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.
On Monday, ABC’s Cheng said: “I’m not going to go into the details of our news-gathering process. We stand by that [initial] report.”
The ABC report was irresponsible enough on its own. Relying primarily on the ABC broadcast, however, more than a dozen other major news organizations went with some version of the semen-stained dress. (At least some of those outlets, including the AP, tempered reports by including denials from Lewinsky’s lawyer about the existence of any forensic evidence.) Internet bottom-feeder Matt Drudge also used the ABC report to bolster the credibility of his own version of the semen-dress tale.
Most memorable, both the New York Post (MONICA’S LOVE DRESS) and the Daily News (SHE KEPT SEX DRESS) put the alleged dress on their January 24 front pages. The News was cautious: the first sentence of its account used the words reportedly and alleged, and attributed the semen story to “a broadcast report.”
The Post bulldozed any such niceties. As in a game of telephone, the story went from Lewinsky saying she saved the dress to Lewinsky simply saving it. The Post story’s first sentence was: “Monica Lewinsky saved a dress as a souvenir because it had President Clinton’s semen on it, sources said last night.”
The reporter whose byline ran on the Post account was Brian Blomquist. At least Blomquist is honest about what he didn’t know. “We certainly never saw a dress,” Blomquist said Monday, “or knew for certain there was a dress.” Blomquist said his report should have had a line in it about Lewinsky claiming to have a dress. “I don’t know why it ran like it did,” Blomquist said. “Maybe [Post editors] punched it up, which does happen.”
Esquire‘s Direct Male
The Esquire direct-mail campaign mentioned here two weeks ago–the one that promises the would-be reader he’d know what to do when “your testicles hum like a tomcat’s”–is angering more than just its recipients. Esquire contributing editor Gregory Jaynes, for one, is especially miffed: he’s the one who wrote that line.
The first sentence of Jaynes’s 1997 book, Come Hell on High Water: A Really Sullen Memoir, reads: “Sitting here in my cabin, I feel electrical and buzzy; my testicles hum like a tomcat’s.” An excerpt of the book ran in Esquire in December 1996.
In the direct-mail letter, however, Jaynes was not credited. Moreover, since only that phrase runs in the solicitation, the meaning is incomprehensible; Jaynes spent months on board a ship, sleeping in a cabin next to a diesel engine, and thus his entire body was under “a tingling assault of near-eternal duration.”
Asked how he felt about Esquire‘s unauthorized lifting of his phrase, Jaynes said: “It’s like shoplifting. It’s just wrong… I don’t want someone to pick up my book, see the first line, and realize he’s read it in some low-life come-on.”
Jaynes recently complained directly to Esquire editor David Granger. Although the magazine refused to comment, Granger is said to have apologized to Jaynes, and offered to reassess the propriety of the mailing. (Thanks to the folks on the Echo BBS’s media conference for bringing the Esquire letter to my attention.)
Exhibit A in the theory that George Pataki will get the endorsement of the Times, News, and Post: not one of those dailies has yet seen fit to publish an editorial calling on the governor to give a full explanation of his involvement with Yung Soo Yoo. Yoo is the GOP fundraiser currently under federal investigation for laundering contributions to Pataki’s ’94 campaign. Two major questions come to mind: Why did Pataki wait so long to return the money, when Yoo’s criminal past was well known? What compelled Pataki to put Yoo on his transition team, and what were Yoo’s duties?… PI have not had the chance to read the recently released CIA Inspector General’s report investigating charges that the agency was tied to California coke dealers (inspired by the “Dark Alliance” series written by former San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb). But an analysis by the D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies says that, despite the report’s well-publicized reference to “no direct or indirect” ties, the full report actually confirms several of Webb’s most important findings.
Research: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie