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Here Today, Revised Tomorrow

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 16, 1998; Page C1

Trent Lott, the Senate Republican leader, says the media "distorted" his remarks about Kenneth Starr.

Lott declared on CNN last weekend that the independent counsel should "show his cards" in his four-year investigation or "close it out." And journalists, those devious beings, had the temerity, the gall, to report what he said.

No matter. The next day the Mississippi senator simply bashed the press, praised Starr for "doing a great job" and assailed President Clinton for "stonewalling." New story, new headlines, embarrassing episode obliterated.

Revisionist history is all the rage these days. Don't like the way you were portrayed yesterday? Just say something different today. The press, which needs fresh headlines for each passing cycle, generally tags along for the ride.

Of course, there'll be a "to be sure" paragraph – Jones said X on Monday and Y on Tuesday – but that just serves to demonstrate how the person's thinking has "evolved," or how he was misunderstood in the first place.

Lott's point seemed to be that the press seized on the admonition he gave Starr and ignored the positive things he said. But he's been around long enough to know that unexpected remarks – a Republican leader criticizing a prosecutor investigating a Democratic president – are always the ones that make news.

This is a game anyone can play. William Ginsburg, Monica Lewinsky's lawyer, burst on the scene suggesting that Clinton might be a "misogynist" for his behavior toward the former intern. Now he says Lewinsky "stands by" her affidavit that she never had sex with the president. Another day, another booking, another story.

And there's no statute of limitations here. Last Monday, conservative author David Brock said he was motivated by ideological animus when he dished the dirt on Clinton's alleged womanizing in his "Troopergate" article more than four years ago. The sex lives of politicians should be out of bounds, he said. Brock's confession in Esquire produced a two-day bounce when Clinton accepted his "apology," although Brock never quite said he was sorry.

Back in 1993, though, Brock wrote that "the public's right to know outweighs a public figure's claim to privacy or journalistic discretion." Never mind.

And what about media czar Rupert Murdoch? When his HarperCollins publishers dropped a book by former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten, the company line was that the book, sadly, was not "up to standard" and "too boring." Murdoch, it turns out, was worried about offending authorities in China, where he's trying to build a broadcast empire. When the company was forced to apologize, Murdoch admitted that he deep-sixed the book for geopolitical reasons.

The press can also get swept away by law enforcement claims. Last month, the FBI's arrest of two men in Las Vegas on charges of possessing deadly anthrax produced an avalanche of unnerving stories. Dark tales materialized about biological warfare and possible attacks on the New York subway system. Then the FBI said the material was just a harmless veterinary vaccine and dropped the charges.

Did journalists engage in public soul-searching over whether they had been too quick to swallow the story? Nah. Revisionist history means never having to say you're sorry.

And, of course, those frightening headlines about an asteroid heading for a possible collision with Earth in 2028 – front page of the New York Times – were followed by the astronomer's admission that, as the Times put it a day later, "the chances were smaller than he had thought." So much for Apocalypse Now.

Blumenthal Bites Back

Sidney Blumenthal and Michael Kelly didn't much like each other when they worked at the New Yorker. And Blumenthal is virtually at war with independent counsel Kenneth Starr, who hauled the White House aide before a grand jury to talk about his contacts with reporters.

Now Blumenthal has found a way to hit back at both antagonists. His attorney has filed a complaint with the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility, demanding an inquiry into one of Starr's top deputies, Jackie Bennett, over remarks he made in a Washington Post column by Kelly.

Kelly quoted Bennett as saying: "What you have here is a situation where somebody is peddling filth and lies about federal prosecutors ... and based on what we have been told, we believe that the somebody is in the White House."

"The Kelly article, as it relates to Mr. Blumenthal, is false in every particular," wrote Blumenthal's lawyer, Jo Bennett Marsh. "So too are Mr. Bennett's statements as they relate to Mr. Blumenthal. Mr. Blumenthal has had no involvement whatsoever in investigating any aspect of the private, sexual lives of Ken Starr or his staff." She charged that Bennett violated a federal rule against making statements about the credibility of witnesses, "and he has done so for the financial gain of Mr. Kelly."

Kelly's March 5 column denounced a White House "smear operation" that appeared to prompt a reporter's inquiry about the private life of one Starr prosecutor. "The Blumenthal subpoena went out the next day," Kelly wrote.

Bennett had no immediate comment. But Kelly, a National Journal writer, dismissed Blumenthal's move as "part of Sid's usual tactics of seeking to threaten or intimidate anybody who writes anything about him that he doesn't like. Neither anyone I quoted said, nor did I say, that Blumenthal was investigating anyone's private life. The column was quite carefully written. This is about the level of conduct I'd expect from Sid Blumenthal, champion of the First Amendment."

Brad Pitt Journalism

It's hardly a news flash that the media world has been hurtling toward infotainment. But now there's actually a way to quantify the change.

Take Time magazine, which recently celebrated its 75th anniversary. Back in 1977, nearly one in five cover stories concerned policies or ideas (high schools in trouble, war on terrorism, the underclass, Panama Canal, the Mafia, Idi Amin, Moscow dissidents). By last year, that proportion had fallen to one in 20, with fluffier fare on the rise (Ellen DeGeneres, the return of "Star Wars," what's cool this summer, pop singer Jewel, Brad Pitt and Buddhism.)

During the 20-year span, according to a report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, the proportion of Time covers on government dropped from 15.4 percent to 3.8 percent, and on foreign affairs from 21.2 percent to 5.8 percent. But covers on entertainment and celebrities rose from 7.7 percent to 15.4 percent; on lifestyle, from 7.7 percent to 13.5 percent; and on celebrity crime from 0 to 5.8 percent.

Time's got plenty of company; Newsweek's numbers were similar. At the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, stories involving human interest, quality of life, personalities, the bizarre and public fears rose from 8 percent of front-page stories to nearly 25 percent. And the method of delivering information changed as well: straight-news accounts on the front page dropped from six in 10 in 1977 to three in 10 last year.

Network newscasts were very much part of this trend. The proportion of human-interest and quality-of-life stories doubled, to 16 percent. And coverage of scandal skyrocketed, from just .5 percent in 1977 to 15 percent last year.

Not all these developments are cause for hand-wringing. Many of the newfangled stories have more to do with the way people live than pieces on subcommittee hearings and political intrigue.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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