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Clinton story retraction raises flags

The Dallas Morning News' withdrawal of a provocative Net story about the Clinton sex scandal raises difficult journalistic issues.

Being first with a scoop online can make a news source a household name. But ask someone like hit-or-miss rumor monger Matt Drudge what the winning formula hinges on, and the answer is sure to be one thing: accuracy.

In what seemed at first to be the latest case of the Net beating other media, breathless television news anchors across the nation last night announced possibly the most damaging accusation yet against President Clinton: the Dallas Morning News had reported on its Web site that a Secret Service agent was prepared to testify before independent counsel Kenneth Starr that he had seen the president and former White House intern Monica Lewinsky in a compromising situation.

Then--within the same news hour, in some cases--the story was retracted.

Around 11 p.m., the Dallas Morning News pulled the story from its Web site. The story had been live for more than three hours and made it into the first edition of the newspaper's print version. The paper didn't run a retraction or correction, but stated that its unnamed source for the story, a Washington lawyer, was now saying "the information provided for that report was inaccurate."

The fumbled Dallas newspaper story brings up familiar journalistic thorns, such as the perils of using unnamed sources and the ethical issue of owning up to mistakes. But observers say the rush to report just a nugget of information in the so-called Clinton sex scandal is intensified by the Net's immediacy, which could be changing the way news outlets make decisions.

Now to stay ahead of the competition, print publications break their hottest stories on the Net, to avoid stale morning headlines. For example, Newsweek decided not to run its in-depth cover story on Lewinsky (as reported exclusively by Drudge) in print, but posted the package on America Online when the news broke elsewhere.

"All of this pressure short-cuts judgment," said Austin Long-Scott, an associate professor of journalism at San Francisco State University. "The Associated Press used to have a slogan, 'A deadline every minute.' As soon as you got enough information, the most important thing was to be first. Online is the same thing."

The Dallas Morning News was following a similar report by ABC News on Monday that a federal employee claimed to have seen the president in a compromising situation with Lewinsky. But the newspaper says its editorial standards were not compromised by the allure of speedy online publication.

"The standards for print and online are exactly the same," Dale Peskin, the assistant managing editor of new media for the Dallas Morning News, said today. "The story was fully reported through our Washington bureau. It was sourced, challenged, edited, and ready to go. So it was posted on our Web site at roughly 8 p.m."

The online story triggered instant media reaction--it was picked up by many local and national television news programs, which cited the Dallas newspaper's reporting. Then, the White House issued a statement denying the allegation late last night. When the Dallas Morning News checked back with its source, the lawyer said the information he had given was wrong. The paper ran a statement on its Web site, and late news broadcasts relayed the bulletin. The sizzling report broke and died, all before midnight.

No doubt, the Net helped spread the word, but not at the price of accuracy, contends Peskin. "Just because we had the Net to distribute this story immediately and globally does not mean it was rushed in without the fact-checking and sourcing that goes into any story we publish here."

Still, media observers and journalists alike find it hard to believe that the Net isn't fueling this scenario.

"When the Washington Post was on Watergate, they were out there alone on it for months, no one followed. The speed of the Net feeds into the competitiveness," said Jim Bettinger, a former San Jose Mercury News editor who now works for the Knight Fellowship program for journalists at Stanford University.

"The speed is far ahead of editorial caution. Also, in this case, the media have been much more willing to use other organizations' news reports," he added. "So it's even more important now for editors to be careful about what they allow to be published."

Moreover, with every online mistake, a whole industry's reputation, not just one publication, is affected.

"As long as stuff like this happens, it's going to be difficult for online journalism to establish the same credibility as print journalism," said Fred Brown of the Denver Post, who is the current president of the Society of Professional Journalists.

"The Dallas Morning News did the right thing if they weren't fully convinced," he added. "There is a certain danger in that it damages your reputation and gives the impression that you do things too hastily. But it would be far worse if they let it go."

However, being first online or off should be backed up with strong reporting. Claiming a source was simply wrong isn't good enough, says Long-Scott.

"Relying on a shaky source is a mistake. If a paper wants to be really forthcoming, it shouldn't just say what went wrong, it needs to say how it feels about this. If the Dallas Morning News is sorry, it should say so," he said. "By putting the story online and in the paper, they are saying they have confidence in this unnamed source."

Despite the pitfalls of breaking news online, the rewards are clear. News sites will continue to race to be first because making money hinges on their reputations for speed--and accuracy.

"For online sites, if you become known as 'the first with the most,' you can gain notoriety and celebrity," Long-Scott said. "That is good in terms of your business. It makes you talked about--it may make you a household word."