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Straight From the Source’s Mouth?

Tuesday the State of the Union, today the State of the Media.

There’s a rumor going around that President Clinton is planning a military strike to divert attention from his deepening problems. The target would be Saddam Hussein.

Or Matt Drudge.

Saddam you know. Drudge is the author of the Drudge Report, an Internet gossip column said to have been first to write about the alleged presidential sex scandal, by reporting that Newsweek magazine had held back and not published the story. The Hollywood-based Drudge is admired by many for being such a nettlesome outsider. Trouble is that Drudge has more gall than judgment. He appears to get as many things wrong as right, wouldn’t dare let the facts interfere with a good rumor, nor recognize an ethical standard if he tripped on one.

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Because he is such a loose cannon, it was a jolt to see him on NBC’s “Today” program last week being allowed to spew unsubstantiated gab about Clinton and Monica S. Lewinsky. And even more astonishing to see him gain a similar forum on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday, his appearance providing evidence anew of the deepening media union between the trashy and legitimate.

That’s the way it’s going in a story that KNBC-TV Channel 4 reported Monday “seems to be changing minute by minute.” Actually, it’s not the story but the rumors that change by the minute. As a Canadian correspondent reported from Washington on Monday: “A lot of rumors have been flying, mixed with just a few facts.” And the more a rumor is repeated--whether in the monologues of late-night comedians or by media covering the story--the greater its acceptance as fact.

The one now in stone is that Clinton does not regard oral sex as being actual sex. Just the other day, a newscaster mentioned it as an example of Clinton’s alleged juvenile view of sex. If true, so be it. But have you heard or seen anyone cite a named legitimate source for that oral sex philosophy? A source other than Jay Leno, that is.

The more associations linger, the more indelible they become.

Take the shot seen around the world, a frame of TV footage showing Clinton and a smiling Lewinsky warmly hugging at a November 1996 rally. It’s become this story’s definitive freeze-frame, getting published in newspapers everywhere and shown repeatedly on U.S. newscasts, earning play even on news programs in Canada, England, France and Russia that were excerpted on C-SPAN Monday.

Making this the Clinton-Lewinsky shot of record conveys an intimacy that may, indeed, be accurate, but also may be misleading, given that the president is a touchy-feely guy known to hug lots of people. And this brief visual of them embracing at a public event--and a similar one that began circulating on TV Tuesday--are out of context, because they do not show the complete line of well-wishers greeted by Clinton. Perhaps he hugged someone else either before or after Lewinsky.

*

Are the carnivores prowling or what? Sniffing blood, several Los Angeles stations have dispatched veteran reporters to Washington to snatch a piece of the carcass, whether it turns out to be Clinton’s, Lewinsky’s or independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr’s.

CNN seems committed to a nightly hourlong special on the alleged scandal, reminiscent of the nightly program on the Iran hostage crisis that ABC News initiated in 1979, a precursor to “Nightline.”

And with gobs of time on its hands and not enough real scandal to fill it, the 24-hour news channel MSNBC had on someone the other day who knew just how to tell if Clinton, Vernon Jordan and Gennifer Flowers were telling the truth or lying. He analyzed their body language.

“Can you tell,” the MSNBC anchor asked him, earnestly, “if someone is giving an artful answer that is technically true but effectively a lie?” Perhaps if they wiggle their ears.

A little later, a family therapist weighed in from afar on how the Clintons’ daughter, Chelsea, a Stanford freshman, was probably handling charges of her father getting it on with a 21-year-old White House intern. This expert had not met Chelsea. Yet unburdened by ignorance, he gave his opinion freely.

As did the tabloid gossip writers and other know-nothings queried about the alleged scandal Monday by Geraldo Rivera on his syndicated talk show. This is the same Rivera who recently signed a contract with NBC News, reuniting him with conventional journalism and granting him a strong presence in the news division.

“Why does he do it?” Rivera asked one of his guests, a psychotherapist, about Clinton’s alleged sexual peccadilloes, in this instance the line between “The Geraldo Rivera Show” and MSNBC being almost nonexistent.

Pretty soon, the topic slid from Clinton to the Spice Girls, as if the future of the president and nation were just another bit of celebrity fluff to Rivera and his gang of camera-ready pundits.

*

You could have forecast, from past experience, that thoughtful coverage of this alleged scandal would be eclipsed by the trivial. Even though there is nothing at all trivial about the threat to the Clinton presidency from the charges of sex and wrongdoing coursing through the media.

Or anything trivial about media being in a withering cross-fire of dueling anonymous sources that CNN legal analyst Greta Van Susteren this week called “those silly leaks.”

Not so silly, as Van Susteren herself later noted, suggesting that the purpose of anonymous tidbits leaked by Starr, for example, is to use the press to advertise for people to come forward and implicate the president.

Are media always used by sources who refused to be named? Of course, just as the sources are used by media in pursuit of a good story. That’s the nature of journalism, and in most cases there’s nothing improper about it. But the public is hardly well served when an important story is driven largely by anonymous sources, as this one increasingly is.

Reputable news organizations dislike using them, and do so usually only as a last resort. In an ideal world, all journalists’ sources would agree to be identified by name. Thus, no secret accusers, all cards on the table. Reality intervenes, however, for anonymous sources are often whistle-blowers who fear that disclosing their names would cost them their jobs, their livelihoods or, in extreme cases, even their lives. Not necessarily this time, though.

Leaks are as endemic to Washington as bureaucracy. And even though reputable media usually do not allow unnamed sources to use them to make a personal attack on individuals, the competitive urge to keep pace or score scoops in this story at times may be overriding good judgment.

*

The verdict is still out on Sunday’s report by Jackie Judd on ABC’s “This Week” that “several sources have told us that in the spring of 1996, the president and Lewinsky were caught in an intimate encounter in a private area of the White House.”

Judd was rushed on at the start of the program, after which guests were asked by co-hosts Cokie Roberts and Sam Donaldson to comment on the report. Donaldson: “ABC thinks it’s true or we wouldn’t have put it on the air.” Thus, already these leaks reported by Judd were solidifying on Clinton like a pair of concrete shoes. Even more so when versions of the report soon surfaced on other networks (and would do so in the next morning’s major papers).

Later Sunday, ABC News amended it on “World News Sunday” to say that those same sources had told ABC News only that “Starr is investigating claims” that the president and Lewinsky were caught in “an intimate encounter.” So in a matter of hours, it had moved from ABC’s and Donaldson’s truth to claims being investigated by Starr.

Nonetheless, bring on the late-night funny men . . . and the Dallas Morning News, which Monday put on its Web site its own story quoting “attorneys familiar with the case” as saying that a Secret Service agent was prepared to tell Starr’s staff that he had seen Clinton and Lewinsky in a “compromising situation.”

That night, however, the newspaper yanked the story from its Web site and retracted it, after it had gained wider exposure by being repeated on CNN and “Nightline.”

The Drudge Report, mainstream-style.


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