Just what is it, several people have asked me recently, that keeps you people in the news business from closing in and documenting things? Why do stories like the IRS scandal, the attempted Benghazi cover-up, and the behind-the-scenes conniving over Obamacare always seem “almost there”—but never quite the “slam-dunk” that we were all so sure was just around the corner?
Put the question in another context: Why haven’t you reporters found the secret tapes from the Oval Office? Such reporting made all the difference in the Watergate scandal. Forty years later, don’t you news guys have an equivalent package of technology and personal drive to nail things down?
Or again, as The Wall Street Journal suggested on its editorial page a couple of weeks ago: Why isn’t someone connecting all the dots?
I’ll come in a bit to what I think are two relevant answers to those very appropriate questions. But first, let me retell briefly a story I first mentioned in this column 20 years ago. That’s when a WORLD subscriber told me that a good friend of his had experienced firsthand the propensity of President Bill Clinton to make inappropriate advances toward women who were not his wife. At a dinner gathering, this man’s wife found herself being touched indiscreetly by the man who was then president-elect—under the table. The advances continued until, at her husband’s urging, she stomped firmly on Clinton’s foot.
The account went well beyond gossip. The woman telling the story was not sleazy, but an honorable person with a good reputation in her community. In news terms, here was a story with credibility, shedding important light on less provable stories then circulating about the president.
So I called the man who had seen this firsthand. Off the record, he was quick to confirm the account. So would he and his wife be willing to say this for the record? “Oh, I don’t think so,” he said. “There’d be no end of grief if we did that.” Then he added: “Don’t get me wrong; the story is absolutely true. You could also find 100 stories just like it in the area—and they’re all absolutely true. But no, I don’t see that we’d have anything but trouble by going public with it.”
I learned two lessons about news reporting that day.
The first is that the process of reporting a negative news story can be appreciably slowed—and maybe even prevented—by the sheer power and influence of the people at the center of the story. That power might be political, but it can also be economic, social, related to employment, or even ecclesiastical. But an angry U.S. president, especially, has considerable power at his disposal to make trouble for those who annoy him. The IRS is a potent weapon against both your personal tranquility and that of the business you’re related to as an owner or employee. A go-getter reporter, threatened by all these tools, might find himself counting the cost and deciding not to run with what he first thought was an unassailable account. Indeed, the influence might be so subtle that the reporter comes to doubt the truthfulness and worthiness of what he has worked hard to produce.
But the second lesson I learned that day was a little darker—and it includes but extends beyond the world of journalism and news reporting. Reminder No. 2 was that the world is full of people whose own pasts are just sorry enough that they have to be very careful casting a first stone. Ask yourself: How many checks have you bounced in the last 20 years? Do you want everyone you dated in high school to tell everything you ever did? Are you perfectly content before God about every tax deduction or insurance claim you’ve ever made? And all that’s just the beginning of where your political opponent or an adversarial reporter might go. The reluctance is understandable.
I suppose there may be 100 other reasons why all the details of Obamacare’s crooked origins, the IRS’s selective crimes, and Benghazi’s fabrications are not being blazed in headlines across the country. I worry about the bad people deliberately concealing such details. But I worry too about supposedly good people who, for reasons both practical and personal, don’t want to stir up a fuss. I worry about people whose main response is: “There’d be no end of grief.”