Fourth estate bait

 

The story about the alleged affair between President Clinton and a White House trainee, Monica Lewinsky, has forced the US media to look at itself and analyse its own behaviour yet again.

For years now American media outlets, especially the press, have been concerned about falling sales, a lack of connectedness with the American people and poor relationships with the communities they serve. The public reaction to the Clinton-Lewinsky story has left editors, producers and reporters stunned. For the past three weeks there has been a torrent of news, in print, in radio and television based on the assumption that the story about the alleged affair - and a further allegation that Lewinsky was told to lie about it - could bring down the president. News outlets that are usually quite staid believed the story was so important that, in order to carry what few details or rumours were available, they dropped their standards and have at times read like soft pornography. Meanwhile, the American public - readers, listeners and viewers - are clearly saying they do not really care if their president had an affair, if the approval ratings for President Clinton are an indication.

There are a couple of things about this story that are of special interest to media-watchers. In the first place, and in spite of all the criticism, this was not an invasion of privacy initiated by the media. Secondly it has been a story that has moved at breakneck speed, pushed along by new media and the Internet.

The story actually came out of the investigation by "independent counsel" Kenneth Starr, who was appointed three years ago to investigate an Arkansas land deal involving Clinton. He has since extended his jurisdiction to cover a wide range of presidential behaviour. It appears that much of the "news" that has emerged in the last three weeks has come from sources in that investigation or from other lawyers.

Starr's role in all this has been questioned by the White House, which has accused Starr's office of "leaking" information. An eminent New York Times columnist, Anthony Lewis, wrote: "When the charges broke, Mr Starr said he was obligated to respect the requirement of confidentiality in the prosecutorial process. But there is every reason to think that some of the gory details in the press leaked from his office."

rise of Internet journalism

The role of the Internet has been of central importance to how this story developed. When, in mid-January, Newsweek decided to hold back a story on the President's alleged affair, a web site called the Drudge Report found out: "Newsweek kills story on White House intern, 23-year-old, Sex Relationship with President", screamed that first fateful headline. "The Drudge Report has learned that reporter Michael Isikoff developed the story of his career only to have it spiked by top Newsweek suits hours before publication."

Matt Drudge is a new kind of reporter, publishing on his website rumours and gossip, mainly from Hollywood. He gets it right 80 per cent of the time, he boasts.

Newsweek claims it decided not to publish the story because, while it had a tape of Lewinsky talking to her friend, Linda Tripp, it could not independently verify the authenticity of the recording. In addition, the editors had questions about Lewinsky's credibility.

However, once the material had reached the public domain, Newsweek, which had indeed left the story out of its printed editions, put its story on its own America On-Line site.

in high esteem

Americans tend to hold the office of president in high esteem. In the 1975 film All the Presidents Men, you can see the editor of the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee, insisting that reporters Woodward and Bernstein get more and more sources as the story of the Watergate break-in moves closer to President Richard Nixon. The editors of Newsweek were probably attempting to exercise that same caution last month when they decided not to run the story. Editors will rarely have that luxury again. If the mainstream media will not run a story, then partisan journalists (Matt Drudge is said to despise President Clinton) will run whatever rumours they hear.

Fear of the Internet or of tabloid television has driven this story faster and faster. It took two years before Nixon was forced to resign. This story will probably reach its zenith within weeks.

There is another media story: how President Clinton fought back. At first his supporters feared he was too slow in retaliating, but then he totally denied having an affair, and gave his State of the Union address as if nothing unusual was taking place.

Hillary Clinton went on breakfast television defending her husband, and played a blinder. Even the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, publicly backed Clinton while in the US last week.

The denials and deflections paid off. In the absence of hard facts, much of the media - including in Ireland - decided it would analyse Monica Lewinsky. She was either painted as a victim of appalling sexual harassment or as a "tramp", as she was described in a poll for the Fox Network. Given that there are few pictures of her and that she is virtually unknown, some of the articles about her owned much to imagination and possible fantasy.

The Irish Independent was able to tell its readers: "Physically, Monica Lewinsky has worked hard for over a decade to try to make herself an attractive young woman, moulding herself from a pudgy teenager into the image of the typical Pamela Anderson Baywatch clone." She was, according to the Independent, "The Girl Who Tried to Badmouth Bill".

The media in the US is aware that normal standards of accuracy and editorial judgements were ignored in the rush to keep the story moving. Editors might have been unsure of some of what was transmitted or published, but they published anyway.

This has been put down to the intense competition between news organisations, fuelled by 24-hour television and the Internet. The speed which characterises the new media does not allow time for reflection or restraint, as the editors of Newsweek discovered.

The American media has been full of self doubt for some time. Daily newspaper sales have fallen by more than five million in less than 10 years. Fewer people are watching television news and polls show that more and more people actually believe journalists are making America's political problems worse.

In this case the media, which decided a decade ago to make the "character issue" the test for politicians, has found its character questioned. Polls show people believe there was simply too much coverage of the allegations against the president.

The short items on this page were compiled and written by Harry Browne