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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 5, 1998; Page C01

For journalists sorting through the dirty laundry of the Monica Lewinsky melodrama, the cringe factor is getting worse.

From the allegedly semen-stained dress to other seamy details of what Lewinsky says happened between her and President Clinton, news organizations are grappling with how far they can go -- and whether they need to keep pace with those who go further.

"There's a certain amount of self-censorship," says Bill Plante, CBS's veteran White House correspondent. "I have not used the word 'semen' on the air, not because anyone told me not to. It seems to me as a matter of good taste that you don't have to have it. You can talk about 'bodily fluids' or 'genetic material.' "

Stephen Smith, editor of U.S. News & World Report, says a seasoned female reporter recently filled him in on one of the more graphic Clinton-Lewinsky rumors making the rounds. "She had her hand over her face as she was describing this to me, she was so embarrassed," Smith says. "She finally got it out. We all said, 'Oh, God.' "

Would Smith publish the information if it were nailed down? "I don't know," he says. "I don't want to be first on this story."

Far more is at stake here than mere journalistic sensibilities. Whatever the outcome of Kenneth Starr's investigation, Clinton still faces a trial in the court of public opinion. And the media gatekeepers will serve as arbiters of what sort of graphic evidence will be visited upon the public.

"Everyone thinks we love this," says CNN correspondent John King. "I don't love this. It's an awful story because of the language. You run into people who say, 'How can you say this stuff on TV?' It's not pleasant."

ABC correspondent Chris Bury stresses the need to be "mindful of exactly what we say. Sometimes that comes down to using code -- 'evidence that may have DNA on it,' that's what I generally use."

The Russian news agency Itar-Tass was more diplomatic, according to a Time "Notebook" report, saying Lewinsky wore a dress to her meetings with Clinton and claims it "carries traces of the meetings."

The worst may be yet to come. At some point, the 20 hours of taped conversations between Lewinsky and her former friend Linda Tripp are going to be either released or leaked -- and journalists say there is no question they will be played on television and radio. Even with occasional bleeping, the process is likely to make the "expletive deleted" treatment of President Nixon's Oval Office tapes look like a romp with the Brady Bunch.

Many in the media have already held back some of the language said to be on the Lewinsky tapes, such as Time's report on her description of her White House job (assistant to the president for . . . well, you know) and U.S. News's recounting of her professed desire to kick Clinton in the testicles.

Tapes aside, the most sordid details of Lewinsky's grand jury testimony appear certain to leak out, and many of them are likely to be X-rated.

Walter Isaacson, Time's managing editor, puts it this way: "You have to truly figure out whether the details are important and relevant to understanding the case rather than just being used to titillate readers. It's a constantly moving target. From Lorena Bobbitt to O.J. to Monica Lewinsky, you end up having to describe things you never thought you'd describe."

Indeed, the saga underscores how much the media culture has changed in a half-dozen years. When Gennifer Flowers said she had carried on a long-term affair with candidate Bill Clinton, most of the networks and several major newspapers initially ignored the controversy. Today, every news outlet would jump on such allegations in a matter of nanoseconds.

Despite their own discomfort, journalists seem to agree that most of the Lewinsky details must be reported. This is, after all, a tawdry tale that has jeopardized the presidency, and the heart of it is what did or did not happen between the president and the former intern.

And the competing versions in the press have yet to be sorted out: Is it true, as Lewinsky's friend Dale Young said to Newsweek that she had been told, that "nothing was taken to completion, it was essentially foreplay"? Or was Lewinsky right when she told Tripp why she was saving the now-famous Gap dress as a souvenir?

And did anyone ever imagine he'd see Sam Donaldson shouting at the president, as he did last Friday, about his willingness to give prosecutors a DNA sample?

"The challenge is to present it in such a way that it isn't offensive on the face of it," Plante says. "God knows I'm not for withholding anything."

Not everyone, of course, is playing by Marquess of Queensbury rules. "Some of the scatalogical radio shows are going to revel in the earthy language," Bury says.

That's an understatement. Morning man Don Imus plays a steamy parody of the messages Clinton is said to have left on Lewinsky's answering machine, and uses sexual euphemisms that cannot be repeated in a family newspaper. Syndicated radio host Judy Jarvis bills herself as "proud to be one of the few women in America not to have slept with Bill Clinton."

For many journalists, the most telling reminder of their predicament comes from their own families. Bury recalls riding in the car with his 10-year-old son when the radio crackled with a report about the stained dress. "I was put in the embarrassing position of explaining something I wasn't prepared to explain," he says.

Says Isaacson: "I sit there watching the evening news with my 8-year-old daughter and my finger on the mute button."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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