“Psst! Pass it on!”

Why are journalists spreading rumors?

Sources have always tried to manipulate reporters with rumors. Is the press becoming more susceptible to this manipulation?

By Daniel Schorr

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 4 (July 1989), p. 1.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.

 

Mark Goodwin’s memorandum for the Republican National Committee, with its insinuations of sexual along with political deviancy on the part of House Speaker Tom Foley, was a great boon to the news media. It brought innuendo out of the closet. It enabled the press to rise up in indignation over the war of rumors, blurring its own role in the guerrilla warfare that had preceded the memorandum.

The whispers about Foley were said to have started with supporters of Speaker Jim Wright, trying to save his foundering cause. Then they were taken up by Republicans, trying to parlay the Wright controversy into a clean sweep of the House Democratic leadership.

So it was that an unidentified aide to Republican Whip Newt Gingrich was quoted by the New York Daily News as saying, “We hear it’s little boys.”

So it was that The New Republic, relaying rumors about a “clean sweep,” said they were supported by rumors of “sexual misconduct” on the part of Foley and Democratic Whip Tony Coelho. When [on] the weekend before the announcement of the Wright resignation, a TV anchorman asked a Capitol Hill correspondent whether Foley had a “problem,” then one knew that a problem had been created for Foley.

In China today truth is called rumor. In America, rumor is elevated to truth.

Suzanne Garment, who is working on a book about scandals in government, wrote in the The New York Times that ethical attacks have become a part of the standard armory of political warfare and that, correspondingly, the corruption story has become a part of the standard repertory of journalists.

That, however, does not mean that the press, in its competitive ardor for the next scandal, must become the tool of the manipulator. The question is not so much one of professional ethics as professional standards. It is true, and perhaps unavoidable, that private lives become public events in the age of Gary Hart and John Tower. We will do, and perhaps overdo, stories involving personal scandal. But one can ask that, at least, they be stories and not simply planted innuendoes, leers and whispers without substance.

It was understandable that, in the wake of the Wright controversy and the sudden resignation of Coelho, the press was in avid search of new names. But red flags should have gone up at CBS News when it was informed that Rep. Bill Gray had been interviewed by FBI agents, said to be “involved” in an investigation of an unspecific subject. It really was not much of a story without knowing what was being investigated and whether Gray was a target. (He wasn’t.)

Rita Braver, CBS’ able and energetic law correspondent, told me that her story was acquired by assiduous effort and was not a simple leak. I have no trouble accepting that. (She also told me, flatteringly, that she was only following my own investigative footsteps.) But I still think that the vague echo of a “preliminary investigation” was not a real story, that the existing situation should have dictated caution and that a more interesting story might be the one a reporter cannot tell – who broke the rules of confidentiality designed to protect citizens’ rights?

The political war of rumor and innuendo is likely to go on, and the press is likely to go on covering and profiting from it. All one can hope is that the press will resist being enlisted as foot soldiers in that slimy war.

 

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