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Introduction: Sources Usurping Media's Role

Bill Kovach, Curator, Nieman Foundation

The purpose of this effort on watchdog journalism is to examine the work and to try to find the most effective way to monitor institutions and people of power in ways that are not only useful to consumers of information, but also strengthen the whole notion of watchdog journalism, the only function of journalism that justifies the freedom we enjoy in this country.

This year, the Clinton/Lewinsky story has highlighted the extraordinary degree to which American reporting, especially in Washington, has put itself in a position to be manipulated by those who have a vital interest in the outcome of the story. The impact of the new technology is that it shifts the power relationship toward the source of the information and away from the news organizations that cover them. Sources increasingly usurp the gatekeeping role of the journalist to dictate the terms of the interaction, the conditions under which the information will be released, and the timing of publication, a power shift so dramatic that I believe it can destroy journalistic independence and certainly changes the whole notion of journalistic distance.

If you think this is a radical conclusion, we now have the testimony of Michael Isikoff himself in his book, Uncovering Clinton, in which he says that he realized that he stepped across the line from being a reporter to a participant. "I was trying to influence the action of the players," he wrote of trying to persuade Lucianne Goldberg and Linda Tripp from negotiating a book deal that would compromise the credibility of his sources. "As a reporter, that's not my job, but I didn't realize something else. I was at this point too involved to avoid influencing the players of the story."

Some argue that the ultimate outcome of the story, Clinton's ultimate admissions, was a vindication of the press's role, but this "ends justifies the means" argument is too self-serving for any self-respecting journalist to make. This reporter-source relationship caused journalists who knew better to denigrate Hillary Clinton's comments when she tried to call attention to a network of conservative lawyers and writers manipulating the legal system. To work so closely with the Special Prosecutor's Office that the President felt justified in comparing them to informants when he was called on by a federal judge to justify his relationship with a journalist covering his office.

For those who are convinced that watchdog journalism is the central purpose of a free press, it is vital that we examine the reporter-source relationship and how it shapes our reporting today.

  • How much socializing between reporters and sources is acceptable?
  • How much information trading is acceptable?
  • What about giving advice to a private source?
  • What about helping a source financially?
  • Can a reporter deceive a source, expose a source? If so, when and why?

It is questions such as these that we hope to explore and examine today in the hope that, with enough thought and enough discussion, we can begin to find ways to redress the imbalance of power between reporters and sources that the competitive atmosphere of the new technology and the new economic organization of the press has created.

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