A Buzz Becomes a Roar
By Howard Kurtz
The Monica Lewinsky frenzy has produced yet another bizarre media development: public speculation about an alleged article about a sexual rumor that no journalist has confirmed.
Fred Barnes helped put the rumor in play last weekend on his "Beltway Boys" show on Fox News Channel. He declared that "politicians, newspaper reporters, TV people all around town were talking about the possibility that there's a second intern who was sexually involved with the president."
Talking about the possibility?
By yesterday, journalistic temperatures had risen to the point that WMAL radio anchor Andy Parks asked ABC correspondent Bettina Gregory about "a couple of sources" saying "that The Washington Post is about to go with a story that talks about other interns involved."
"Bob Woodward had denied that, and I don't know whether he denied because he didn't want other people to work on it," Gregory said. "For a long time there have been rumors this is speculation unconfirmed rumors that there were other interns that had been involved."
ABC was not pleased with Gregory's comments. "We're in the business of reporting, not speculating," said network spokeswoman Eileen Murphy. "The issues raised here are serious. We will deal with the situation internally and privately."
The talk keeps spreading. The CBS affiliate in Greensboro, N.C., yesterday asked to interview Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.) about the rumor that Woodward was about to link President Clinton to a second intern.
Barnes, the Weekly Standard's executive editor, discussed the rumor during a Fox segment dubbed "The Buzz." Yesterday he described his dilemma this way: "Whether I should mention . . . something that is merely buzz, unconfirmed, and we don't know if it will ever be confirmed. I thought about it and decided what the heck. I probably pushed the envelope on that, but I don't regret it."
To be sure, several news organizations are pursuing the alleged allegation. Each day brings new whispers that some outlet Time, Newsweek, ABC, the Los Angeles Times, The Post is about to run with the rumor. White House aides have been calling reporters to ask whether they're about to break the story; one official gave other reporters Woodward's vacation schedule. Journalists have studied a White House videotape of Clinton apparently befriending a young woman who may or may not be the supposed intern.
Could such a Second Intern story actually be published? Journalists interviewed yesterday said no such story could be reported without an on-the-record confirmation from the woman in question (if she exists) or a statement by her to prosecutors. And neither seems to be forthcoming.
"This media circus, which has gotten so out of hand that you're writing about it, is feeding off rumors with no factual basis and ignores the devastating impact on the human beings involved," said White House spokesman Jim Kennedy. "No wonder the public is so fed up with the press."
The rumor mill has been in overdrive all week. The writer of the New York Post's gossipy Page Six column rang up Woodward this week to ask whether he was, as the tabloid put it, "about to break a big exclusive about a second White House intern." "Absolutely untrue," said Woodward. That was enough to warrant an item.
Woodward, who now declines to discuss what he's working on, yesterday expressed "serious consternation" about the rumors. "This is the sickest measure of what we've come to," he said. "If there's no story, people have to talk about a story that might be coming. We fill the vacuum with an expectation."
And that expectation has many journalists working overtime. "I've been chasing these rumors since last Wednesday, and it's made me nuts," said NBC reporter Lisa Myers. "That's totally unfair to the president, to speculate about another person out there, particularly an intern, when so far there's no credible evidence that there is."
On WMAL yesterday, anchor Parks also said that The Post article "possibly soon to be printed . . . deals with Al Gore preparing for a transition." Chris Lehane, Vice President Gore's spokesman, phoned in to call the idea "ludicrous."
"We've responded to these crazy rumors by knocking them down as strongly as possible as ludicrous or nutty or zero, zip, nothing," said Lehane, who fielded several media inquiries yesterday.
John Butler, WMAL's operations director, said the question was, "Is it appropriate for a talk show in the context of a discussion of whether a second or third intern would matter? It's all right. I think it's fair game."
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