Monday, May 11, 1998

Washington Post Knowingly Deceived Its Readers To Protect Sources

from Organization of News Ombudsmanship
By Dr. Deni Elliott
Practical Ethics Center
University of Montana
May 11, 1998


On March 5, The Washington Post published a detailed account of President Clinton's deposition in the Paul Jones case. At the time, the deposition was sealed by court order, although a few quotes from it had been previously leaked. March 5 was more than a week before Clinton's deposition was publicly released by Jones' attorneys in their response to Clinton's request for summary judgment. The Post's report was unattributed, but the ultimate sources for such a leak are few.

The sealed deposition could have been leaked by Clinton's defense team, by Jones' lawyers, by Ken Starr's office or by U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright who sealed the deposition and placed a gag order on all participants and attorneys in the case.

Post reporter Peter Baker, who received and published the information, certainly knew the source of the report. If tradition holds, at least one Post editor also knew the source as well, or knew enough about the source to agree that the information supplied was likely to be accurate.

The problem is that the Washington Post knowingly deceived its readers to protect its source. The second-day story contained lies: Every side from which the leak might have reasonably originated denied, in that story, that they had done so.

Clinton attorneys called the leak illegal, reprehensible and unethical. They promised to track down the leaker's identity.

Jones' lawyers said that any suggestion that they were responsible for the leak was "erroneous, reprehensible and fallacious."

Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr categorically denied that his office was the direct or indirect source of the story.

Assuming that the judge and her staff did not violate her own order of confidentiality, the supporters of Clinton, Jones or Starr were indeed responsible for the leaked information. And The Washington Post knows who.

The Washington Post intentionally lied to its readers in printing this set of denials. The quotes printed were probably accurate presentations of these named source's denials, but logically, at least one of them was false. The fact that Howard Kurtz, Post media reporter, filed the second report and Peter Baker the first, did not change the fact that the news organization deceived its readers.

If a statement known to be false is worth publication, news organizations should help their readers understand that the statement ought not to be believed. The era in which news organizations could claim that they ought not be accountable for knowingly printing falsehoods disappeared in the 1950s coverage of Senator Joe McCarthy and his unchallenged claims of communists in our midst.

If the thought of a new structure for news reporting is a little uncomfortable, let me end by pointing out that none of the notions that we hold dear from the old paradigm -- objectivity, external news, two-sided reporting or named sourcing -- developed out of some fundamental ethical principle.

They developed out of the market-driven reality that news services sought audiences and an advertising base larger than a community limited by geography or politics. These services could sell their product to a large groups of news organizations only if they provided material that had very broad appeal. The notions I have explored here sustained that particular marketing ideal. And because they did, they were embraced as ethical ideals.

As technology has changed, marketing possibilities and ideals have changed as well. Intense competition among a multitude of news givers feeds the marketing ideal of creating instant news and equally quick updates. Because of the ability to quickly take the pulse of the audience, the marketing ideals often include appeal to the short-term interests and desires of readers and viewers.

None of this sounds like the making of ethical principles.

But these marketing ideals that are present in the new paradigm point the way for the development of new understandings of what it means for jounrlaists to act ethically in fulfilling their social function. For example, now no one news organization should understand itself to be the sole news provider for any reader or viewer. And rather than continue to clamor for that elusive mass market audience, more and more news organizations are working to serve specialized parts of the market well.

We have already seen competition among news organizations begin to merge into cooperation in using one another's pieces in building the larger narrative.

Reporting, under the new paradigm, will be judged on how well news organizations are able to interpret elements of the complex narrative so that it fits the needs of the particular audience. Rather than reporting a single verifiable truth, news organizations will be judged by how they meet the needs of a particular audience (or market-share) to contribute as active citizens in a democracy. This is a new merging of market and ethical principle.

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