Sex and Lies in the White House
Sex and Lies in the White House:
How Journalists Wrote Themselves Into the Story
School of Journalism
Ernie Pyle Hall
Bloomington, Indiana 47404
Telephone: 812 330-9086
email: [log in to unmask]
Submitted to the Mass Communication and Society division for presentation at the
annual meeting of theAssociation for Education in Journalism and Mass
Sex & Lies in the White House
Coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky story instigated a wave of media criticism by
journalists, journalism professors, and journalists-turned-critics. This study
examines how those connected with the profession explained, defended or
criticized their performance to the public and each other in news stories.
fall within the predominant discourse of journalistic professionalism,
confirming the professional status of journalism and the efficacy of the norms
and standards already in place.
Sex and Lies in the White House
Sex and Lies in the White House
On Monday, January 19, 1998, a story quietly surfaced on the Internet and then
quickly exploded, spreading across the nation's news arteries like wildfire.
Matt Drudge, described by some as a respectable on-line journalist, by others
as "a reckless trader in rumor and gossip who makes no pretense of checking on
the accuracy of what he reports" (Witcover, 20), reported on his website that
Newsweek magazine knew of allegations that President Clinton had had sexual
relations with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, but had decided to
delay publishing the information. Within hours, the story was picked up by
television stations and was broadcast across the nation.
Newsweek defended its decision to hold the story on the grounds that its
reporters needed time to gather more evidence about the alleged relationship
and to assess Monica Lewinsky's character. However, independent counsel Kenneth
Starr had asked Newsweek's editors to postpone publication so that he would have
more time to develop his own investigation into the matter.
Newsweek finally posted the allegations on its website on Wednesday, January
21st. By this time, the magazine had to deal with the fact that it had been
scooped by a "gossip monger" running a website out of his Hollywood apartment,
and by other competing news organizations including The Washington Post. The
Newsweek story was followed by an ABC News radio broadcast shortly after
midnight that same evening. The story immediately spread, becoming more
elaborate and confused with each new telling. Despite a brief moment of
initial hesitation on the part of some members of the press, once the story was
out journalists engaged in what some critics have described as a collective
binge of rumor, gossip and down right dirty speculation about the President's
Not surprisingly, the spate of "media frenzy" was followed by a wave of "media
self-flagellation." Practicing journalists, journalism professors, and former
journalists-turned-media-critics publicly criticizing the media's performance
became a regular news item. Attention shifted from the plethora of allegations
against the President to allegations against the press, accusing journalists of
everything from making a few unavoidable mistakes to engaging in systematic
misconduct. A few voices came through in defense of the coverage.
The Committee of Concerned Journalists conducted a study that examined 1565
statements and allegations contained in news stories that appeared on major
television programs, newspapers and magazines over the first six days after the
story broke. The study's findings echoed many of the concerns expressed by
journalists. The study concluded that 41% of the reportage was based not on
confirmed facts but on analysis, opinion, speculation or judgment.
The report was just one of many efforts by journalists to explain themselves to
the public and to each other. This study examines how journalists explained,
criticized or justified their coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky allegations in
news stories that appeared in mainstream newspapers and news magazines.
Standards of Professionalism
The concept of professionalization in news maintains that there are constant
and universal practices and standards within the field of journalism. Media
analysis by both journalists and scholars often conceptually measure news
content against professional norms in order to asses its quality. Walter
Lippmann, historic champion of the "scientization" of journalism, explains what
he sees as the dismal alternative to professionalism:
Men who have lost their grip upon the relevant facts of their
environment are the inevitable victims of agitation and propaganda. The
quack, the charlatan, the jingo, and the terrorist can flourish only where
the audience is deprived of independent access to information. But where
all news comes at second-hand, where all the testimony is uncertain, men
cease to respond to truths, and respond simply to opinions. The
environment in which they act is not realities themselves, but the
pseudo-environment of reports, rumors, and guesses. The whole reference
of thought comes to be what somebody asserts, not what actually is (54-55).
Echoes of Lippmann's appeal for a more scientific journalism can be heard in
the criticism surrounding the Clinton-Lewinsky story. Much of the discourse
surrounding the media, its role and assessments of its performance includes an
implicit notion of norms and standards against which coverage is measured.
