The Press and Starr

by Jonathan Wallace

I have just read Steven Brill's excellent "Pressgate" article in his fine new magazine, Content. One of the least-noted, but most striking facts reported in the article: the press reported "impartially" on its own contacts with Starr.

The article has received most attention for its confirmation of Kenneth Starr's extensive, inappropriate, and possibly illegal leaks to reporters. Prosecutors are supposed to talk to the press under very limited circumstances. Via a whispering campaign, Starr has created an extensive cloud of suspicion around people he will never indict, many of whom have committed no crime.

The president's attorneys have often raised the accusation that Starr's office, and the prosecutor himself, are in constant touch with the press. According to Brill, many reporters who knew the truth, having talked to Kenneth Starr or his deputy themselves, have covered these allegations "even-handedly": "On the one hand, the president's lawyers claim.....On the other hand, Starr...."

The problem with this is that there is no "impartial" coverage when the reporter knows one side is telling the truth, the other lying. Journalists writing these stories were in the position of covering themselves. They were actors in the drama on which they were reporting, but without disclosing it. In so doing, they violated the standards of integrity that newspapers and other media have led the public to expect. They knew, but withheld a material fact, in their stories.

An excellent analogy would be a crime reporter covering a controversial murder investigation. A reporter who had inside information and knew who murdered Jon-Benet Ramsey would be breaching the trust of the public if he did not disclose that fact in an article describing an accusation of that individual and the latter's denial. I don't see why the press covering the Starr leaks presents any different ethical dilemma.

Reporters make a religion of protecting sources. There would have been a solution consistent with this goal: the newspapers and other media covering the Starr leaks could have asked reporters who had not spoken to Starr, and who did not know whether or not he had spoken to their colleagues, to cover the leak allegations.

Journalistic ethics do not demand that a reporter lie to protect a source, but that he refuse to answer the question. Reporters covering leaks which they knew to have taken place could also have included something like the following in their stories:

"In order to protect their sources, reporters covering the Starr investigation (including this reporter), declined to say whether they had been in contact with anyone in Starr's office."

Instead, their "even-handed" articles contained a significant falsehood---a lie of omission, but a lie nonetheless.