By Howard Kurtz
What will the press do without Paula?
A federal judge's decision to toss out Paula Jones's suit against President Clinton has, without warning, deprived a ravenous press corps of one of the more sensational scandal stories of the '90s. Nearly 700 journalists had signed up to chronicle the trial in Little Rock next month; now they may be writing their final pieces about alleged pants-dropping. It's as if a director had run onto a wartime battlefield and shouted, "Cut!"
"There are quietly broken hearts all over town," said David Carr, editor of the Washington City Paper. "I know journalists were really, really excited about the trial. It would've been the story of the century . . . the high-water mark for many people's careers. People should be satisfied with what Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky have done for their careers, but of course they want more."
"It would have been as big as the O.J. trial," said Fred Barnes, executive editor of the Weekly Standard. "Now that's not going to happen."
"What in the world are we gonna talk about now?" asked New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser, under the nose-holding headline "THE PREZ IS STILL A PIG."
Not all media folks feel all dressed up with no place to go. "In a funny way, there's a sense of relief," said Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times. "The trial was going to force us to spend a lot of time and a lot of ink reprinting evidence that we've already presented at least once and often several times. My own level of enthusiasm for this trial was moderate at best."
John King, a CNN White House correspondent who got two hours' sleep Wednesday night, says that "there's certainly adrenaline involved in what we do. Some letdown is human." But, he said, "I would hope we aren't driven that way. We're supposed to detach our opinions from what we do. We should also detach our emotions."
Still, King has found himself feeling deflated before. "After the gulf war ended, I felt sort of let down, which is a sick thing," he said. "I found myself wishing I was back in Khafji [near the Saudi Arabian border] getting shot at."
For many journalists, the Paula Jones sexual harassment case was more than just a story. It was a great rushing river with many tributaries: one leading to Monica Lewinsky, another to Kathleen Willey, a third to former Miss America Elizabeth Gracen, and so on. As the legal sniping grew uglier, the copy got hotter.
Some are toughing out the latest news. "As a scandal junkie, I have high hopes that it's not over," said Mickey Kaus, who writes the "Chatterbox" column for Slate magazine. "There's Monica Lewinsky and the talking points, Betty Currie and the gifts, Governor Jim Guy Tucker and whatever he's saying, Webb Hubbell well, that's a long shot. But I urge scandal aficionados not to give up."
Others faced the sad reality squarely. "Many of our hilarious comedy routines have been made moot," Don Imus complained on his morning show.
Still others feel they have been spared an embarrassing ordeal. McManus says his paper will be just as pumped to cover the dry legal arguments involved in Jones's appeal of the dismissal. "The tabloid stuff makes our skin crawl, even as we write it," he said.
In Little Rock, Bill Headline, head of a media consortium arranging the trial coverage, had just finished an upbeat meeting when a staffer returned a minute later to say that U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright had deep-sixed the case.
"Those of us involved were all disappointed we wouldn't have a chance to see it through to the end," said Headline, a former CNN executive.
But the networks are saving a ton of dough. The Legacy Hotel, across the street from the courthouse, was asking $15,000 for each camera that would shoot through its well-placed windows. A local concert-staging firm demanded $5,000 a day for space on the wooden scaffold outside the courthouse. (The city rescinded the contract after news executives howled.)
John Reade, CBS's senior producer for special events, said the network balked at the Legacy's insistence on a minimum 45-day stay, 50 percent down payment and no-refund policy. "We were very leery about putting down any advance money. . . . We just pulled out [of the hotel] altogether," he said. Fox News says it lost no more than a few thousand dollars in nonrefundable deposits at another hotel.
ABC spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said her network "will probably have lost somewhere in the neighborhood of $50,000" in deposits for hotel rooms and work space. But she said ABC expected to spend about $1 million for a 20-person contingent to cover the trial.
For CNN, Wright's ruling came not a moment too soon. The cable network made a $60,000 deposit at a Little Rock hotel that would have become nonrefundable at close of business Wednesday about 90 minutes after the judge's decision. By quickly faxing and calling the hotel, CNN forfeited only half the deposit.
Still, said CNN spokesman Steve Haworth, "it's clear we're going to save several hundred thousand dollars, probably approaching half a million, by not having to send 60 to 80 people to cover the trial."
At the time of the ruling, most White House correspondents were traveling with Clinton in Senegal, where he was completing an 11-day tour of Africa. It was there that the first post-Paula media controversy erupted, about an hour after the judge's decision. A Fox News camera, shooting through the open blinds of the president's hotel room, captured him in a pink T-shirt, banging a bongo drum, strumming a guitar and chomping on a cigar.
Some news accounts suggested that Clinton was celebrating the ruling, but White House officials say he was merely checking out some African instruments and crafts that were left on a table. But they were more exercised about the notion that it was unfair to film the president without his knowledge.
"You don't want to have peeping toms shooting cameras through their windows all the time," press secretary Mike McCurry said from Africa. "This handicaps my argument that we should put the press in the same hotel as the president because it's convenient for everyone. But the [opposing] argument is that the president, like anyone else, needs some privacy."
"The best defense I know against peeping toms is a closed curtain," countered John Moody, Fox's vice president for news. "We were not in any restricted area. He's the leader of the Free World he's used to having his picture taken."
McCurry acknowledged that Fox did nothing underhanded and said the Secret Service was aware of the camera crew. "I'm a little hard pressed to fault Fox for shooting when the president is standing there," he said. "They didn't do anything surreptitious or climb any trees."
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