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

May 13, 1994|THOMAS B. ROSENSTIEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — "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.

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