Understanding journalism as a profession has long been instrumental in
comprehending journalistic processes and products. Zelizer writes, "Defined as
an ideological orientation toward work that is realized via skill, autonomy,
training and education, testing of competence, organization, codes of conduct,
licensing and service orientation, the profession is seen as giving the
journalist a sense of community (1992:6)." Journalists gain status through their
work by acting "professionally" and exhibiting pre-defined traits of the
"professional community" such as objectivity, news judgment, the selection of
sources and the structure of news beats (Soloski, 143). Perhaps most
importantly, "the profession" is seen as providing a body of knowledge that
instructs individuals regarding what to do and avoid in any given circumstance
(Larson, Friedson, Gouldner).
Zelizer argues that "being professional" has become little more than a codeword
which disguises the elaborate mechanism by which reality is constructed
(1997:403). For example, the professional goal of achieving "balance" suggests
it's possible to present "both sides" of a story when, in reality, many sides
exist that are not routinely included in news stories. By glossing over this
aspect of newswork, journalists and scholars allow it to thrive uncritically.
The notion of professionalism as a value among some journalists, and a frame
that scholars use to approach the study of journalists as a collective, can
limit understandings of both content and of news production. By looking at
journalists as members of a profession, Zelizer argues, the ways in which they
develop a sense of their own collectivity are often overlooked.
Interpretive Communities and Negotiable Norms
Zelizer suggests that a more productive approach is to look at how an
"interpretive community" is built and maintained among journalists through a
shared discourse that sets out appropriate narratives for, and approaches to,
the "news." She draws on Carey's definition of communication as ritual. He
writes, "communication is a symbolic process whereby reality is produced,
maintained, repaired and transformed (23)." Journalistic norms and practices,
like all communication, are the result of a process of continual negotiation.
Contrary to ideas of professionalism, they are not dictated from above nor are
they rigid and unchanging.
Media critiques of the Clinton-Lewinsky story, for example,
come at a time when journalism is in an accelerated state of flux due to a
rapidly changing media environment. In the current media climate, ideas of news
standards and norms are extremely varied. What is acceptable coverage at some
media organizations is not at others, and this can result in a breakdown in
the "interpretive community."
Indeed, journalists and press critics expressed the view that a collective
down-grading of standards took place during the onset of the Clinton-Lewinsky
story. Journalists suddenly felt the need to explain themselves. It is expected
that in these explanations journalists will cling to the language of
professionalism which has traditionally served as their guide and in doing so,
they will limit their ability to renegotiate the norms and values of journalists
in light of the new media environment.
The unprecedented nature of the Clinton-Lewinsky story makes the question of
how journalists framed their critique of themselves and their profession
particularly salient. The concept of news frames was first discussed by Goffman
(1974) who points out that the important function of frames is in shaping public
Gitlin (1980) defines frames as "a persistent selection, emphasis and
exclusion" (7). He links the concept directly to the production of news
discourse by asserting that frames "enable journalists to process large amounts
of information quickly and routinely [and to] package the information for the
efficient relay to their
For Gamson, a frame is a central organizing idea that provides meaning to
events related to an issue (Gamson and Mondigliani). Entman points out that
"frames reside in the specific properties of the news narrative that encourage
those perceiving and thinking about events to develop particular understandings
of them. News frames are constructed from and embodied in the keywords,
metaphors, concepts, symbols, and visual images emphasized in news narrative"
In the absence of widespread personal knowledge of an issue or event, and in
the case of the behind-the-scenes activities and decisions of journalists, news
provides a set of articulated meanings that create a limited number perspectives
for readers. Kahneman and Tversky demonstrate that frames select and call
attention to particular aspects of the reality described, which logically means
that frames simultaneously direct attention away from other aspects. Moreover,
mainstream news sources tend to choose similar themes to emphasize over others.
This study identifies and discusses the significance of mainstream press news
frames of media coverage of the Clinton/Lewinsky story.
Frame analysis is an especially appropriate method for assessing coverage of
media performance in the case of the Clinton-Lewinsky story because it can
reveal the nature of the discourse journalists created in the process of
maintaining, repairing, and transforming their image of themselves and their
role in society. This in turn can shed light on how journalist think about
themselves as well as how they want to be perceived by the public.
Content analysis was used to explore the research question: How did
journalists explain themselves to the public and to each other in news stories?
Since the goal is to understand the overall nature of the coverage, the unit of
analysis is each article in its entirety. Articles were collected through a
search of the LEXIS/NEXIS database using the terms Clinton and Lewinsky and
journalists. NEXIS contains full-text versions of many major mainstream news
sources, including daily newspapers from major cities across the country and
wire service stories from Reuters, AP and UPI, and a large selection of
magazines. The articles collected were published between January 22 and
March 15, 1998. The entire population of articles on the topic of coverage of
the story were included in the study. Due to the small size of the population
(n=39), and the fact that tests of significance require a random sample, only
descriptive statistics have been used to analyze the data.
