Show Airs Clinton Accuser
By Howard Kurtz
Last night, the syndicated program "Inside Edition" aired eye-popping charges by Cristy Zercher, a former flight attendant, that Bill Clinton groped her on a 1992 campaign flight.
Tonight, in Part 2 of the "world television exclusive," the program adds crucial details of how Zercher flunked a lie detector test administered by "Inside Edition." In fact, "she failed miserably," says Jan Murray, a spokeswoman for the King World show.
Which raises the question: Why air the story at all?
"You have to set up the premise of what her story is in order to thoroughly examine the results," says Marc Rosenweig, a King World vice president. Since "we didn't want to withhold the headline from people," he says, last night's show included a sound bite "that there's a 99 percent probability she's not telling the truth."
"Inside Edition" did not plan to disclose the polygraph results in Part 1 until what Murray called a "last-minute change" in programming. The mention came in the final minute of last night's report.
The show's first press release last Friday avoided spilling the beans. "Cristy Zercher Claims Presidential Candidate Bill Clinton Groped and Fondled Her While Hillary Slept Just Feet Away," it roared. The release urged viewers to "stay tuned for the results" of the polygraph exam in Part 2.
A second release announcing the polygraph results went out yesterday afternoon, too late to be published before last night's program. It said that in the examination, Zercher had negative ratings for truthfulness on four questions asked last week.
"She's not telling the truth," Bob Brisentine, a former president of the American Polygraph Association, told the show.
Zercher is quoted as saying, "I want everybody to know that I'm not lying. . . . I had no resistance in doing the test because I knew I was telling the truth."
If Zercher's tale sounds vaguely familiar, that's because she sold it to the Star supermarket tabloid in March. Apparently she also made a financial deal with "Inside Edition," which pays for interviews but would not confirm that it bought Zercher's story.
In an account largely ignored by the mainstream press, the "stunning blonde," as "Inside Edition" calls her, said that Clinton fondled her breast for 40 minutes on the plane and she accused him of other lewd behavior. (In a 1994 interview with The Washington Post, Zercher made no mention of being harassed by Clinton.)
Rosenweig says that "Inside Edition," which airs locally on WBDC-TV (Channel 50), interviewed another former flight attendant who challenges Zercher's account. "We feel this is an important story," he says. "We made sure we did it right."
But White House spokesman Joe Lockhart sees it differently: "It used to be, you checked your facts first and did the story second. Now you do the story and then you check your facts. Anyone can see a problem with that."
As for the allegations themselves, Lockhart says: "We don't comment on tabloid stories especially this one."
Adding insult to injury, the still-unnamed Saturday night program, which debuts next month, will appear on the cable network opposite McLaughlin in the Washington market.
Barnes, executive editor of the Weekly Standard, and Kondracke, executive editor of Roll Call, are the latest to defect from McLaughlin, the high-decibel former priest who essentially invented the shout show in 1982. Both prognosticators were already Fox contributors. Their departure follows that of columnist Jack Germond, who quit for the syndicated "Inside Washington" in late 1996.
"I've enjoyed it for 10 years," says Barnes, long called "Freddy the Beadle" by McLaughlin. "But at some point you want to go out and do a show of your own." He says the McLaughlin gabfest has "unbelievable" visibility and that "we'll be performing for a much smaller audience" on the Fox show. Barnes said the new show will focus on "politics at the lowest possible level: who's gonna run, who's gonna win. We won't be doing a show on how the IMF guidelines affect Indonesia."
In a letter to McLaughlin, Barnes said he was "enormously grateful" to the "master" for having "taught me practically everything I know about television."
Kondracke says the new program will be "more like a magazine," featuring interviews with pollsters and media consultants rather than round-table discussions. "It's going to be fun and interesting and different and a chance to develop something," says Kondracke, who also wrote McLaughlin a "grateful" letter.
McLaughlin took the high road, saying: "That is the type of challenge that cannot be resisted. Business is business. I am proud of the fact they were grown on the 'McLaughlin Group.'" He says Barnes and Kondracke appeared on only half the shows this year and that he still plans to use them as "irregular" guests.
Fox News, part of Rupert Murdoch's media empire, has been on a spending spree, signing up such big-name contributors as former Clinton strategist Dick Morris, "McLaughlin" panelist Eleanor Clift and Internet gossip Matt Drudge.
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