Dressing Down ABC

If you're looking for a case of journalistic excess to help explain public fury over the reporting of the Clinton sex scandal, there's none better than the tale of ABC News and the amazing disappearing semen dress.

As everyone knows, ABC News is the place that claims to provide "more Americans" with news than does any other outlet. And in these turbulent times, ABC bigfoots have assured us that the network practices a high degree of quality control. Ted Koppel said to Nightline viewers on January 30: 'This is a good time to turn to the reporters you trust for a track record of responsibility and honesty and when, as is inevitable in a story like this, one of us makes a mistake, see how quickly and completely we acknowledge and correct it."

Sounds like a good standard--but can ABC News meet it?

On January 23, ABC News's Peter Jennings said he had a scoop from "someone with specific knowledge of what it is that Monica Lewinsky says really took place between her and the president." (The version on www.abcnews.com used slightly different wording: "a source with direct knowledge of what [Lewinsky] alleges occurred between herself and President Clinton.") According to that source, reported Jackie Judd, "Lewinsky says she saved, apparently as a kind of souvenir, a navy blue dress with the president's semen stain on it. If true, this could provide physical evidence of what really happened." Although Judd repeated this report later on ABC's 20/20, she added no more details.

Did Judd attempt to verify this allegation? We don't know, because Judd did not respond to Voice requests for an interview. ABC spokesperson Su-Lin Cheng said that "every single story we air is verified by more than one source." Asked what the basis was for Judd's report, Cheng referred to "Linda Tripp and the tapes," but then acknowledged that Judd's report makes no reference to either Tripp or any tapes.

The only news organization that claims to have listened to a Lewinsky-Tripp tape is Newsweek. On Monday, Newsweek's Washington bureau chief told the Voice that the tape she and her colleagues heard does not refer to a semen stain.

Contemplate, then, the five degrees of separation between Judd's report and first-hand knowledge. ABC did not say that it saw a dress or any stain on it. It did not say that ABC independently verified the existence of a semen-stained dress. It did not say that Lewinsky told ABC about saving any dress, and it doesn't appear to have said that anyone speaking officially on Lewinsky's behalf told ABC about her saving such a dress. It did not even say that anyone at ABC heard or saw any actual account--a tape, transcript, or statement--of Lewinsky saying anything about a dress, or anything at all.

In other words, Judd's report was hearsay; it might well turn out to be accurate, but it remains hearsay. With so many layers between a provable fact and what ABC reported, it is not terribly surprising that Judd's dispatch now appears to be misleading in many important respects. Lewinsky's lawyer, William Ginsburg, has repeatedly denied that any such evidence exists, and The Washington Post has reported that President Clinton told associates that there was no such dress.

ABC might have hedged its hearsay account by indicating that it couldn't confirm the existence of a stained dress, or including a response from Lewinsky's attorney. But ABC now refuses to say whether or not Lewinsky's lawyer was even called for comment.

More damning, on Thursday evening, January 29, CBS News's Scott Pelley reported: "CBS News has learned tonight that no DNA evidence or stains have been found on a dress that belongs to Lewinsky. The dress and other clothes were seized by the FBI from Lewinsky's apartment after she told a friend that they might contain physical evidence. But again, tonight, the FBI lab has found no such evidence."

Assuming the CBS report is reliable--as of Monday, nothing has emerged to contradict it--then ABC, following Koppel's formula, must have issued a full and prominent correction of its semen tale, right?

Well, not exactly. The closest thing that ABC News has broadcast to correct its paper-thin report was this January 30 Judd report: "According to law enforcement sources, Starr so far has come up empty in a search for forensic evidence of a relationship between Mr. Clinton and Lewinsky. The sources say a dress and other pieces of clothing were tested, but that they had all been dry-cleaned before the FBI picked them up from Lewinsky's apartment."

Look how misleading this construction is. Judd says that Starr has "so far" failed to find forensic evidence, even though neither she nor her network have offered a conclusive reason to believe there is any forensic evidence. She says that all the clothes were dry-cleaned, a detail that is relevant only if one assumes that there was at one time some kind of evidence on the clothes, which Judd does not know (if she does, she should report it). And most important, Judd's initial phrase, "semen stain," is now absent, as is any indication that ABC News had relayed precisely the opposite impression a week before.

Next Page »