For the purpose of the study, a category system was developed based on a
preliminary reading of the material, relevant information from the recent study
of the Clinton/Lewinsky coverage by the Committee of Concerned Journalists, and
theories of professional journalism norms and values. Each story was coded for
its major frame, specific failings of journalists and/or justifications for
journalists' performance and reasons why journalists failed. 
Three key frames emerged which explicitly identified the articles' overall
assessment of the coverage and implicitly suggested the prominence of ideals of
professionalism in press criticism. The key frames were: criticizing the
coverage as poor, admitting errors in coverage but defending the media overall,
and full defense and justification of the coverage.
Due to the prominence of the notion of professionalism in discussions regarding
press performance and the dominant role it plays in journalists' own
understanding of the norms and standards of their practice, it was expected that
some of the criticism would exhibit a belief that coverage which deviates from
professional norms is unacceptable. Zelizer's notion of interpretive
communities and the processes by standards are constantly being renegotiated
within these communities suggests that some of the media critiques would
similarly view "professional standards" as more fluid.
The coding was conducted by two coders. The pretest for inter coder reliability
yielded a Holsti's R of .90. The final intercoder-reliability is reported in
terms of Krippendorff's alpha (see appendix 2). These steps were implemented
in order to ensure the approach was systematic, and therefore to increase the
reliability of this analysis.
Journalists felt compelled to publicly explain themselves, justify their
actions, and demonstrate that they were disturbed by how the profession handled
the Clinton/Lewinsky story. This self-analysis and criticism was not confined to
editorial pages, but became the focus of "news." Stories assessing the role of
the press were generated by city, week-in-review, news feature, and nation/world
desks. The subject was journalists; the sources were the American people
(through polls) and media critics (journalism professors,
former-journalists-turned-critics and practicing journalists).
Three major frames dominated the news stories that journalists told about
themselves. A strong plurality (48.8%) came down hard on the press, criticizing
journalists' actions and finding little if anything worthy of praise.
Twenty-eight percent took a more balanced approach, admitting mistakes had been
made but acknowledging that journalists did do some things right. A mere 15.4%
defended the media's performance and suggested that it was the critics who were
misguided (Table I).
Table I. Dominant frames used in news stories.
% news stories
Journalists failed in their coverage
Journalists made some mistakes but overall acted responsibly
Journalists did their job
How journalists failed: the credibility crisis and descent into tabloid
I. Credibility Crisis
Most of the specific criticisms leveled against the press centered on
issues of credibility. Journalists were condemned for acting too quickly and
not taking time to corroborate or verify information. According to most
critics, competitive pressure to get the story first led journalists to publish
rumor and speculation in place of verifiable facts, to rely too much on
anonymous sources, to disregard the professional standard of finding at least
two independent sources to verify information, and to present information
gathered from other media sources instead of doing their own independent
reporting (the "echo effect")(Table II).
By far the most frequently cited failure was journalists' willingness to
present rumor and speculation in the absence of verifiable facts. The news,
critics said, has been flooded by a "torrent of thinly sourced allegations and
unrestrained speculation." Reports were "colored in many instances by what
journalists themselves say is speculation and hype" (Scott, 1). The press
"routinely intermingled reporting with opinion and speculation" (Trigoboff, 26)
and passed off "gossip mongering" as "news" (Githens, 1F). Marvin Kalb, a
former broadcast journalist and professor of press and politics at Harvard is
reported as saying that "most reporters are running with rumor, innuendo and
gossip, not digging for facts. The few facts they have represent about 10% of
what they are reporting." Some critics went so far as to question "the press'
ability to separate fact from fiction" (Harris, 12A).
The perception that reporters were relying on unverified or unverifiable
facts was intensified by the frequent use of anonymous sources. According to
a study conducted by the Committee for Concerned Journalists, 33% of the
coverage relied on anonymous sources. A large percentage of the reportage had
no sourcing at all (Trigoboff , 26). When journalists did use attribution, they
often referred to "investigators" or "sources close to the investigation," or
simply "sources." Further, there was a disregard for the "two source rule of
reporting," that requires reporting to be based on two or more independent
Critics also suggested that the spread of unreliable information was
aggravated by the "echo effect" (Broadcast & Cable, 62), or the process by
which a story from a single source, regardless of reliability, is picked up over
and over again by different media outlets, and gains in perceived credibility
with each repetition (Trigoboff, 62). Often, the original story is not
confirmed. In other words, journalists failed to do their own reporting.
