By John Mintz
Television history will be made Monday, when Congress plans to release the four-hour videotape of President Clinton's grand jury testimony about his sex life -- it will be the first time some television networks will air unedited material that isn't live and whose content they can only imagine, television veterans said.
At the same time, the House Judiciary Committee also will release 2,800 pages of documents about Clinton's affair with former intern Monica S. Lewinsky that are likely to contain even more sexually explicit detail than the voluminous report released last week by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.
In anticipation -- and dread -- of the huge document dump, television networks, cable channels, Internet news operations, newspapers and other players in the information business, to say nothing of the White House, are anxiously gearing up for this mass release of one of the more politically explosive videotapes in the medium's short history.
Meanwhile, the Government Printing Office was planning to scramble through the weekend to print up thousands of bound copies of the appendix to the Starr report that the Judiciary Committee voted to release yesterday.
"Talk about information overload," said White House spokesman James Kennedy. "This will be the mother of all document dumps."
Four cable networks will air the Clinton tape uninterruptedly the moment it arrives over fiber-optic cables from a broadcast booth on the third floor of the Rayburn House Office Building. Three of them -- CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel -- are 24-hour news operations locked in a brutal competition for viewers. The fourth, C-SPAN, is the cable public affairs network that shadows Congress's every move.
"As it comes in here, it will go out," said Brit Hume, Fox's Washington managing editor. The cable channel will not transmit it with any timed delay as a means to ensure no objectionable material is played, but it will frequently place warnings on the screen that some may find the testimony troubling. "We're deeply relieved we don't have to deal with this on Saturday, while America's schoolchildren are watching TV."
"People will charge we didn't have to be dragged kicking and screaming into doing this," Hume said. "But this is Exhibit A in the case that says that the president committed perjury. It's hard to argue the public shouldn't see this."
Meanwhile, the nation's broadcast networks plan to sporadically break into their daytime programming with special reports as the tape of the president's August testimony is transmitted from Capitol Hill.
ABC plans to broadcast Clinton's opening statement to the grand jury, in which he admitted an "inappropriate" relationship with Lewinsky. "Then we can come back into his testimony as the news warrants," said network spokesman Su-Lin Cheng.
"We'll aggressively cover this story . . . while hopefully being tasteful and restrained in reporting material that may be deemed offensive," said CBS spokesman Sandy Genelius. When necessary, the network will run disclaimers saying it contains sexual material, and may turn down the sound or cut to a correspondent if they discern explicit material is coming. Network crews expect to have transcripts of Clinton's testimony handy.
Television executives said they have no idea what kind of audience they will draw. "Everybody claims to pollsters they're not interested in this subject, but then they tune in, so is that true?" one network official said.
At the same time -- in another sign of rapid change -- many Internet sites will post not only the 2,800 pages that are being released, but also the president's video testimony. But they, too, struggle with the propriety of what they're beaming out to the cyberworld.
"I imagine there are debates right now inside all the news Web sites on what to do Monday," said Mark Stencel, politics editor of washingtonpost.com, The Post's on-line service. "It's a medium that's done its best work with unedited stuff. But we have the responsibilities of any news organization."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company