Media Notes: The 'Love Child'
Story Turns Into an Orphan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 11, 1999; Page C01
In Washington's seemingly endless sex wars, another allegation that had seeped into parts of the mainstream media has suddenly evaporated.
From the Drudge Report on the Internet to the "Tonight" show on NBC, the word was that the supermarket tabloid the Star was investigating what turned out to be an utterly bogus charge by an Arkansas woman that President Clinton had fathered her son during the 1980s. But a DNA test financed by the Star disproved the rumor, first published by another tabloid, the Globe, back in 1992.
"There was no match, nothing even close," Star Editor Phil Bunton said yesterday. "We went into it thinking it was more likely to be untrue than true. We might run a couple of paragraphs saying we investigated it and it proved to be untrue."
Which raises a basic journalistic question: Why was the so-called "love child" story reported at all?
The Star, which brought the world Gennifer Flowers, had offered big bucks to the 13-year-old if his blood sample matched the description of the president's DNA in Kenneth Starr's report. The results, disproving his mother's charge, were reported over the weekend by Time magazine and in Matt Drudge's cyberspace column.
After Drudge disclosed the Star inquiry 10 days ago, the allegations quickly made their way into the New York Post, New York Daily News, Washington Times and Boston Herald. They have been mentioned on MSNBC and Fox News Channel talk shows, and joked about by Jay Leno and on "Imus in the Morning."
In an unusual approach, the Washington Times's front-page headline began, "Media abuzz with rumors that Clinton fathered boy." The story began, "Nearly all the newspapers, including this one, and the network newscasts have declined to publish the particulars . . ."
Editor in Chief Wesley Pruden said journalists and political insiders have "been talking about that story for a week. Why should we deprive our readers of knowing what the journalists are talking about? I thought we had a pretty straightforward story."
But Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, described the Washington Times's stance as "Here's a story so slimy we don't print it, but here's what it is." Pruden, for his part, said he would run any negative test results on the front page. The New York Post, which trumpeted the original charge with a screaming banner headline, ran yesterday's follow-up inside the paper.
Drudge said he disclosed the testing "because the DNA chase was happening. The woman was out there making these fantastic claims. . . . The president said he never met her. I reported it all."
The brief episode is another reminder that today's technology provides lots of ways for disputed charges to reach millions -- the Star buzz was all over talk radio and the Internet -- even if the major newspapers, network newscasts and magazines choose not to report them.
Bunton, who warned last week that the story might be a "hoax," acknowledged that "we did a pretty bad job of keeping this under wraps." But he said the Star only "paid a very nominal amount to take the blood test."
Money was clearly the driving force in the Star investigation, just as it was when Hustler publisher and Clinton supporter Larry Flynt bought information about past extramarital affairs that led Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) to renounce the House speakership and declare his intention to resign.
In most cases, said McManus, "these allegations have been unearthed initially not by investigative reporters but by people with partisan axes to grind, and those people have had to mount a concerted effort to get them into the mainstream media. We have somehow become the perplexed, confused and in some way passive recipients of this flood of allegations."
As these various sexual bombshells detonate or implode, journalists may be among the casualties. If they eagerly report the allegations, they are accused of wallowing in sleaze. If they ignore the allegations, they are accused of covering up for one side or the other. If they try to check out the allegations, they are criticized for invading people's privacy. But independent confirmation, followed by a decision on whether to publish, may well be the best course in this unsavory environment.
The good news for Kenneth Starr is that 69 percent of the on-air evaluations of him during the House impeachment hearings were negative. According to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, which studied the CBS, ABC and NBC evening newscasts, the independent counsel's coverage was even worse -- nearly 85 percent negative -- from late July until he began defending himself at the hearings. During the same period, on-air evaluations of the Republicans were 77 percent negative. As for the president who was being impeached, his evaluations were a mere 62 percent negative.
SHALIT MOVES ON
Ruth Shalit has left the New Republic and may get into television. Shalit, 28, apologized in 1995 for several instances of plagiarism. She is said to have decided that she would always be identified with her past mistakes as long as she remained at the magazine. After "six rich and eventful years," Shalit said, "it's time to move on and do something else. I have been thinking about television and other things." Shalit has had discussions with ABC about a producing job, but a network spokeswoman said there are no plans to hire her.
OLD HOME WEEK
U.S. News & World Report is welcoming back several alumni who either jumped ship or were pushed overboard when James Fallows was in charge.
In his early months as editor, Stephen Smith has hired political columnist Michael Barone, who had left for Reader's Digest; contributing editor Steve Roberts, who will continue to write his column (with wife Cokie) for the New York Daily News; investigative reporter Ed Pound, who had gone to USA Today; and Executive Editor Brian Duffy, who had left for The Washington Post and then the Wall Street Journal. Also signing up as a senior writer is Jodie Allen, former editor of The Post's Outlook section and most recently Washington editor of Slate.
The hiring binge isn't over; operators are standing by.
A BBC producer has been allowed to keep her job after running around a restaurant in nothing but her socks to win a $165 bet. No film at 11.
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