Barbara Cochran, a print and broadcast journalist and president of the
Radio-Television News Directors Association predicted that as a result of
journalists' performance on the Clinton/Lewinsky story, reporting information
presented by other news organizations would emerge as a major subject of debate
among journalists (Trigoboff, 62).
II. Descent into tabloid journalism
Mainstream journalists chided themselves for following their tabloid
counterparts in emphasizing the more salacious aspects of the Clinton-Lewinsky
story (45.2% of news stories examined cited the descent into tabloid journalism
as a criticism. See Table II). Carl Bernstein was quoted as saying that "we
have a talk-show nation, and mainstream journalism has moved into that arena"
(Barringer, 14). Another critic lamented that the "standards of gossip columns
sometimes have spilled into news reports" (Bennet, 2). Two media executives,
Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News and Richard Wald, Senior Vice President at
ABC acknowledged that "they are influenced in what they cover and the way they
cover it by goods like news magazines and tabloid shows" (Goodman, 2). The
Clinton/Lewinsky story appeared to "many in journalism to have blurred the
boundaries between mainstream and tabloid news" (Scott, 1). Some journalists
"fear that the divergent standards of different media have begun to commingle"
Table II. % of news stories that accused journalists of acting in
ways that jeopardized their credibility
% news stories
journalists acted too quickly
too many anonymous sources
disregard for 2-source rule
printed rumor and speculation
used information from other media sources
descended into tabloid journalism
% news stories
Why Journalists Failed
I. Technology & increased competition
The overriding need for haste and the descent into tabloid journalism was
blamed on increased competition driven by new technology, specifically the
rise of the Internet and 24-hour satellite television, and the proliferation of
other information media (See Table III). The new technology has increased the
volume of information and the speed with which it becomes available to the
public, and this puts pressure on journalists to get their version of the story
out that much faster. Walter Goodman reported that "there is underlying
agreement, that driven by the competitive pressures of 24-hour cable news,
things are getting worse" (Goodman, 2). Journalists were faced with a
"fast-paced story," and news that travels at an accelerated speed (Scott, 20).
Critics described the "sheer velocity," of the story that ricocheted from the
Internet to newspapers to television and back to the Internet. Rem Reider,
editor of the American Journalism Review feels the impact of "24-hour news
channels and Internet news sites" that have contributed "to a sense of urgency"
(Houston Chronicle, 14).
II. Manipulation by the political system
Critics of the press acknowledged that something went wrong in the coverage
of Clinton and Lewinsky, but not everyone was willing to blame journalists for
the problems (Table III). Some critics suggested that journalists had little
control over their actions. In addition to being at the mercy of the new
technology, new market forces, and the increasing popularity of tabloids,
journalists must still bow down to more traditional masters. Some journalists
contended that increasingly media savvy politicians have the power to manipulate
them by withholding information in order to extract promises of anonymity
(Kaiser, C01), and that "the refusal of the White House to comment on many of
the reports and the long history of rumors about Clinton helped prompt
journalists to leap to conclusions" (St. Louis Post Dispatch, A4). This "cloak
of secrecy is standard Washington practice. Administration and congressional
officials routinely refuse to let their names be used with information they
provide" (Moore, 6A).
Table III. Why Journalists Failed
Why Journalists failed
% news stories
Technology: rise of the Internet and cable television
increased competition from tabloids and proliferation of other media
manipulation by politicians
easons for failure
% news stories
Justifying journalists' performance
Although the majority of news stories decried the poor performance of the
press and suggested that the media had sunk to new depths, 29% of the news
stories suggested that the press made mistakes but overall did a good job and
14.6% suggested that there was little wrong with the news coverage and it was
the criticism that was misguided (Table I). Both the New York Times and the
Washington Post defended their coverage in terms of the story's legitimate news
value (Table IV). The New York Times suggested that overall journalists engaged
in "unintimidated reporting" that "brought to light the factual outlines of a
situation that indisputably belongs before the public" (New York Times, 22).
The same Times critic further defended his paper's performance by explaining
that in ordinary circumstances, "this newspaper does not delve into sexual
conduct and deeply private matters. But experience has taught that at the
Presidential level, many aspects of character and behavior are relevant to
making an informed judgment about a person's ability to lead in a time of
crisis" (New York Times, 22). The Washington Post defended the story as a
"matter of public interest and importance," dealing as it did with Presidential
misconduct (Kaiser, C01). A few critics noted that the use of anonymous sources
was standard journalistic practice and that some stories, like Watergate,
would be impossible without them (Table IV).
