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Too Much Background?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 30, 1998; Page D1

What is fair game for the press when it comes to Monica Lewinsky?

Should the New York Post be quoting a London Sun interview with ex-boyfriend Adam Dave, who says that when Lewinsky was a teenager she liked handcuffing him to a bed?

Should The Washington Post be quoting an unnamed "co-worker" as saying that in 1995 Lewinsky would "talk about how she wanted to have sex in the Oval Office, on the desk"?

Should Time describe Lewinsky’s "fondness for tight, chest-hugging outfits and her coquettish demeanor," and quote unnamed Pentagon officials as calling her "an opportunist" and a "spoiled brat"?

In short, the saga of the 24-year-old Beverly Hills woman at the center of the latest White House scandal may well define new boundaries – or depths – for coverage of ordinary folks who find themselves thrust into the media spotlight.

"What do we need to know about Monica Lewinsky to evaluate her credibility?" asked Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "Do we need to know her sexual history? I’m not sure we do. Curiosity is not enough."

Gloria Borger, a U.S. News & World Report columnist, said she is troubled by "the anonymous quotes about what a slut she is. . . . I think it’s unfair. You’ve got to get it on the record."

But not every source is hiding in the shadows. Andy Bleiler, Lewinsky’s former high school drama teacher, called a news conference in Portland, Ore., to announce that they had a long-running affair until last year. With his wife at his side, Bleiler said through his attorney that Lewinsky talked obsessively about sex and had boasted of having oral sex with a "high-ranking White House official."

It’s hard to imagine reporters steering clear of such a neatly packaged news event. But did Bleiler have some kind of hidden agenda?

"It’s such a display of our dark side," said radio host Mary Matalin, a Republican activist. "I look at these people and I think they all must want publicity or a book deal. Why are they all coming out? If this was your friend, wouldn’t you want to not talk about it?"

"You have to question people’s motives as to why they’re coming out publicly. . . . I feel sorry for Monica, I really do," Borger said.

Kenneth Bacon, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman and Lewinsky’s former boss, said he found some of the coverage of her "disturbing. . . . From my point of view, Monica performed her job competently. We’re living in an age of leaks and speculation and a lot of anonymous comments."

Whether White House officials or their allies have quietly encouraged the blackening of Lewinsky’s reputation has been the subject of considerable speculation. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote this week that there has been "a whispering campaign against Monica," and that "some Clinton supporters are whispering awfully loud."

White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said yesterday: "I’m not aware of any whispering campaign. It’s pretty clear that the people here have a lot of work to do, and that doesn’t include whispering about anyone’s personal lives." He said the White House had no advance knowledge of Bleiler’s news conference.

How far journalists should go in scrutinizing the character of women involved in sexual disputes or investigations is not a new issue. In 1991, more than 100 staffers at the New York Times signed a letter protesting a profile that identified Patricia Bowman, who had accused William Kennedy Smith of rape. (He was later acquitted.) The story described the woman’s "little wild streak," with details ranging from her speeding tickets to her out-of-wedlock daughter to the books on the 2-year-old’s bookshelf, glimpsed through the blinds.

Lewinsky, of course, did not choose to go public. The former White House intern was shoved into a political maelstrom after her friend, Linda Tripp, secretly taped her saying she’d had an affair with Clinton. Tripp began working with independent counsel Kenneth Starr, and Starr’s investigators soon confronted Lewinsky and told her she could face indictment for denying the affair in a deposition.

In the 10 days since she became a household name, Lewinsky has been dissected and psychoanalyzed by all manner of publications:

The Baltimore Sun quoted a former White House colleague as calling Lewinsky "immature," saying she came to a party "all dressed in a pink dress with a bow, cut down to here."

The New York Post account, citing the British interview with "first love" Adam Dave, quoted Lewinsky as "reportedly" telling him that she had "read a manual" about oral sex.

The Sunday Times of London said that "she comes across as pushy, ambitious, flirtatious and wildly indiscreet."

Yesterday’s front-page Washington Post story said that acquaintances recalled "a young woman who spoke freely of her fantasies with a variety of older men in positions of influence." The piece quoted the unnamed former colleague of Lewinsky as saying she had run into then-White House aide George Stephanopoulos and "the greatest thing about it" was that "I wasn’t wearing my bra."

Leonard Downie Jr., The Post’s executive editor, said the coverage of Lewinsky has been the focus of considerable editorial debate.

"Our current thinking is that her credibility – her approach to sexual matters, her attitudes toward important people like the president . . . is important in evaluating her as the principal witness against the president in this matter." He said the paper is "being very careful about our reporting and what we let into the newspaper, including when we don’t name people. Obviously, people are chary of being named."

What Lewinsky told a friend or acquaintance, Downie said, can be treated "like testimony," as opposed to that person merely volunteering an opinion. Still, he added: "We’re mindful of the fact that she’s 24 years old and described by her own lawyer as distraught."

Rosenstiel noted that "some newspapers have rules that you cannot use an anonymous source to impugn someone’s reputation. That rule is not much in evidence now, especially in coverage of Monica Lewinsky."

Ken Chandler, the New York Post’s editor, said: "If you can draw a portrait of what kind of person she is, maybe it will give you a better understanding of what happened in the White House. And maybe it won’t.

"Up until now, Clinton has been portrayed as the bad guy who [allegedly] seduced this innocent 21-year-old person. Maybe she wasn’t such an innocent 21-year-old person."

The media storm around Lewinsky has also produced a new first: The retraction of a story that had never been published.

On "Larry King Live" Wednesday night, the CNN host told Lewinsky’s lawyer, William Ginsburg, "that the New York Times is going to report that they have information on a message supposedly from the president on your client’s answering machine, that is more than just a general how-are-you call."

Later in the program, King issued what he called a "clarification . . . We may have jumped the gun. . . . We have no information on what the New York Times will be reporting tomorrow." There was no such Times report yesterday.

CNN spokeswoman Maggie Simpson blamed the incident on "an unfortunate miscommunication between the assignment desk and the Larry King producers during the show about what the New York Times was going to report the next day."


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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