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Are Media Standards Drooping?

In rush to investigate Monica Lewinsky's allegations, critics say rumor is presented as fact

As a stream of unsubstantiated allegations feeds the media frenzy engulfing the White House, an unsettling question has occurred to some reporters.

What if there's an innocent explanation? What if former intern Monica Lewinsky, desperate for love and attention, simply made up the story of a sexual liaison with the president to impress a friend? What would Americans think of the media then?

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"No doubt about it, that would be a fairly serious black eye," says Mark Jurkowitz media critic for The Boston Globe.

Already, the media's handling of the allegations of sex and a White House coverup represent a new low for modern American journalism, say some critics.

Traditional standards of proof have been rolled over in the frantic race to have the next lurid tidbit first, they say. The few established "facts" are routinely reported with allegations from unnamed, sometimes single, sources, and mixed with analysis and speculation which creates confusion. "We're opening doors that are trap doors, that we can't go back through," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a think tank on press standards based in Washington.

Most critics blame today's fiercely competitive media environment for the slipping standards. Over the past decade, CNN's rise to legitimacy combined with declining network audiences to give the once staid network news operations a taste for the tabloid. In the past year and a half, two more 24-hour cable news operations started up.

"It just magnifies and speeds everything up to breathtaking proportions," says Jim Manley, press secretary for Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts. "It was one thing to deal with just CNN, but now to have to deal with FOX and MSNBC - it's almost impossible to keep on top of it."

Add to that mix the no-holds-barred rumor mill on the Internet, and Mr. Jurkowitz contends, restraint becomes a rare phenomenon in the new media. Newsweek exercised some and was beaten on the Lewinsky story. The newsmagazine had the details first but editors decided to hold it because they felt more verification was needed "given the magnitude of the allegations."

Soon after that decision was made, the story broke in a gossip column on the Internet. The Newsweek editors say they don't regret acting responsibly but they admit it hurt to get beaten.

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The atmosphere of hypercompetition has also created what critics call an "excessive" amount of coverage.

"There is no question that this is a huge story, because it threatens the presidency," says Ed Fouhy, a media analyst at the Pew Center, a media think tank in Washington. "But the facts that are known are so few that it's sad to see so many good journalists spending so much time analyzing so little."

Marvin Kalb at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., agrees, and is also concerned about the impact that has on the public's understanding of the story. He's currently studying how innuendo, gossip, rumor become perceived fact in the public mind.

"There's no doubt the sheer bulk, the sheer repetition of a droplet of information takes on a weight and importance after you've heard it 52 times - it suggests it's a hard fact," says Mr. Kalb, the director of the Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy. "But we don't know if it's hard fact, almost everything is 'according to sources.' This is a story that lives on unsourced information."

During Watergate, the Nixon administration's burglary and coverup scandal, The Washington Post articulated a standard for using unnamed sources that became widely accepted. If a reporter were to use information given anonymously, he or she would need two sources with independent, firsthand knowledge to corroborate it - "not two sources who heard the same rumor," says Rosenstiel.

So far, The Dallas Morning News offers the most glaring example of running afoul of traditional sourcing standards.

In its early Tuesday edition, it reported that a secret service agent had walked in on the president and Ms. Lewinsky in a "compromising situation." Later, the paper's source told it that his information was inaccurate. The presses had to be stopped and a retraction was printed, but not before the report went out over the AP wire and was picked up and announced on CNN.

On Friday night, ABC News led its news cast with a story about "someone with specific knowledge of what it is that Monica Lewinsky says really took place between her and the president." Three-quarters of the story was based on this single source. It included such things as the contention that Lewinsky saved a "navy blue dress" with residue left from one of her encounters with the president.

"If true," the reporter Jackie Judd speculated, "this could provide physical evidence of what really happened." While the major networks and newspapers admit to using many anonymous sources, and sometimes single sources, they insist their standards have not eroded in the handling of this story.

"I'm sorry some people have that sense, but I don't think our standards have been lowered," says ABC News senior vice president Richard Wald. "We have not put anything on the air, that we did not verify to make sure we didn't rely on any of the interested parties."

Several media analysts say that most members of the press are attempting to be fair, using cautionary language, and reminding the public that the allegations are unproven and under investigation.

"But I do think the standards have also been lowered, to some extent," says Robert Giles, executive director of the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center in New York. "I think there is a lot more liberal use of unidentified sources, and for a couple of days, it was such a fast moving story that information was put on the air without judicious checking."

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