Table IV. Justifying Journalists' Performance
% news stories
legitimate news story
anonymous sources are necessary
standard practice was followed
Journalism in the Good Old Days
Most of the media criticism explicitly or implicitly appeals to a normative
understanding of how journalism used to be. Slightly more than 51% of the
articles examined in this study condemning the press accused journalists of
violating traditional professional practices that led to lower standards.
Almost 47% percent of the articles defending the press referred to the existence
of these same practices and standards, saying that journalists had acted in
accordance with them. Critics refer to "traditional reporting standards" that
have "suffered during the recent presidential scandal" (Trigoboff, 26). "Many
journalists say mainstream news organizations have lowered their standards in
the face of the information free-for-all that has resulted from the rise of the
Internet, talk radio and 24-hour cable news" (Scott, 1). "The furious pace of
coverage of alleged scandalous behavior in the White House has all but shattered
the media's traditional standards of what is proper to report," say many media
critics, academics and journalists (Houston Chronicle, 14). In running the
Lewinsky-Clinton story which was "too good to resist," some "news organizations
stretched traditional journalistic rules," especially those warning against the
publication of unsubstantiated information. According to several critics, the
standards that news organizations use to determine whether or not to air a
story, including what constitutes a reliable source and how far an organization
should go to find independent verifications, are changing. Reporters are
becoming lax (Scott, 13). The Washington Post, on the other hand, insisted that
it has not changed or stretched its "traditional policies, which call for
maximum possible identification of sources, at least two sources for
confidential information, and strong efforts by our reporters to get sources on
record" (Kaiser, C01).
The proliferation of media analysis that emerged not long after the
Clinton-Lewinsky story broke provides an opportunity to study the discourse
surrounding the media and how journalists both criticize and justify their role
in the public eye in terms of this event. The three dominant frames exhibited in
the media critiques analyzed here suggest different attitudes about the
standards and norms of journalism.
Those who framed their critique in the "we did poorly" and the "we made some
mistakes" catagories measured coverage against traditional professional norms
and practices. This is evident in the high percentage of stories that
criticized the coverage for breaking or bending the rules of the profession, and
the frequency with which these stories cited the violation of specific
standards, such as ignoring the two source rule, as a major problem in the
coverage. These frames are being used by journalists to tell each other and the
public that, had the norms of the profession been adhered to, the quality of the
coverage would not have been compromised.
Those who framed their stories about the coverage as "justification and
defense" also largely based their argument on notions of professionalism in
journalism, however they saw standards as being more malleable. Their view
largely holds that practices need to be contingent on the situation, and that
given the circumstances, journalist's behavior was appropriate and their
The use of the notion of professional standards and practices in both critiques
and defenses of the coverage gives journalists a way to structure their self
reflection, but at the same time limits their ability to renegotiate
journalistic norms and values. When the quality of work is judged upon
adherence to particular practices, as is the case in those who came down hard on
the Clinton-Lewinsky story, there is little room to expand the definition of
what is good or even acceptable coverage. Further, there is no incentive to
rethink journalistic codes of behavior since any problems in the coverage are
ascribed to transgression rather than to problems within the structure of
journalism. To this way of thinking, any perceived breakdown in journalistic
codes that occurred during the coverage only serve to confirm the efficacy of
While disagreement across analyses suggests rifts in the journalistic
community, what is agreed upon is the view of journalism as a profession with
set standards rather than an interpretive community with space for negotiation.
The critiques analyzed here are not mechanisms in the process of renegotiating
journalistic practices, but rather tools used to confirm the status of
journalism as a profession. Zelizer is correct in her assessment that by looking
at journalists as members of a profession the ways in which they develop a sense
of their own collectivity are often overlooked. From this study we can further
assert that the notion of professionalism hampers the process of negotiation
whereby journalists come to a collective understanding of their practice and its
role in society.
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"What we do now" (1998) Columbia Journalism Review , March/April, p. 25.
Witcover, Jules (1998) "The Scandal" Columbia Journalism Review, March/April.
 This search retrieved many articles with topics other than media analysis.
Such stories, as well as letters to the editor, editorails and duplicate stories
were eliminated from the corpus of articles used in the analysis which follows.
Thirty-nine relevant articles remained.
 For a complete outline of the code scheme see Appendix 1.