By Howard Kurtz
Barbara Bryniarski has had it with the media's pursuit of Monica Lewinsky.
"I just won't turn it on anymore," said Bryniarski, 42, a trade publication editor from Chevy Chase. "I'm sick of it. I'm sick of watching the photographers trample people. It's disgusting."
Linda Shaw, 47, a federal grants administrator from Rockville, is also fed up with the coverage. "For weeks and weeks and weeks it was Paula Jones, Paula Jones, Paula Jones," she said. "Then came Monica."
Steven Boden, a 30-year-old school administrator from Ashton, is appalled at the television theatrics. "The way they sensationalize the story is an embarrassment: 'Crisis in the White House! Coming up Crisis in the White House!' It's not going to mean a bit of crap in six months."
The anger at the media over the investigation of President Clinton and a former White House intern is like the cresting of a wave that has been gathering strength for years. The emotion is unmistakable in a torrent of calls, letters and e-mail messages to this newspaper: "Garbage mongers." "Cannibals." "Jackals." "Character assassination."
By every available measure, the Lewinsky story is becoming a cultural benchmark of public dissatisfaction that may resonate for years. In a conversation with 13 area residents, a cross section brought together by a research firm for The Washington Post, a majority compared the Lewinsky saga to the O.J. Simpson trial as a case study in media excess. Most said the sex and perjury allegations against Clinton are unimportant and that they want more news about the U.S. standoff with Iraq.
But this denunciation of organized journalism, as in the Simpson case, contains the seeds of its own contradiction. The same public that complains about saturation coverage is devouring that coverage in record numbers. Millions of news consumers seem drawn to the very thing they claim to detest, which in turn encourages news executives to keep serving it up.
Unlike previous media frenzies from Lorena Bobbitt to Marv Albert, the Lewinsky story is qualitatively different: It has engulfed the president, the most prestigious newspapers and the Big Three network anchors, all of whom rushed home from covering Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba when the story broke three weeks ago.
In the past, anti-media feelings have been strongest among certain segments of the public. Conservatives viewed the press as too soft on Clinton. Traditionalists worried about the spread of sensationalism. Parents grew alarmed at the degree of violence on the news.
Now these critics have been joined by many Clinton supporters and those who feel reporters should stop poking into politicians' private lives. Many others are simply turned off by what they see as media overkill.
Journalists, said Elaine Fink, a 55-year-old technical writer from Columbia, "are like a dog with a bone. They get ahold of something and there's nothing else in the paper or on the TV or on the radio but that story for months. I mean, it never ends."
Peter Jennings, ABC's anchor, flatly disagrees with these opinions. He is not defensive about the media's performance. "To say this is not the media's finest hour is to fall into the trap of saying that we have done something wrong," Jennings said. "I don't think we have, to be honest. I don't think we have done badly."
Jennings recognizes the widespread public sentiment that the press has pushed the boundaries of good taste. But he is puzzled by the contradictions. "Some of us have been plumbing people's private lives with such vigor that they are saying, 'Enough already!' I don't know how to account for the fact that the public is clearly fed up but continues to watch." Likening the story to a car wreck, he said: "Rubbernecking is part of the human condition."
But Jennings says the press will remain in hot pursuit: "I don't think we will pull back from the coverage as long as we deem this to be an important political-social-ethical story."
Is this the prevailing media view? Not necessarily. Dan Rather does not share Jennings's enthusiasm. He says he can't stand the Lewinsky investigation.
"I didn't get into journalism to chase sex stories," the CBS anchor said. "One reason I hate it is that I think this story's bad for the country. I don't think anybody comes out looking good, and very few people feel good about it. I don't have any appetite for looking into people's personal lives."
Rather is more self-critical, more worried about the recent mistakes, such as the stories retracted by the Wall Street Journal and Dallas Morning News. "Unfortunately, the facts have been overrun by rumor, innuendo, half-truths, quarter-truths and what I call the leak-o-rama," he said.
Diving into the story reminds Rather of visiting murder scenes as a young police reporter distasteful but necessary. "If it didn't have its important aspects, frankly, I would have walked away from it a long time ago," he said.
'It's All Hearsay'
One refrain cuts across race, age and gender lines, stretching from those who religiously watch network news to those who barely look at a newspaper. The credibility of the media seems to be at a low ebb.
"I generally don't trust what they say," said Arshon Parker, 25, a student from Burtonsville.
"It's all hearsay," said Marck Jones, 22, a technical student in the District.
"Anything that anybody says, boom, it's on the front page of the paper," said Boden.
"Everyone wants to be first," said Fink. "People are not checking their sources. I don't watch CNN just for that reason."
There was also unanimity among those interviewed by The Post that the intense coverage of the Lewinsky story is motivated by a scramble for ratings and circulation. They made little distinction between newspapers, television and supermarket tabloids, seeing the coverage as a dizzying blur. No one allowed for the possibility that journalists are seeking the truth or performing a public service.
"That's what they do to make money," said Joshua Mann, 18, a laboratory assistant from Derwood.
