By Howard Kurtz
The furious, almost blinding pace of coverage of alleged scandalous behavior in the White House has all but shattered traditional media standards and opened the floodgates to a torrent of thinly sourced allegations and unrestrained speculation.
That is the view of some media critics, academics and journalists, such as James Fallows, editor of U.S. News & World Report, who argued that much of the reporting has "gotten out of control."
Regardless of whether the allegations about President Clinton and former White House intern Monica Lewinsky turn out to be true, they say, the competitive pressure on news organizations is so fierce that many are airing charges that, until a week ago, would not have been deemed fit to print.
In recent days, based on anonymous sources, various newspapers and networks have reported such stories as: that Clinton has claimed to have had sex with "hundreds" of women; that he said he does not consider oral sex to be adultery; that White House staffers once saw Clinton and Lewinsky in an intimate encounter; that the two engaged in phone sex; that Clinton admitted under oath to having an affair with Gennifer Flowers; that Clinton may have had an affair with a distant cousin; and that Clinton had an affair with Shelia Davis Lawrence, the widow of the former ambassador who was exhumed from Arlington National Cemetery for fabricating a military record.
"Once again, the media are courting a backlash," said Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist and author of "Feeding Frenzy."
James Warren, the Chicago Tribune's Washington bureau chief, said the media's "loose standards" have been "astonishing." But, he said, "your bosses say, 'My God, we'll look like we're behind.' There's intense pressure to regurgitate what everyone else is doing."
Little has been reported about the motivation of the sources providing the allegations to reporters, although some of the leaks are attributed to "investigators" or "sources close to the investigation" of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. This means that journalists, unwittingly or not, may be helping prosecutors put pressure on Lewinsky by acting as a conduit for selective bits of damaging information.
Some administration officials are furious about what they see as Starr's leaks, saying that reporters call about subpoenas of White House officials almost immediately after they are issued by Starr. The prosecutor's office has denied any leaks.
"Agendas are at work here," said Tim Russert, NBC's Washington bureau chief. "Ken Starr's office puts this out, the White House puts this out, Lewinsky's team puts this out, all looking for an advantage. We've got to be very careful."
It is probably too soon to say whether this represents a sea change in mainstream journalism or a frenzied reaction to a huge and fast-moving story. But many news executives themselves are worried.
"Of course there's pressure," said Frank Sesno, CNN's Washington bureau chief. "There's always competitive pressure. But we've taken things out of scripts that would be in any other story at any other time because it just doesn't quite feel right."
"We worry a lot about being used by people with different agendas, and it's made us very cautious about certain things," said Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of The Washington Post. He said that "there are things we haven't put in the paper that are said to be on the tapes because we haven't been able to satisfy ourselves there is a reasonable chance they are on the tapes."
No reporter, except for staffers at Newsweek, has claimed to have listened to the tapes of Lewinsky that were secretly recorded by a colleague at the Pentagon, Linda Tripp, and are now in Starr's possession. Yet there are constant news reports of what some source says is on the tapes. The New York Post, citing a source, said Clinton told Lewinsky on one tape that he couldn't settle the Paula Jones sexual harassment suit because "hundreds" of his past paramours would come forward.
"I feel confident about the sources we've used," said New York Post Editor Ken Chandler. "The story is written in such a way that people will realize it's a source and it's a claim."
Joseph E. diGenova, a former independent counsel, said there is no evidence that Starr's office is leaking, which is against the law in criminal investigations. He speculated that Tripp has copies of the tapes, and that lawyers in the case or witnesses contacted by Starr may be feeding information to reporters.
Jones's lawyers, hardly fans of the president, are also behind some of the coverage. On Saturday, the New York Daily News reported that Jones's lawyers "may seek to question" former White House aide Catherine Cornelius, a distant cousin of the president, "about allegations she had an affair" with Clinton. Jones attorney Wes Holmes was quoted as declining to confirm or deny the account. The story said Jones's lawyers have also subpoenaed Shelia Lawrence.
