The Power of Talk : Confused about the Clinton-Paula Jones controversy? Talk shows offer their own special spin. Here's one reporter's story.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Quiet," the director yells. "He wants to do it again."

Maury Povich smiles into the camera--craggy handsome and dancing brown eyes-- and begins again what in TV is called the "cold open."

"All across the country everybody's been talking about it this week: Paula Jones' lawsuit against President Clinton. . . . What do such allegations mean to men who have important and powerful positions? And what do they mean to the women who make these claims? Today, America speaks out: sexual harassment. . . . It's all next right here on the 'Maury Povich' show."

In a few minutes, we will begin taping the show itself, and I will fulfill one of those peculiar roles in the garishly striped arcade that modern popular political culture has become: I will become a shouting head on a tabloid daytime talk program, the "Maury Povich" show, to discuss Jones' court claim that in 1991, while she was an Arkansas state employee, then-Gov. Clinton violated her civil rights by exposing himself and asking her to perform a sex act.

Without question, how the august gatekeepers of the elite media, including the editors of this newspaper, cover a story such as Jones' allegations is crucial in determining whether it gains the careering velocity of a full national scandal or sputters out after a day or two as a curiosity in the shallows of a few tabloid newspapers.

But in contemporary America, the decisions of newspaper editors and even network news executives constitute a shrinking part of how the public views such events.

The public consciousness must also cope with a spreading number of radio and TV talk programs--a new kind of social wallpaper, decorated not by newsmakers but observers of the news, offering their reactions to events even before they unfold.

In a week when South Africa inaugurated its first black president, for instance, CNN's "Crossfire" and "CNN & Company," ABC's "Nightline," talk radio and the weekend Washington talk shows have featured hassling over the supposedly larger implications of the Jones business.

Povich's show, which was taped Wednesday and airs today, will feature Rita Jenrette, the ex-wife of an ex-Congressman who admitted having sex on the steps of the Capitol a decade or so ago and later posed for Playboy.

There will be a gossip columnist from the New York Daily News and a representative from the New York City branch of the National Organization for Women.

And with us, too, will be Connie Hamzy, a self-proclaimed rock 'n' roll groupie who sold a story to Penthouse that said that 10 years ago, she had a fondling fling with Bill Clinton and is now complaining that nobody seemed to believe her at the time.

"Now remember, we want to use the Jones story as a, you know, a jumping-off point to talk about the whole issue of sexual harassment, Anita Hill, the Tailhook scandal, Bob Packwood, the whole thing," Ginelle Blado, the executive producer, tells me as I sit in the greenroom getting prepared for the taping.

They want to point out that Jones' complaint suggests that the President's genitals have a distinguishing characteristic she could identify as proof of her claim, and that this observation raises the specter of the President having to reveal his anatomy as part of the court case.

Another issue is that feminists seem less inclined to believe Jones than they did Anita Hill, when she leveled allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

They hope to get into how such allegations rip the families apart. "What does it do to the women involved?" Blado asks. "What does it do to Clinton and Hillary? What are they saying to each other?" Are we driving good people out of government?

As I listen, I notice that many of these issues have been raised in recent days by newspaper stories from the New York Times to USA Today.

In that sense, the Povich show is transmitting issues from the newspapers into another form to another audience. It hardly stands alone.

But I begin to wonder, too, whether the Jones story really raises all these issues. It may, but I think it is too soon to tell. If Jones' story is false, it could actually demean the issue of sexual harassment.

*

Onstage, a comedian is loosening up Povich's audience. He's a kid who lives near the theater and tries out new material here before using it in the clubs.

"Now we're going to learn how to clap," he tells them. And he shows that if they applaud twice as fast as they normally would, it sounds as though there are twice as many people in the audience.

Before long, it becomes clear that Povich is trying, within the format of such programs, to cover the issue of harassment seriously.

He begins with Diane Welsh, the president of New York City NOW, about how her group feels about Jones' charges. Are feminists being hypocrites for not supporting Jones? "I think she deserves her day in court," Welsh says.

But Welsh says she is concerned, too, that Jones presented her allegations flanked by right-wing enemies of Clinton at a Conservative Political Action Committee convention dedicated to demeaning Clinton.

Linda Stasi, who writes something called "Hot Copy" column in the New York Daily News, doesn't think much of Jones' allegations.

"Every time something like this happens, we become more and more foolish (as a country) and there is less and less authority on the top," she says. "Children look at this and there is no respect anywhere for anything."

People are clapping. Double speed.

Povich asks me about the role of the press here, and I burble a few minutes about balance and delicacy.

But then the first segment ends, and we are about to bring a fourth chair on stage.

