By Howard Kurtz
An hour after a federal judge threw out the Paula Jones lawsuit, the talking heads were talking about how the Supreme Court would rule on a possible appeal. And how yesterday's decision would affect President Clinton's popularity. And Kenneth Starr's investigation. And Republican prospects in the 1998 elections.
The punditry crowd, with fresh meat to gnaw on, was chewing the fat at record speed.
On one level, the television networks performed impressively from the moment CNN's Bob Franken broke the news at 4:15 p.m. (Fox News followed a mere seven seconds later.) Key participants in the case were tracked down by phone and put on the air, radio-style. The only visual was a still photo of Jones, the former Arkansas clerk who launched a thousand talk shows with her charge that Clinton crudely propositioned her in a Little Rock hotel room in 1991. Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings broke into regular programming five to six minutes after CNN. Coverage bounced seamlessly from Washington to Arkansas to Senegal, where the president was wrapping up his tour of Africa.
But television also opened the floodgates to a tidal wave of speculation by lawyers, journalists, academics and all-purpose experts who had not had time to read the 39-page ruling by U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright.
"Are some people getting ahead of themselves here?" asked MSNBC anchor John Gibson, even as he kept asking getting-ahead-of-ourselves questions.
White House correspondents in Dakar were quick to demand details when press secretary Mike McCurry tried to direct inquiries to an administration spokesman back home.
"You're not going to tell us the president's reaction to the news from the court?" bellowed Sam Donaldson. After McCurry allowed that the leader of the free world was "pleased," Donaldson pressed further: "He must be relieved by this, don't you think?"
A couple of questions later, McCurry was back in his "I'm not going to speculate on that" mode.
One by one, the players weighed in. John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute misidentified on CNN as "John Rutherford" said the Jones lawyers funded by his group would likely appeal. Bob Bennett, the president's attorney, briefly appeared before the microphones to pronounce himself "very, very pleased." Susan Carpenter-McMillan, Jones's voluble spokeswoman, was unusually terse, telling reporters she was "shocked" and "completely blown away."
Joseph Cammarata, a former Jones attorney, also limited his comments, telling CNN by phone: "I'd have to read the decision before I could make any comment as to what the success might be on appeal." Her other former lawyer, Gilbert Davis, popped up on MSNBC to say that "Paula Jones should have declared victory and taken the settlement that was submitted to her before" a dispute that caused him and Cammarata to leave the case. One of Jones's current lawyers, David Pyke, had a more optimistic take: "Nobody's position has been vindicated today, because no jury has said this happened or didn't happen."
All this sound-bite warfare afforded viewers a rare chance to watch the journalistic sausage-making as it happened, before anyone had had a chance to digest this large and dramatic chunk of legalese.
The essence of 24-hour television is that anchors and commentators can't keep repeating the same headline; the unspoken imperative is to advance the debate. Thus, MSNBC conducted an Internet poll a thoroughly unscientific device that counts only those who voluntarily participate and declared that 64 percent of its more than 4,000 respondents agreed with Wright's ruling, while 36 percent disagreed.
The networks quickly proceeded to ponder the imponderable, such as how the Supreme Court would rule on an appeal. "I'm not saying you have any expertise," anchor Gibson told MSNBC analyst Jay Severin, but wouldn't the high court deny the appeal after the case had turned into such a media circus? Severin defended the court's original decision to clear the suit for trial.
"It's hard to win an appeal like this," said MSNBC legal analyst Dan Abrams.
Severin, a GOP political consultant, sized up the political fallout: "There are Republicans in the leadership whose belt and shoelaces ought to be taken away from them before they go to sleep." As for the independent counsel, he said, "it's foolish to think there's not going to be an erosion of what little support Ken Starr has."
The Little Rock ruling dominated the major network newscasts the same newscasts that ignored Jones's charges when she first made them four years ago. But that was several political lifetimes ago.
On CBS, Rather asked White House correspondent Scott Pelley: "Is there any doubt there that this increases the pressure on Ken Starr to put up or shut up?"
"Certainly that will be the position of the White House," Pelley replied carefully.
On NBC, Washington bureau chief Tim Russert cut to the penultimate question. He said his "hunch" was that Starr would make a report to Congress "relatively soon" but that "there is absolutely no mood to pursue any impeachment against the president of the United States."
With White House officials either staying off camera or making only brief remarks, Democratic partisans rushed to fill the vacuum: Strategist Mandy Grunwald on ABC, former press secretary Dee Dee Myers on MSNBC, former scandal spokesman Lanny Davis on PBS, former White House counsel Jack Quinn on CNN.
"To me it demonstrates ... the absolute speciousness of the Jones case," Davis said on the "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer." Grunwald worked in a slap at Starr, telling Jennings that Clinton "still has Ken Starr, who is a clear partisan with some kind of agenda, trying to nail him."
The bookers, meanwhile, raced to the phones. Within 90 minutes CNN had lined up Whitehead and James Carville for "Larry King Live"; Grunwald and Gil Davis were recruited for "Crossfire."
Academics were rounded up with lightning speed. Georgetown University law professor Paul Rothstein said on NBC that "this judge had a lot of guts, a lot of gumption."
Journalists, too, were in demand. Newsweek's Michael Isikoff, who interviewed Jones when he first wrote about her lawsuit for The Washington Post in 1994, was one of the first. "The judge's decision is not the complete vindication the president's supporters would have wanted because it doesn't go to the facts of the case. ... Those people who want to believe Paula Jones will be able to continue to believe Paula Jones," he said on MSNBC.
Moments later, Isikoff magically appeared on the set of WRC-TV, the local NBC station, where anchor Doug McKelway asked him: "Is the Starr investigation a house of cards that will topple?"
Isikoff noted that Starr's probe of whether Clinton committed perjury in denying a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky "was predicated on allegations of wrongdoing in the Paula Jones case, a case that no longer exists."
Left-right pairings materialized out of thin air. Liberal columnist Mark Shields declared on CNN that "this is going to have an enormous impact, psychologically and emotionally, upon the Clinton camp." But conservative columnist Kate O'Beirne countered that "Ken Starr poses a much larger legal threat to the president ... than Paula Jones ever did."
The highlight of the evening chatter came when William Ginsburg, Lewinsky's lawyer, managed to appear on "Rivera Live" and "Larry King Live" at the same moment (the Geraldo segment had been taped). He took a whack at Starr on the King show, saying: "I will continue to run scared as long as a man with an agenda is in that office."
That brought a sharp retort from Carpenter-McMillan, who was standing in the rain in front of Jones's house. "I'm shocked at his arrogance," she said. "This man, who knows nothing, nothing about this case ... absolutely shocking. I was gagging on it."
Lanny Davis did double duty on Rivera's CNBC show, again calling the Jones suit "specious." Former Clinton strategist Dick Morris was more colorful, saying that for Starr to continue his probe would be "a little like the Nixon prosecutors continuing the Watergate impeachment investigation after someone figured out the burglary never happened."
Back on CNN, Carville launched into one of his patented Ragin' Cajun rants: "I think there's a good chance we're going to find out Ms. Jones was paid a lot of money ... there was a lot of right-wing money at the bottom of this."
Carville hammered on this point so many times that even the genial King felt moved to interrupt: "It's getting repetitive, James."
To which Carville, with a candor that eluded most of the day's talking heads, replied: "Larry, I'm a repetitive guy."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company