Sex Scandals and Journalistic Standards

Howie Kurtz has an interesting piece on how mainstream media coverage of allegations of sexual misconduct have changed in recent years. It begins:

When Gennifer Flowers held a news conference in 1992 to announce that she had carried on an affair with Bill Clinton, the New York Times devoted one paragraph of a news story to her charges.

“I am ashamed for my profession,” Max Frankel, then the paper’s editor, said afterward. “We don’t want to report on the candidates’ sex lives.”

The contrast with the paper’s coverage of the John McCain-Vicki Iseman story is stark. Kurtz is right, though, that the primary difference is not that Clinton had a (D) after his name and McCain and (R). Rather, the media climate itself has been radically altered:

In a marked change since the Flowers era, the mere fact that a news organization is pursuing a scandal routinely leaks out. Matt Drudge became famous for reporting in 1998 that Newsweek had spiked a story about a special prosecutor investigating President Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky. It was hardly surprising when Drudge’s gossip site reported in December that Times staffers were pursuing the McCain story. Dissatisfied journalists tend to be talkative.

Rumors of a story — or the reporting of a story by a venue of little repute — is now considered justification for coverage of the story. Indeed, I’ve done that at OTB more than once. While I generally decline to comment on truly salacious rumors unless they’re widely discussed in mainstream sources, interesting rumors on high-traffic venues like the Drudge Report are sometimes difficult to pass up.

And then there’s this:

The hardest thing in journalism is to spend months on a story and then admit you haven’t got the goods. There is, instead, a tendency to dress the thing up with fine writing and larger themes in an effort to demonstrate that it’s not just about sex, when of course that is the only element most readers — and the rest of the media — will focus on.

For the most part, doing that is fine. Coverage of “larger themes” is often valuable. What Keller and company should have done, though, is to delete the sex scandal material altogether from last week’s piece and put it in either the Sunday magazine or inside the paper along with other feature stories. By putting it in the lead spot on page one, they gave the impression that they had hard news when all they had was a reflections piece.

Photo credit: Steve Rhodes Creative Commons License

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Wayne says:

    “that the primary difference is not that Clinton had a (D) after his name and McCain and (R). Rather, the media climate itself has been radically altered:”

    Please!!! That is the same excuse the MSM always use. The MSM cover Bush’s daughters trying to buy a drink and Bush drug accusation of drug use different from Gore son use of illegal drug and Obama’s admitted drug use because time is always changing. Reagan’s children were fair game. Clintons wasn’t. Bush’s were. The list goes on and on. Amazing how “the time has changed” almost always benefit the Dems.