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CLINTON UNDER FIRE

From Questioning Morals to Talk of Resignation: Is It Time for a Break?

Media: Leaders in both parties say it may be time for breathing room, given the crisis' lightning acceleration.

January 26, 1998|ELEANOR RANDOLPH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Five frantic days after the first public allegations about the president and the intern, ABC's Jackie Judd was on the air Sunday morning with another breathless scoop.

There was a possible witness to an "intimate encounter" between President Clinton and former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky, Judd told the audience tuning into "This Week."

Shortly afterward, NBC News reported they had confirmed the ABC News snippet. And by evening, CBS News had added the details that the pair allegedly had been spotted in the White House theater and the president's study.

"Now things happen so fast," says Bob Schieffer, chief Washington correspondent for CBS and a veteran reporter on past Washington uproars. "I can't imagine that whatever happens will go on for very long here, and certainly not for two years."

Two years was how long it took for the Watergate scandal to move from a break-in at Democratic Party headquarters in June 1972 to President Nixon's resignation on Aug. 9, 1974. The Iran-Contra scandal absorbed courts and investigators for years, just as the Whitewater investigation has continued since 1994.

But with 24-hour television and news every nanosecond in cyberspace, a story like Clinton's alleged sexual relationship has moved to serious talk of resignation within a week. The acceleration from questioning Clinton's morals to wondering about his ability to remain in office has occurred at lightning speed.

And many Democrats, as well as some Republicans such as House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, were asking the media to slow down, to give this story a little breathing room.

"I'm not in the business of giving the media advice," said Rahm Emanuel, a senior White House advisor, on CBS' "Face the Nation." "But I'll take this free moment here: I think everybody should take a step back, a deep breath, because I think what counts here are the facts and getting to the bottom of them."

Similarly, Democratic National Committee Chairman Roy Romer said on CNN's "Late Edition" that the media are driving the country too rapidly to a conclusion before the evidence was in.

"So, hey, just take a pause. Take a break. Take a time out and let's get the facts on the table," he said.

Indeed, if there was anything like a time out, it was not for a few days or weeks but for a few hours as Super Bowl fever allowed people to settle onto their couches and think, for a while, about something else.

Still, the allegations about a tryst in the White House have permeated American society since, unlike Watergate or Whitewater, this one is so easy to understand.

At MSNBC, Alan Boyle, who monitors the Internet site for the all-news cable channel, said that more than 85,000 people had voted on a poll about the Clinton question by mid-morning Sunday. Those numbers were beginning to break the records set after Princess Diana's death in August, he said.

Moreover, a number of media commentators--as well as House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.)--have begun to describe the entire scene in Washington as "surreal."

With news slipping out of the White House that Clinton is considering a possible attack on Iraq, Newsweek's media commentator, Jonathan Alter, said on MSNBC that "Wag the Dog," a movie about how the White House fakes a war to divert the country from a presidential sex scandal, might leave viewers wondering whether the film is "a satire or a documentary."

The great speed with which the allegations have become public also has challenged news organizations in the ways that they describe the sexual charges against Clinton.

Last week, most major news outlets were describing any alleged sexual activity between Lewinsky and Clinton as being "a type of sexual activity." By week's end, most had begun saying directly that they were talking about oral sex.

In other ways, the strength of the news comes in its repetition--the way that one anchor talks about an allegation and then an analyst suddenly declares it to be fact. On ABC's "This Week" show, for example, most participants carefully noted the possibility that these charges are untrue. But conservative commentator Bill Kristol would have none of it.

"Everyone knows he's lying," Kristol said firmly. "Lies beget lies. Washington is now, I think, drowning in deceit and it cannot go on long."

The same kind of thing seems to happen as people are interviewed over and over by the media.

Lewinsky's lawyer, William Ginsburg, was asked Sunday on "Meet the Press" whether the FBI, while searching his client's apartment, also took some of her clothes for possible DNA evidence from any alleged sex act.

"That's a salacious comment," Ginsburg told NBC's Tim Russert. "It's a salacious comment because I would assume that if Monica Lewinsky had a dress that was sullied or dirtied, she would have had it cleaned. I know of no such dress."

Shortly afterward, he was interviewed on "This Week" and Ginsburg said: "Yes, there's a report which I was advised of initially a week ago by the Office of Independent Counsel that there was a dress that might be forensically important in terms of DNA evidence."

Thus the story evolves, not slowly but rapidly. As Donald Baer, former White House communications director, said Sunday on Fox News, "We've been in one of these sort of television feeding frenzies . . . where the news cycles are so compressed so dramatically that there's a rush to try to finish everyone's judgment by the evening news so we can wrap it up and get on with the next story.

"I think we have to take a longer view on this and judge it not just in terms of today's news cycle, tomorrow's news cycle or the next day's news cycle."

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