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Lewinsky Story Proves That News, Indeed, Travels Fast

January 29, 1998|PAUL D. COLFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Paul D. Colford is a columnist for Newsday. His e-mail address is paul.colford@newsday.com. His column is published Thursdays

Bill Clinton's winning campaign in 1992 was aided by the fine-tuned operation of his so-called "War Room." James Carville, George Stephanopoulos and other leaders in the Clinton camp responded to Republican attacks with such war-like quickness that few charges were reported by that night's newscasts or the next day's newspapers without an accompanying rebuttal or counterclaim from the Democratic challenger.

The Clintonites mastered the news cycles, refusing to allow print and broadcast deadlines to pass without input from their side.

Comes last week's explosive sex-and-coverup allegations, and the news cycles have given way to a continuous flow of reports. Media observers are marveling at how round-the-clock news accounts of leaks, allegations and prurient details have outpaced the ability of the White House, let alone regular folks, to keep abreast of fresh fact and dirt.

Run it down. ABC News correspondent Jackie Judd broke the story of Monica Lewinsky and an alleged attempt by Clinton and his friend Vernon Jordan to have her lie under oath about a sexual affair with the president by reporting it Jan. 21 on ABC's radio network at 12:45 a.m. East Coast time. This was hours before most people would wake up to Judd's updates on ABC's "Good Morning America" or the Page 1 account in the Los Angeles Times and late editions of the Washington Post.

After Clinton's initial denials of an "improper relationship" with Lewinsky, there was a kind of radio silence from the White House until the president's close advisors visited the TV talk shows on Sunday. Still, one had to wonder whether the War Room of old could have defended against all the lurid reports, tape transcripts and news bulletins that followed in print, on the air and online (especially in the Drudge Report, which had reported some details of Newsweek's delayed story early on and then offered updates in the days that followed).

"There used to be daily cycles, or various feeds of Associated Press stories, that you could expect," recalled Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington. "You saw the AP stories in the morning, maybe the Washington Post and the New York Times, and the news shows later that night. It was not only a more leisurely pace, but more routinized.

"Now you have a 24-hour flow --it's not entirely a cycle anymore--that's speeded up and continuous. It started with the arrival of CNN in the '80s, and the Internet has opened up the cycle, too."

One clear development amid the torrent of news about the Clinton allegations is the energetic attempt by the weekly news magazines to remain in step with their daily and round-the-clock competitors. Witness the crowded panel Saturday night on CNN's "Larry King Live," which included representatives of three weeklies touting scandal-related goods that would not be in wide circulation until two days later.

The three were Jane Mayer, writer of a piece in this week's issue of the New Yorker; Walter Isaacson, the managing editor of Time, who drew attention to what he called the interesting "body language" in this week's "Monica and Bill" cover photo; and Michael Isikoff, Newsweek's lead bloodhound on the Lewinsky story and one whose recent marathon of TV face time would take him even to David Letterman's show on Monday night.

Newsweek had withheld Isikoff's reporting from last week's issue because editors wanted additional reporting on Lewinsky and on the latest twist in Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr's latest investigation, only to see his "exclusive" eclipsed. As a result, that same day Newsweek put Isikoff's "Diary of a Scandal" on Newsweek Interactive, part of America Online, and the magazine also faxed copies of the story to other media. On Saturday, it put excerpts from a Lewinsky tape on Newsweek Interactive.

Not to be upstaged last week before it, too, could return to newsstands on Monday, Time utilized its own online capabilities--Time Daily, at http://www.time.com--to disseminate perishable details gathered by senior correspondent Michael Weisskopf.

CNN and other electronic outlets have turned so often in recent days to print reporters covering the story, especially Newsweek's Isikoff and Evan Thomas, who offer the rare advantage of having listened to some of Lewinsky's taped conversations, that an inevitable backlash has arisen against all the promotion and echoing of others' accounts.

By Saturday, New York Times columnist Frank Rich was scoffing: "Were Jimmy Hoffa to turn up tomorrow, he'd have to fight off the swarm of self-promoting Newsweek Monica specialists to get air time on MSNBC." Diarist James Poniewozik writing this week for Salon, the online magazine (http://www.salonmagazine .com), saw as early as last Thursday that Newsweek staffers would "be spending more time in your living room than the family dog." He said that their TV appearances amount to "a massive free ad."

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