Anonymous White House Sources: How They Helped Shape Television News Coverage of the Bill Clinton - Monica Lewinsky Investigation

By Esposito, Steven A. | Communications and the Law, September 1999 | Go to article overview
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Anonymous White House Sources: How They Helped Shape Television News Coverage of the Bill Clinton - Monica Lewinsky Investigation


Esposito, Steven A., Communications and the Law


On February 12, 1999, the thirteen-month-long scandal involving President Bill Clinton and former White House intern Monica Lewinsky came to an end as the U.S. Senate acquitted Clinton of perjury and obstruction of justice charges.(1)

Ironically, while Clinton escaped being the first president ousted by impeachment, his chief antagonist in this national drama remained under investigation. Independent counsel Kenneth Starr was being investigated on two fronts. First, the Justice Department examined allegations of misconduct by Starr's office during the Lewinsky investigation.(2) Secondly, and of specific importance to this article, a U.S. federal judge looked into allegations that Starr's office violated Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 6(e) by leaking secret grand jury testimony to the media during the Clinton-Lewinsky inquiry.

The alleged violations of Rule 6(e) drew national attention in mid-June 1998 with the release of the premiere issue of Brill's Content. In the magazine's cover story, Starr admitted that he and his staff occasionally talked with reporters on background.(3) Starr maintained then, as he does now, that his office did "nothing improper." According to Starr, his office did little more than "counter misinformation" from the Clinton camp, adding that grand jury proceedings were never discussed in conversations with the media.(4)

The allegations concerning Starr's office and Rule 6(e) violations, coupled with the use of unnamed sources in coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky story, precipitated a re-examination of anonymous sourcing by the media. Although each news outlet has its own policy regarding the use of anonymous attribution, sourcing standards never have been etched in stone. In fact, for more than a century American journalists have been relying on unnamed sources.(5)

Critics, however, suggest that the overreliance on veiled sources is partially responsible for journalism's sagging credibility.(6) Reports that rely on anonymous sources can make it difficult, if not impossible, for news consumers to evaluate the accuracy of the information presented.(7) The overuse of unnamed sources also can result in slanted news coverage.(8) Anonymous sourcing also has been referred to as a reporter "cop-out"--the fastest and laziest way to gather information.(9)

Defenders, though, view anonymous sources as a vital news-gathering tool that enables reporters to collect critical information that otherwise would be unobtainable.(10) Others suggest that the practice provides benefits to diversity of thought in the marketplace of ideas.(11)

While recent popular and trade publications debate the pros and cons of unnamed sources,(12) research findings on the subject are varied. While some editors and news directors fear that their product's credibility suffers if sources go unnamed, studies indicate that factors other than attribution appear to be more important in shaping the news consumers' perceptions of story believability.(13) Some studies, in fact, have indicated that unnamed sources rate rather highly in perceived credibility.(14)

The findings regarding the frequency of anonymous attribution also are mixed. Researchers have found that 33% of newspaper stories,(15) and more than half of the stories on network television newscasts,(16) contained unnamed sources. Other studies have indicated that subject matter influences the use of unnamed sources. For example, while close to one-third of the interviews in Washington D.C.-based stories were "off the record,"(17) veiled attribution was almost a non-factor in coverage of legal proceedings in which trial participants were under gag orders.(18)

One of the limitations of most of the previous research on unnamed sources is the lack of literature available about television news. The majority of studies on this subject have focused solely on the print media. Given that a majority of Americans claim to get their news and information from television,(19) this is a significant shortcoming.

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