In a scandal already full of smoke and mirrors, the recent Washington Post article about a "phantom" second intern linked to President Clinton seemed to break new ground.
Citing Beltway buzz, the paper's media critic, Howard Kurtz, explored rumors and some news reports that a major story was about to break--in his own publication--and then quoted political reporter Bob Woodward's denial that he was working on any such story.
"This epitomizes what's gone wrong in the coverage of this story, because the minute you write about such a thing you give the rumor or gossip legs of its own," said Marvin Kalb, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on Press and Politics at Harvard. "It's a questionable journalistic practice."
The Clinton-Lewinsky saga has been full of such surreal moments, and the story is about to become even more intense with the expected release today of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's 445-page report over the Internet. At that point, said ABC-TV News President David Westin, "the story could go through a sea change, as far as media coverage is concerned."
Awkward Decisions for News Groups
From the start, the White House scandal has posed unique challenges to the media. Unlike previous inquiries, the story has focused largely on a president's sex life. Beyond the secrecy and scramble for details on a slowly unfolding story, news organizations have had to make awkward decisions about how to investigate and describe private sexual behavior--decisions that would have been unthinkable five or 10 years ago.
Kurtz's story is only one example of the ethical confusion that has spread through the journalistic community. More notorious, perhaps, is the tale of the presidential cigar.
First mentioned on the Internet and in tabloid newspapers, the cigar, allegedly a sexual prop, has been turned into a recurring joke by late-night talk show hosts such as Jay Leno. Even though the item has never been confirmed or written about in a major news story, it has taken on a life of its own in the media's ever-growing scandal culture.
"This is a story where good taste gets redefined every 48 hours," groused Benjamin Bradlee, former editor of the Washington Post who supervised the paper's award-winning coverage of the Watergate scandal. "And there's too much noise. Too many media reporters talking to other reporters about what they do."
As Washington gears up for the release of Starr's explosive report, the media's role in fueling the frenzy--rather than simply reporting the facts to an increasingly disgusted public--may once again come under fire. And if the last few days are any indication, the scrutiny is warranted.
This week, for example, there were hours of anxious chatter on cable television news shows, yet little news to speak of, after two vans delivered Starr's report to Congress. It was a rerun of the scene on Aug. 17, when Clinton testified before Starr's grand jury, and TV outlets filled an entire news day with speculation and gossip.
Hours after the Starr report was delivered Wednesday, TV and newspaper pundits made brash predictions about Clinton's fate, although none had seen the report. "What's in those boxes?" asked CNN's Bob Franken, as the network replayed a shot of the delivery for the umpteenth time. "Legal sources tell us the report is overpowering, relentless," added NBC's Lisa Meyers, who quickly noted that no one had seen the document.
Indeed, some television networks and wire services rushed to produce man-on-the-street "reaction" stories to the report Thursday, several news cycles before they could have yielded any meaningful insights.
ABC and CBS officials bitterly clashed over who was the first to report that the van containing Starr's document was on its way to an undisclosed site on Capitol Hill, as if this made a difference to anyone in the general public.
In a sign of the times, the Drudge Report--long a source of rumors that have found their way into the mainstream press--protested this week that NBC's Meyers had allegedly lifted an unconfirmed gossip item about a Clinton tryst with Lewinsky, without giving the Drudge report credit.
So much of the coverage is much ado about nothing, said Ed Turner, former vice president for CNN, "and yet it's probably unavoidable in an age when you have instant mass transmission of rumors and innuendo and fact. Still, that does not make it right."
Turner traces the mania for "All Monica, All the Time" to CNN's nonstop coverage of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Competing news organizations envied the upstart network's dominance of the story, he suggested, and vowed it would never happen again.
"That's where they got into trouble," he said, referring to CNN, MSNBC and other 24-hour news outlets. "Instead of reporting the stories and moving them forward, they committed to permanent coverage of this story. And it's that incessant quality that has probably turned the public off to this."
Other media observers fear that the public may become nauseated by salacious descriptions of the sexual behavior apparently cited in Starr's report.
"I think you'll see some bowdlerizing, on matters like the cigar story, but on the whole we're going to be in for some pungent material," said James Naughton, president of the Poynter Institute, a media think tank in St. Petersburg. Fla.
"For better or worse, and I think mostly worse, the media have become focused on private sexual conduct as a matter of public journalism. . . . I can imagine people asking: 'How did we get sucked into this?' "
Lessons to Learn About Public Trust
To be sure, many journalists felt vindicated when Clinton admitted he lied. But the media still have lessons to learn, especially when it comes to public trust, said Kerry Brock, director of broadcasting at the Freedom Forum's New York office, which studies the relationship between the press and the public.
"For many, the press appeared too jubilant when this story first broke; there was a general sense of enthusiasm that went beyond professional energy, and the public picked up on that," she said. "That [thrill of the hunt] was as much a part of the public's annoyance as the use of unattributed sources."
Given the rapid pace of events, the Lewinsky story is likely to change dramatically in the next 24 hours. Yet if one were to write a history of the scandal to date, the former intern's Gap dress would be one of the story's most enduring symbols. And here, too, the press and its critics have much to ponder.
Several weeks ago, the alleged semen stain held center stage on the "Larry King Show." King and his guests dwelled on the issue at length: How do you detect semen, they asked? Would dry cleaning or long-term storage affect it?
They brought in Dr. Henry Lee, a forensic scientist famous from the O.J. Simpson trial, to provide details, and he described how blood tests might--or might not--implicate the president.
At one point, Newsweek's assistant managing editor Evan Thomas shook his head and said: "This is beyond belief, but here we are and we're talking about it."
King, who has been all over the story, nodded. And, without a trace of irony, he asked: "Why did we get to this?"