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CLINTON UNDER FIRE

Media's Coverage Turns Into a Full Press

Reporting: With the frenzy of talk radio and Internet, the pursuit of Clinton story resembles attention typically paid to a national crisis.

January 23, 1998|ELEANOR RANDOLPH and JANE HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

NEW YORK — If ever the shades were up at the White House and the media peering in the windows, it's now.

Unmentionables are being mentioned. The president's sex life is a matter of public debate. The questions about whether he has made a mistake of Nixonian proportions are everywhere. And with the frenzy of talk radio, 24-hour news and the Internet, the nation's media have scrambled onto the kind of full alert that is usually reserved for a Watergate or a national crisis like the Gulf War.

"It's a meltdown," said Larry Sabato, University of Virginia professor and author of a book about the media called "Feeding Frenzy."

"There is usually a rush to judgment by the media, but this time the rush is at hyperspeed. They've already got him boarding the helicopter on the White House lawn and giving the goodbye wave like Richard Nixon."

Moreover, as the media pursued the story that the Whitewater prosecutor is investigating allegations about presidential infidelity and possible related perjury, some news organizations peddled rumor and innuendo that would not have been aired or published only a few years ago.

For example, NBC's "Today" show featured Internet gossip guru Matt Drudge, who charged that "sources who are familiar with the situation" believe there is "a DNA trail" showing Clinton had sex with a former White House aide. Other journalists on the show bristled with anger at what they believe are unchecked charges being aired.

"I've heard lots of wild things," said a stunned Michael Isikoff, the Newsweek reporter who has been tracking the story of a possible White House affair for almost a year. "But you don't go on the air and blab them and talk about them unless you know you have some confidence that it's true."

"I wish it hadn't happened," "Today" show executive producer Jeff Zucker said of the Drudge comment, "but I don't regret putting him on the air because he was an important player in this story and couldn't be ignored."

Other network executives said that they have taken care to make certain that their news shows were balanced and carefully reported. Several said that they had worked hard to make certain the rush to get news did not rush to convict Clinton.

"This story makes us all uncomfortable as human beings," said Marci McGinnis, a vice president at CBS News. "But we've been careful to treat allegations as allegations."

Similarly, Tom Bettag, executive producer at ABC's "Nightline" said his program has decided not to include several "dramatic, voyeuristic" items included in a Newsweek story that was not printed in this week's magazine but was available Wednesday on the Internet.

But in the competitive, headlong rush of news, not everything can be perfectly controlled.

"When you commit wall-to-wall coverage of a sensational story in which little is known, you're inevitably going to wind up in a swamp of sleaze," one network executive said, adding that television ends up "repeating half-truths and innuendoes because you've got air time to fill and people who come on have agendas."

The story is media-irresistible because it has both serious and lascivious elements--subpoenas and sex.

The story has focused on whether former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky, 24, had an affair with President Clinton and then lied about it in a sworn affidavit at his request.

Lewinsky reportedly poured out her heart about the alleged affair to a friend, Linda Tripp, who taped the conversations and sent them to Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.

The president has repeatedly denied Lewinsky's story, and presidential friend Vernon E. Jordan Jr. said in a statement Thursday that Lewinsky told him she did not have an affair with the president.

Most reporters feel the story is worth the intense amount of effort that virtually every major news organization is putting into it.

"We're not vamping this story," said Frank Sesno, Washington bureau chief of CNN. "The president of the United States is speaking to it. The [Whitewater] independent counsel is making comments. Vernon Jordan is saying he has been subpoenaed. . . . No one in this town thinks it isn't a very important story."

Indeed, shortly after news broke that Starr had expanded his Whitewater investigation to include Lewinsky's story, the national media turned the story into an instant obsession.

A Starr press briefing featured a tangle of journalists jousting with each other for position. White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry, unflappable as always, was nevertheless besieged Thursday by a horde that he observed was "taking the oxygen" out of the press room. And Jordan faced the massed media at his own press conference later.

"Every camera in town is out somewhere stalking someone," one MSNBC reporter said on the air.

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