After every great national scandal, journalists embark on an
orgy of self-examination about the quality of their coverage. We
did it after Watergate - and after the O.J. Simpson trial, and the
death of Diana, Princess of Wales. And though the story involving
President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky is still unfolding, the press
is engaged in yet another assessment of its performance.
This is a good thing. The profession of journalism is not
without blemish. We journalists spend a lot of time examining the
ethical deficiencies of others. It is only fitting that we examine
The American press is probably the freest in the world. It is
one of the most technologically advanced. But are our ethics
improving or deteriorating?
On the one hand, thousands of journalists all over the
country - generally honest, mostly hard-working, sometimes
underpaid - are doing a good job. Day after day they cover city
halls and police departments, legislatures, state and federal
agencies, and funnel a flow of necessary and useful information to
their readers and listeners and viewers.
Earlier this month I spent several days in New York on a jury
of editors charged with selecting nominations for the Pulitzer
prize from some 1,500 submissions. The entries came from newspapers
large and small and they did a lot to restore my confidence in the
quality of American journalism. There were brilliant examples of
spot news coverage, superb photographs, heartwarming feature
stories, and examples of investigative reporting that redressed
wrongs and brought change and improvement to many communities.
Clearly, the press can be a constructive force for good. On
the other hand, the corridor talk at the Pulitzer judging focused
entirely on the quality of reporting on the Clinton-Lewinsky story,
and on some deficiencies in that reporting.
Should the private lives of public figures be off-limits to
scrutiny by the press? I don't believe so. That scrutiny is the
price that must be paid by those who seek to lead. A president who
lies to his wife and family may lie to the voters.
But the scrutiny by the press must be responsible and
purposeful, not merely prurient. The decision to publish or not to
publish should be case-by-case, generally based on whether the
private peccadilloes affect the individual's public performance.
The press would be derelict if it had not covered the issue
of the relationship between Clinton and Lewinsky. …