The sheer velocity of the scandal has enabled anonymously sourced stories to ricochet from television to newspapers and magazines and back again, with qualifiers often dropped in the process. This has happened before, notably in the O.J. Simpson murder case, but never in a political scandal of this magnitude.
On "This Week with Sam and Cokie" Sunday, ABC's Jackie Judd reported that "several sources have told us that in the spring of 1996, the president and Lewinsky were caught in an intimate encounter in a private area of the White House. It is not clear whether the witnesses were Secret Service agents or White House staff."
This produced the same banner headline in yesterday's New York Post and Daily News: "CAUGHT IN THE ACT." The tabloid Post said that "the witnesses are Secret Service agents."
The Washington Post put it somewhat differently, saying that according to sources, Starr's investigators "are seeking confirmation of reports they had received that encounters occurred in the president's private study just off the Oval Office and in the White House movie theater." The Chicago Tribune reported the charge, citing ABC, but added that "attempts to confirm the report independently were unsuccessful."
White House spokesman Mike McCurry, pressed by reporters yesterday, said the president denies that any such incident took place.
ABC News President David Westin said he decided about 10 minutes before a Saturday night newscast that Judd did not have "sufficient independent sources" to report that White House staffers witnessed an encounter between Clinton and Lewinsky. But, Westin said, he approved the story Sunday morning after "we gained more confirmation" that the alleged encounter was a "focus" of Starr's probe.
At the same time, Westin said he is "concerned" about "the very intense environment" surrounding the scandal and "the danger that you can get ahead of the wave."
At yesterday's briefing, McCurry said that Clinton "categorically denies" a report in Sunday's Washington Post that he "has acknowledged to friends that he became emotionally close" to Lewinsky but did not have sex with her.
Taking a broader swipe at the press, McCurry said there is "a temptation . . . for the story to outpace what is factually known, and a lot of reporting based on allegations that in other kinds of circumstances, in different kinds of environments, would be put through a lot finer editorial screen before they made it on the air and in print."
Once a new allegation gets into the news cycle, other journalists scramble to confirm it. On Friday, the Washington Times said that Lewinsky, in her taped conversations with Tripp, "reportedly describes . . . late-night 'phone sex' with the president." The Los Angeles Times and CNN reported the phone sex allegation on Saturday, and The Washington Post did so on Sunday.
White House deliberations also have come under media scrutiny. On Saturday, CNN's Wolf Blitzer told viewers that "several" of Clinton's "closest friends and advisers" have concluded that "he almost certainly did have a sexual relationship" with Lewinsky "and are talking among themselves about the possibility of a resignation." On Sunday, Newsweek reported that Clinton's "advisers now think" that he "may eventually be forced to admit that he indeed had relations" with Lewinsky.
"The most despicable aspect of the coverage is the speculation," Sabato said. "Literally from the first day, TV commentators have had Bill Clinton climbing on that helicopter, giving the Nixon wave and flying back to Arkansas."
The almost surreal atmosphere has been fueled by plenty of talk-show speculation. On "Meet the Press" Sunday, Russert asked Matt Drudge, the controversial Internet gossip columnist, about "reports" that on the Lewinsky tapes "there are discussions of other women, including other White House staffers, involved with the president."
Said Drudge: "There is talk all over this town another White House staffer is going to come out from behind the curtains this week." Drudge said yesterday he is "very confident" about the prediction.
Similarly, conservative columnist Arianna Huffington said on CNBC's "Equal Time" that she had concluded that Clinton had an affair with Shelia Lawrence but that "we're not there yet in terms of proving it." Although Lawrence has denied such an affair, the Washington Times ran her picture on yesterday's front page for an article on 14 women romantically linked to Clinton in past accounts. Some of these women have also denied such relationships.
"The Monica Lewinsky tapes have lent credibility to earlier tales of infidelities, many of which had been dismissed by a skeptical or sympathetic press," the Times said.
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