Associated Press reporter Pete Yost played by the journalistic rules last Thursday when he granted anonymity to the sources who provided him with his big scoop: that Independent Counsel Robert Ray had impaneled a new grand jury to hear evidence against President Clinton. As Yost chased his own story on Thursday and Friday, publishing the peeved speculations of big-name Democrats that the sources were Republicans, he continued to follow the official rulebook. He kept a poker face, reported the facts, and protected his sources. But playing by the rules, in this instance, meant behaving unethically.
The sleazy thing about reporting the Democrats’ speculations was that Yost knew that the speculations were basically wrong. As it turned out, one of Yost’s sources was not a vengeful Republican but a Democrat on the federal bench.
Yost’s scoop, which hit the wires at 3:29 p.m. ET on Thursday, made the Democrats mad as red ants. With Vice President Al Gore just hours from giving his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Democrats insisted that Republican leakers, determined to embarrass Gore on his big night, were behind Yost’s story.
Yost’s Thursday and Friday follow-up stories maintained that the “legal sources” for his scoop were “outside Ray’s office,” a qualification that did not rule out all Republicans. So Yost’s decision to publish the Democrats’ accusations of a Republican conspiracy seems somewhat defensible. Among the red-ant Democrat quotations collected by Yost:
- “The timing of this leak reeks to high heaven,” said White House spokesman Jake Siewert.
- “You can bet your bottom dollar that the Republican Party was behind” the leak, said House Minority Whip David Bonior (D-Mich.).
- The timing of the story “hours before Al Gore is to give this speech” was reason enough for a federal investigation, said Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.).
But by Friday evening, the confession of Appellate Court Judge Richard D. Cudahy in a bylineless Associated Press story largely exonerated the Republicans. Judge Cudahy said he inadvertently divulged the grand jury secret to a reporter–presumably Yost–during a press inquiry. Cudahy, who sits on the three-judge panel overseeing Independent Counsel Robert Ray, is an unlikely Republican agent: A Democrat, he was appointed to the bench by President Jimmy Carter.
The Yost incident illustrates the shortcomings of “just the facts, ma’am” style of newspaper reporting. Reporters are not stenographers–they’re supposed to know the difference between finding the truth and giving their say. No journalists should knowingly publish misinformation in the name of providing “balance” or “fairness.” If that’s what Yost did, somebody should box his ears.
In a more perfect world, Yost would have recused himself from writing any Associated Press stories in which Democrats speculated on the identities of his sources. (Imagine the Watergate-era Woodward and Bernstein writing a news story in which they entertained the wild guesses of Republicans about the identities of their blind sources!) In a more perfect world, the Associated Press would have dipped into a “clean room” to find a writer and editor who didn’t know the identity of Yost’s sources to report the Democrats’ angry speculations–but only if the wire found those speculations newsworthy. The next bit of judo, of course, would have been to place those comments in context, but I suspect that the Associated Press would be up to the challenge.
(Pete Yost did not respond to a phone call seeking his comment. If and when he does, I’ll add it.)