"It's tabloid news," said Sara Kaskowitz, 32, a job recruiter from Georgetown. "Anything that will help sell the newspaper."
"It's all commercialism," said Fink. "Advertisers are getting their bucks out of this."
The growing distrust of the media comes through in virtually every poll. Fifty-six percent of those surveyed in a Post poll last week said the media have treated Clinton unfairly during the scandal. Nearly three-quarters of those questioned in Post and CNN surveys said the Lewinsky story is getting "too much coverage." Four out of five in a Freedom Forum poll say the media are mostly interested in attracting a large audience.
That they have done. During the scandal's peak, CNN and MSNBC doubled their usual ratings, and Fox News Channel's numbers rose 121 percent. "Fox News Sunday" recorded its largest audience ever, as did several CNBC programs. USA Today distributed 500,000 extra copies one day; Time's newsstand sales jumped by 100,000.
At the same time, many people say they are turned off by the explicit nature of the coverage. In this view, the reported allegations about oral sex and stained dresses are an attempt to deliver what Fink called "X-rated news."
"I don't want to know what sex acts were committed or not committed," said Madonna Grimmer, 68, a retired county employee in Rockville.
"They get too graphic," said Daniel Carrera, 31, an auto parts salesman from Damascus. "My boy's 12 years old, and I don't want him hearing that on TV."
Public resentment of the press seems to be hardening beyond any particular story. In a Pew Research Center survey last week, 63 percent said that press accounts are "often inaccurate," up 7 percent from last year. Two-thirds of those surveyed said coverage of politicians' personal and ethical behavior is "excessive." Sixty-five percent said the press "gets in the way of society solving its problems."
Yet journalists, like Clinton himself, seem to benefit from contradictory opinions. Despite their misgivings, Pew found that more than seven in 10 people have favorable views of the major networks, the cable news operations and the nationally influential newspapers.
In similar fashion, even the area residents most critical of the media remain plugged into the news cycle. Linda Shaw religiously watches "Dateline NBC" and "20/20." Madonna Grimmer watches the Channel 5 news during her morning exercises and reads The Post at night. Steven Boden listens to WTOP radio and gets some of his news on the Internet. Barbara Bryniarski starts the day with "Today" and watches ABC's "World News Tonight" and the "CBS Evening News" in succession.
Over the years, they have come to view journalists as overly aggressive and negative. "They pretty much ruin people's careers," Shaw said.
"Sometimes they're really cruel," Boden said. "They go to the widow and say, 'How does this death make you feel?' And it just happened three hours ago."
There is also considerable skepticism about the media's use of anonymous sources. "How do we know how accurate their source is?" Carrera asked. "You don't know if that person's telling a lie to get ahead, to get some money."
Most faulted reporters for their behavior in the Lewinsky case. "As an American, I find it so revolting to watch Clinton sitting there with [Yassir] Arafat and they're asking him about Monica Lewinsky," Bryniarski said.
They also faulted reporters for dragging Lewinsky's former boyfriends and other peripheral figures into their net. "They even interviewed the person she babysat for," said Wanda Bell, 57, a federal inspector from Burtonsville. "What does that have to do with what happened years later?"
'This Is a Great Story'
Review some of these complaints for Matthew Storin, the editor of the Boston Globe, and he says he is "sick and tired" of all the media-bashing.
"This is a great story," Storin said. "This is what we do. You either have a reckless prosecutor or, at the least, an undisciplined president. Somebody's going to be badly hurt. Yeah, it involves sex. I don't defend everything that's been done. Some of what's been on the airwaves All Monica All The Time is kind of depressing, and occasionally reckless."
He doesn't buy the public protests: "It sounds like 'stop me before I kill again.' People like it, they're intrigued by it, and they don't like that they're intrigued by it. There's revulsion at their own level of interest."
Ann McDaniel, Newsweek's Washington bureau chief, said that "news is often unpopular. People don't like it or they don't care about it. We made a determination early on that this was an important story."
Why are large numbers of Americans saying they don't care about the allegations? "I think people don't want change," McDaniel said. "When there's peace and prosperity, people are not eager to have a change in the presidency."
'Media Have an Obligation'
At the heart of the debate over whether journalists have gone too far is this question: Should media scrutiny of private sexual conduct be off-limits?
Not in the view of Larry Johnson, 43, a security consultant from Bethesda. "The press serves as a check on the behavior of public officials," he said. Since Army officials are being court-martialed on sexual harassment charges, Johnson said, the commander-in-chief should be held to no less a standard, and "the media have an obligation to cover it."
But most of those interviewed said the only person who should be concerned about presidential philandering is Hillary Rodham Clinton. "I don't think the politicians' sex lives is any of our business and I really don't want to hear about it," Bryniarski said. Still, she felt compelled to add: "Unless the person is running on a Moral Majority-type platform and is a hypocrite." And hypocrisy, she conceded, is not easy to define.
If the gathering reached a consensus on any point, it is that Monica Lewinsky is a media obsession that is unlikely to fade any time soon.
"The press has reached a point where they can't stop, where it's almost out of control," Grimmer said. She paused. "Because we like to read that crap."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company