently changed journalism, was a
publisher-of-last-resort for almost any report or rumor, including those
passed over by mainstream editors or still in the checking stage at
frontline media. This lowering of threshold may have forever corrupted
the equation for deciding what and when to publish.
Kalb also, like Rosenstiel and Kovach, demonstrates how quickly the
story became what New York Times columnist Frank Rich has called a
"mediathon," a 'round-the-clock media blitz in which uninformed and
often reckless commentary exceeded actual reporting.
Kalb does his best job in conveying the alarming way in which
Clinton-Lewinsky coverage was a duel of leakers, won big-time by the
anti-Clinton forces. According to Kalb, Drudge was from the first fed a
river of reports by the anti-Clinton ringleader Lucianne Goldberg and
lawyers representing Paula Jones and other Clinton foes.
Later, Kalb says, the office of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr
overflowed with "carefully timed leaks...helpful to Starr's case and
harmful to the president's." The result, Kalb charges, was that "the
press was clearly in collusion with the prosecutor" while "the public
often had no idea where the information was coming from or the
motivation of those who leaked it."
From all this, some lessons are obvious. Journalists should use reliable
sources, disclose them fairly, confirm facts before publishing, stress
reporting over commentary and not be stampeded by others with lesser
But another vital concern, yet to be adequately vetted, is the matter of
To justify their huge coverage, journalists tried to sell the story as a
super-important matter of state and thus blew it out of proportion. The
constant talk of impeachment, indictment and national crisis — an effort,
presumably, to establish significance — created a drumbeat effect that
inflamed the situation and irritated the audience. The irony is that by
misapplying the Big Big Story model, the media turned a pretty good
gossip story into a trivialized civics debacle.
Gossip is news, but it is best whispered, not shouted. What remains to
debate is how the press can cover the juicy Little Big Stories in ways
that satisfy public appetites but don't strain credulity with false
notes of gravity and momentousness.
Stepp, an AJR senior editor, teaches at the Philip Merrill College of
Journalism at the University of Maryland.###