All That News, But Is It Fit to Print? Marvin Kalb on press performance during a crisis.

One Scandalous Story: Clinton, Lewinsky, & 13 Days That Tarnished American Journalism by Marvin Kalb, 456 pp., Free Press, $26.

If you were to view the first two weeks' coverage of the Sept. 11 slaughter under a press critic's microscope, what would you see? The press chasing a story hard, informing its readers with a maximum of speed and a minimum of carelessness? Or a tawdry enterprise goaded by sensationalism and a 24-hour news cycle, recklessly sourced and speckled with mistakes?

The first assessment seems the obvious one, but a sour press critic could easily choose the second. For starters, the folks at CNN relied on unnamed law-enforcement sources to name Adnan Bukhari a hijacker. But he wasn't. The Boston Globe fingered Abdulrahman Alomari as another one. Sorry, wrong Alomari. CBS aired news of a van filled with explosives on the George Washington Bridge. Not so. The New York Times on the Web reported that firemen had been pulled to safety from ground zero's steel and ash. The report was mistaken. And as the twin towers melted, CNN went live with the raw report of a car bomb exploding at the State Department. "We are working to confirm," the talking head said. Never happened.

What is a fair-minded person to make of all this? Gauging from their corrections columns, the top daily papers didn't make more errors reporting the events of Sept. 11 than they do during noncrisis periods. Of course, reporters could be 100% accurate if they adopted the fault tolerance that NASA uses to launch rockets. The downside would be that each day's newspaper would be delayed by months or years.

No surprise, then, that readers prefer immediacy to perfection. It's an excellent bargain as long as journalists limit their goofs and correct them. Mostly, they do.

So the fact that Monicagate reporters didn't bat 1.000 between Jan. 13 and Jan. 25, 1999, the period covered in Marvin Kalb's pompous and scolding One Scandalous Story (Free Press, 306 pages, $26), should surprise nobody. It's not even news. We know, for instance, that The Wall Street Journal and the Dallas Morning News had to retract stories about who saw what in Bill Clinton's private meetings with Monica Lewinsky. Then there is the chronicle of the stained dress. First ABC's Jackie Judd reported that it existed, then it didn't, then it did. Every error was deplorable, but if Mr. Kalb's book is any guide the press did a better job capturing the facts in the early days of Monicagate than it did reporting Sept. 11.

That today's press gang can't report straight isn't Mr. Kalb's only gripe. He thinks reporters and editors have become too cozy with their unnamed sources, too ready to chase gossip and scandal and too eager to repeat thinly sourced reports from other media, especially dat debbil Matt Drudge. "The Lewinsky scandal did not, on its own, smash the standards of American journalism," he writes. "It merely accelerated a disturbing trend."

Mr. Kalb, a former CBS News correspondent and now a Kennedy School pundit, blames the profit motive. Media mergers and costly expansions, he argues, have forced news organizations to hype "mediathons" that draw big audiences (Lewinsky, O.J., Princess Diana). It wasn't always so. Mr. Kalb recalls the tasteful days of 1962, when CBS ran its news division as a loss leader -- "serious, imposing, important, but never profitable."

But how golden was the Washington news establishment back then? Compared with today's plethora of bickering news and opinion voices, it looks like a tidy news cartel. Which it was. The New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune, Time, CBS, NBC and Joseph Alsop decided what was news. The rest followed. The cartel didn't have to worry about getting scooped by cable news networks or the Internet or USA Today, none of which existed, or any of the regional papers whose Washington bureaus burgeoned after Watergate, so it took its sweet time reporting the news. When competition arrived, the cartel took a hit it never recovered from.

Sometimes cartel reporters spiked the news, as Mr. Kalb confesses in his opening anecdote. In September 1963, while on assignment for CBS, Mr. Kalb stumbled upon Secret Service agents escorting a leggy babe up a private elevator at New York's Carlyle Hotel. Presumably her mission was to get shagadelic with the 35th president, a Carlyle guest. The agents shoved Mr. Kalb to the floor so he wouldn't see anything more. Shaken, he retreated to the hotel bar to join his colleagues, but he kept the tale to himself. "It was my judgment at the time that such an incident was simply not 'news,'" he writes. New York Times reporter R.W. Apple confided to Mr. Kalb decades later that he too observed the Secret Service procuring for JFK at the Carlyle. When Mr. Apple took his findings to the office, the assignment editor said, "No story."

How we got from yesterday, when the president could enjoy hookers without a peep from the press, to today, when everything is known, distresses Mr. Kalb no end. But does he really think the press should have looked the other way as scandals grew out of Whitewater inquiries? Should it have ignored Paula Jones's lawsuit as it sparked the testimony that would bring Mr. Clinton to impeachment? Should Newsweek's Michael Isikoff have snubbed the tips fed to him by Clinton foes just because they sought Mr. Clinton's ruin? A million times, no!

Other Kalbian notions are equally off-base. He's appalled that Mr. Isikoff traded information with Independent Prosecutor Kenneth Starr's office and that Time magazine's Michael Weisskopf briefed Clinton apologist Lanny Davis about particulars of the scandal when he called Mr. Davis for information. Maybe Mr. Kalb reported his stories at CBS without talking, but few journalists can ask questions without revealing some of what they know. Call it trading, call it shooting the breeze, call it asking a question with some context, but interviews don't happen in a vacuum.

Mr. Kalb's best shot comes when he criticizes Monicagate reporters for using unnamed sources excessively. One such story from the Washington Post contained 24 anonymous sources (which could have been one person or 24). This practice makes for bad journalism because it allows sources to snipe at foes without being held accountable and makes it difficult for readers or reporters to verify what is said.

By book's end, though, Mr. Kalb's account undermines his thesis. Newsweek withheld its blockbuster by Mr. Isikoff because top editors had qualms. The Washington Post and ABC News sat on their pieces for several days after Matt Drudge unleashed the scandal because they wanted to be sure of the facts. The New York Times and NBC caught up to the story without committing panic-induced errors. Maybe Monicagate didn't usher in a golden age of reporting, but only a sourpuss would deny it a sterling silver.

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