Misinformation happens, even here in Washington. To understand how and why, we need to look first at the top of the news business. And to do that, we need to understand what we mean by "top."
A top is an object that is easily spun.And once spun, a top will continue to spin until it is made to stop by another outside force - sometimes the hand of a child or a spin doctor, sometimes the unseen hand of gravity or reality.
Sad to say, there are lots of tops here at the pinnacle of the news business these days when the 24-hour nonstop news cycle has created nonstop competition for scoops. And in recent days we saw them as they were spun out of control, misleading us with their misinformational scoops about what we would soon be seeing in President Clinton's videotaped grand jury testimony.
For days before the tape was aired, their "scoops" were all the rage - as they told us that we would see the president erupt in rage at questions from special counsel Kenneth Starr's deputies about his sexual relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
The word was everywhere. The New York Daily News reported that Clinton "exploded in anger." On CNN, White House correspondent John King reported that Clinton "looks at times furious," according to "our sources familiar with the president's August grand jury testimony."
It is a measure of the heated temper of the times that we were misled even by the very best in the business. CBS News correspondent Bob Schieffer, who has made a career out of careful, cautious and understated coverage, reported:
"Our sources say the president was not just evasive but profane. At times lost his temper and at one point, stormed out of the room."
But then we saw the videotape with our own eyes - and, lo, none of that occurred.
So how did this mis-info happen?
"We got hooked," says Schieffer. "I got this story first from Democrats. People I don't think would mislead me. Then I checked it with Republicans and they said that's what they were hearing, too. I must have talked to five or six people," none of whom was ultimately correct.
Schieffer says his sources, whom he did not name, were people who had not seen the videotape for themselves. "I don't think my sources were lying to me," he said. "I think my sources were misled" by others.
Either way, misinformation from unnamed sources led to mass misapprehension. And that led the news media to focus much of their coverage and analysis, after the videotape aired Monday, on their perceptions of the president's style and demeanor, rather than what he said or failed to say.
"Clinton Tape Falls Short of Shock," said the headline in Tuesday's Chicago Tribune. And correspondent Michael Tackett began his article by writing: "In an incomparable spectacle, President Clinton's grand jury testimony about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky was broadcast the world over Monday, but despite a heated buildup, neither the president's words nor the thousands of pages of supporting evidence broke significant new ground in the case. . . . The president wasn't as angry as some suggested he might be, the questioning by prosecutors was not as lurid and confrontational, and the totality of the information disclosed - despite its volume - shed little new legal light on what has become an epic political ques-tion."
What we need now is one more round of investigative reporting. Every journalist who aired a false or misleading report about what the videotape would show should go back to the original sources, ask basic questions and discover how and why this misinformation was reported. Then they can go public with the true scoop on their mis-spun scoop.