D.C. PRESS DOESN'T SERVE US WELL WHEN IT BECOMES CRUCIAL PART OF STORY

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There's something radically wrong with the system when people who know the truth about a matter of vital importance to our democracy can't or won't tell us what they know, even though that's their primary job.

To wit: The reporters who cover the presidential sex scandals and the grand jury proceedings of the independent counsel have been the recipients of inside information about who said what within the secret sanctum of the grand jury room.

The leaks could have come from either side, of course. And a big part of the story is missing when the reporter doesn't tell us where he or she got the information.

Here's the way the game is played: President Clinton or his cohorts could angrily denounce the very statements from inside the grand jury that they themselves leaked to throw people off that they were the source and to discredit the information and render it old news. Or the lawyers working for Kenneth Starr could leak tidbits to bolster the case against the president -- and to shore up Mr. Starr's sagging reputation (that came in large part from his alleged leaking).

The point is that the reporters have become central to the story, a place they never should be. They are the only ones who know for sure what side is manipulating the facts, and in the interests of protecting their sources they're not talking.

They could clear up the confusion -- and shed considerable light on whether the president is an innocent bystander in the grand jury proceedings or trying to divert attention from his own troubles by discrediting Mr. Starr. To make an informed judgment we need to know.

It seems to me if reporters themselves become the story, they have an obligation to come clean. Otherwise, they are dealing in obfuscation, not enlightenment.

When reporters know the truth, but won't say, it serves the reader poorly and adds to the cynicism about the press that already abounds.

In a way, knowing the facts and not trying to find a way to relate them makes it seem that the press is in cahoots with whatever side is leaking confidential information for its own advantage. And it allows people to come up with ever more bizarre scenarios about the events unfolding before us.

As The New York Times stated: "If all camps do indeed know many of the same facts, it might be very difficult to demonstrate who leaked damaging information. As a result, the theories multiplying here have the key characteristic of long-lived conspiracy theories everywhere: They are very hard to prove -- and to disprove."

What the press must find a way to do is give clearer signals. Without revealing their precise sources, reporters should find a way to let us share with them what's transpiring. Except for the truth, unfortunately, they have no incentive to do so. Leaks are good for them, bad for us if they leave us in the dark about where they come from.

I am personally convinced that most of the leaks are coming from the president's side. Their strategy is not complex: to discredit Mr. Starr and thereby the damaging allegations coming from the grand jury. And in the process, the administration is not beyond further tarnishing the reputation of the Fourth Estate.

For instance, a White House stooge on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press" asked moderator Tim Russert whether NBC had ever been the recipient of leaks from Ken Starr. The idea, of course, was to plant the idea that Mr. Starr and the press had formed a powerful alliance to bring down the president.

Mr. Russert was trapped. It was a "have-you-stopped-beating-your-wife?" question and he replied more than a trifle defensively: "We don't talk about whether leaks came from the White House, from Ken Starr, from the State Department, from the Pentagon. We do our job and we do it well."

But the point is that the press is not doing its job well if, in the end, we're left not knowing what or who to believe.

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