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With Time to Fill, Media Stretch Limits

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 24, 1998; Page B01

Back in the manual-typewriter days of Watergate, if Newsweek held a story about Richard Nixon, the next crack at the printing presses came seven days later.

But in the computer-driven culture of the '90s, Newsweek simply resurrected its piece on the latest Bill Clinton sex scandal by posting it online and putting its people on television. In the space of 14 hours, Newsweek's Michael Isikoff, author of the suppressed article, appeared on "NBC Nightly News," "The News With Brian Williams," "Today" and "Imus in the Morning."

Today's news consumer enjoys a dizzying array of choices that would have been unimaginable even a decade ago. Without leaving the living room in recent days, a news junkie could watch Clinton's interview with Jim Lehrer, carried live by the major networks; Mike McCurry's White House briefings on three cable networks (or read the transcript on the Internet); rapid-fire news conferences by Kenneth Starr, Vernon Jordan and Paula Jones's lawyer; Monica Lewinsky's lawyer on "Good Morning America"; and former Clinton aides George Stephanopoulos, Dee Dee Myers and David Gergen on various chat shows. The dedicated scandal-watcher could also hear Internet gossip columnist Matt Drudge on Mary Matalin's radio show or read his scandal updates on the World Wide Web.

All this is nothing short of a revolution in the way Americans get information and the way that news stories, particularly mega-stories, are driven and shaped by technology. The upside is that folks can get the raw facts and watch the players in real time without the filtering mechanisms of the mainstream press. But it also creates an echo-chamber effect that can be deafening, boosting each scandal or tragedy into the O.J./Diana stratosphere of blanket coverage -- and sometimes outracing the available facts.

Of course, the investigation into whether Clinton had an affair with former intern Lewinsky and urged her to lie about it has both the titillation factor and the political gravity to span the media spectrum.

In a nation of channel-surfers, the sex scandal is everywhere, hour after allegation-filled hour:

Gergen on MSNBC's "The Big Show": "This is either the most self-destructive act we have seen by any president or the worst smear of any president in the 20th century."

Geraldo Rivera on his CNBC show: "Scandalous allegations of such immense proportions that they could conceivably unravel the Clinton presidency."

Myers on "Today": "This is a situation that is completely out of control."

Newsweek's Evan Thomas on "Larry King Live": "You can tell from listening to the tape that Lewinsky is a scared, angst-ridden young woman."

Stephanopoulos on "Good Morning America": "It's hard to explain why you're sending a dress to an intern."

The Internet is also abuzz. In the online magazine Salon, author Camille Paglia describes the White House as "Animal House" and asserts of Clinton that "the objects of his carnality" are "slutty types."

On the Web's American Politics Journal, the editors critiqued ABC's Sam Donaldson for his reportorial style as soon as he had finished asking the questions: "Donaldson's voice quavered almost in a combination of fear and rage as he attempted to get McCurry to somehow finger the president -- his boss -- for not denying the Lewinsky affair in exactly the words that Donaldson thought would be most appropriate."

The freewheeling, unrestrained nature of this round-the-clock media culture opens the floodgates to all sorts of assertions and innuendo. Drudge, for example, said on Matalin's CBS radio show that Lewinsky had told her friend, former White House aide Linda Tripp, that she had saved an item of clothing that would incriminate Clinton. That sort of uncorroborated allegation would not usually be reported by a major news organization -- but ABC's "World News Tonight" broadcast it yesterday, citing its own sources. It is now "out there," along with all the other scandal-related chatter.

Missed Drudge on the radio? He'll be on "Meet the Press" tomorrow.

On CNBC's "Equal Time," conservative columnist Arianna Huffington spun her theory about the widow of Larry Lawrence, the former ambassador who was exhumed from Arlington National Cemetery for fabricating a military record. "I've come to the conclusion -- we're not there yet in terms of proving it -- that Sheila Lawrence has had an affair with the president and that her husband was aware of it and used that to pressure the president and get his nomination," she said.

Lawrence's response, fittingly enough, was carried on another talk show. "Outrageous and scandalous lies," she was quoted as saying on Fox News Channel's "Hannity & Colmes."


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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