Rita Jenrette's then-husband, John Jenrette, was a South Carolina congressman convicted of taking a bribe in the ABSCAM scandal. But she became better known in the aftermath for writing a book, "Diary of a Mad Congressman's Wife," about sex, drugs and hypocrisy in Washington, including her account of making love with the honorable representative on the steps of the Capitol.

She later posed for Playboy, tried her hand at singing, worked for the television show "A Current Affair" and now has a broker's license on Wall Street.

Jenrette is wearing a miniskirt and a tight sweater, and her eyes, once called "chocolate brown" by the Washington Post, are now mysteriously sea blue.

She also doesn't think much of Jones' charges.

"Women throw themselves at these men (in power)," she says, "I don't, but. . . ."

She had been harassed, she says. When a congressman made advances toward her in 1974, when she was in her early 20s, she didn't file a lawsuit--she threw a Bloody Mary on his head.

If Jones' experience with Clinton was so bad, she adds, why did she wait so long to file her suit?

"Maybe she was trying to save face," answers Welsh of NOW, finding herself ambivalently defending Jones as a paradigm for sexual harassment victims. "Maybe she didn't want to put herself and her family through what she is going through now, and what we, by having this show, are doing to her too."

Yes, Welsh and Stasi and I all seem uncomfortable with being on the program, but here we are. It's TV. Who turns down a chance to be on TV? And for Welsh, at least, there is an issue she cares about.

Stasi seems slightly less ambivalent. "I have been hit on by a lot of men, but I never asked a million bucks for it," she says.

*

Soon, Povich has on the phone Jones' brother-in-law, Mark Brown, and in dramatic, emotional tones, he says his sister-in-law is lying.

"I think it is a very sad thing what is taking place in this country," he says. "We need to focus on other things besides a bunch of bull crap."

"Really?" Povich says.

"Yes, sir. . . . This is over money. Large amounts of money. $700,000"--the amount sought in Jones' complaint.

The worst thing, Brown presses, is what all of this means for people whom he considers real victims of sexual harassment. Then Brown stops: "That's all."

The phone call seems provocative but inconclusive. Who is Brown? Is he estranged from his sister-in-law? We know nothing about him, which seems frustrating. And he raises peculiar questions. How does he know it's about money? Was there a family meeting asking people to lie? As Povich prepared to ask him, Brown stopped.

Next, Povich says in a "teaser" before a commercial, another woman.

Connie Hamzy was floating around all during the 1992 campaign. She relentlessly peddled her claim of having had a fling with Clinton in 1984.

When she introduced herself to a Los Angeles Times reporter in Little Rock in 1992, she gave him a picture of herself topless.

But Povich's audience is spared such details. It knows only that she sold her story instead to Penthouse magazine and that no one else much cared.

Hamzy is waif-like now, though her dress is low cut, and she is a decade older than when she said she met Clinton.

The mainstream press didn't believe you, did they, Povich says. Is it because you were a rock 'n' roll groupie?

"The fact that I am a groupie--a lot of people don't feel that groupies have a lot of credibility."

But she insists that she isn't lying. "I may be a slut and a whore," she says, "but I'm not a liar."

Stasi of the Daily News looks at me. "Why am I here?" she whispers, cringing. I'm wondering the same thing.

*

There are clearly degrees on such programs.

In his way, Povich is trying to make a point, not simply wallow, although one must wonder why Hamzy is present.

It is an interesting fact: In the medium of daytime talk, of Oprah and Geraldo, Sally Jessy Raphael and Montel Williams, Phil Donahue and a proliferating number of others, Povich "is trying to be the most serious, and to bounce most off the news," his publicity spokesman explains.

And true, while his questions go for the emotional, he does not, like Geraldo or Montel Williams, hone in on the most salacious.

Indeed, in the audience he has a well-known attorney, Eric Wallach, whose practice is almost entirely employment practices, including sexual harassment. What the audience doesn't know is that his work is mostly for management, defending such suits.

"It's, frankly, a lawsuit that if I were counseling her, I would have strongly suggested she not bring in the first place. It is far from clear that she suffered any personal or economic damages," he says.

"More importantly, she asserts this is all about her reputation. What worse way to guarantee that your reputation will be injured than to put yourself in this position?"

Why did you come on the show? I ask Wallach later.

If you want to discuss the issue of sexual harassment, he says, "these shows reach a hell of a lot more people in the end than CNN or NBC or the newspapers."

We are done now, heading backstage. A driver is waiting and will take me back to the airport or wherever I want to go.

Hamzy says she wants to go to her publisher. She has written a book about her life.

In the Town Car back to the airport, the radio is tuned to a talk show. "Does it hurt Clinton politically?" the host is asking about the Paula Jones case.

Before I can hear the answer, the driver switches stations, to a traffic report.

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