Clinton Accused Special Report
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Media Feeding Frenzy
Reporters Outside White House on Jan. 22. (AFP) (See Feeding Frenzy Photo Gallery)

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Media Feeding Frenzies in Our Time

Media Revel in Another Starr Turn

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 30, 1998; Page B01

"This was the moment the White House feared for six months," CBS's Scott Pelley announced.

And, it might be added, the moment the media have eagerly awaited.

Special network reports are back. That picture of Monica Lewinsky in the black beret is back. Footage of President Clinton declaring he never had sex with that woman is back. Even William Ginsburg is back.

Reporters are again seeking out sources to provide the juicy details. News of Lewinsky's immunity deal with Kenneth Starr, which was leaked to CNN's Wolf Blitzer more than an hour before it was announced, has plunged the media world back into an all-out, vacuum-cleaner, this-just-in mode. General Motors strike settled? New prime minister in Japan? Take a number.

What's remarkable, for a secret grand jury investigation, is how quickly reporters are obtaining sensitive information about Lewinsky's discussions with prosecutors. Pelley broke into daytime programming Monday to report that Lewinsky was talking immunity with the independent counsel -- a leak that caused grumbling from her lawyers Plato Cacheris and Jacob Stein.

But everyone seems to be talking without names attached. The Washington Post yesterday cited "sources close to the Lewinsky team" (along with "a lawyer familiar with her account") in reporting that the former White House intern had spilled the alleged beans about a sexual relationship with Clinton and their discussions about keeping it secret. USA Today ("two people with knowledge of the deal"), the New York Times ("two lawyers familiar with her account"), the Washington Times ("lawyers close to the probe") and other news organizations reported similar details.

While administration officials have provided all kinds of unattributed comments about the president's strategy, spokesman Mike McCurry refused, at an extraordinarily tense briefing yesterday, to confirm what everyone knows: that Starr has subpoenaed Clinton.

"The White House still refuses to acknowledge it in an official way," Pelley says. "Come on!"

McCurry took a swipe at reporters, saying: "You all are going to rush to judgment based on the barest shred of information and based on anonymous sources who you cannot identify." The situation, he said, is "a little bit bizarre." The correspondents, in turn, grew testy.

"You're the press secretary -- why don't you know?" asked ABC's Sam Donaldson.

"The president is not leveling with the American people," Pelley declared.

John Harris of The Post asked McCurry why he was being "semi-forthcoming" and providing "non-answers."

As the frenzy unfolds, journalists say they are determined to avoid the high-profile blunders that marked the early weeks of the story. Blitzer says he could have reported the immunity deal earlier but decided to hold off. "I wanted to be utterly cautious," he says. "I wanted to make sure we had it really, really hard."

"There's a lot of pressure to get the information, but there's also incredible pressure to be accurate," says Claire Shipman, a White House correspondent for NBC. "There's not a sense of panic if we don't have one detail that someone else has."

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the country had returned to normal after the hyperventilating days of late January and early February. Mark McGwire hit 45 home runs. Leonardo DiCaprio became a star. Frank Sinatra passed from the scene. Viagra revolutionized Western civilization. The Lewinsky probe generated its share of sound and fury, particularly on the nighttime cable shows, but many people regarded it as white noise.

The three network evening newscasts have averaged a combined 10 scandal stories a week since March, but aired 15 on Tuesday night alone, says Robert Lichter of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. "Journalists thought this was a huge story at the outset," Lichter says. "They got badgered into retreating by White House and public objections. Now we're back to what the reporters are really interested in."

On CNBC, which touted its "All Night Coverage," Geraldo Rivera had an exclusive telephone chat with Ginsburg, Lewinsky's former lawyer who was replaced for, among other things, yakking too much on television. Ginsburg, who had tried to cut a similar immunity deal, said, "I don't feel as vindicated as I feel relieved for Monica and her family." The California attorney added a parting shot at the "clubby tribalism within Washington, D.C."

"Rivera Live" also gave a big buildup to author Dan Moldea and (shades of Linda Tripp) yet another secret tape, this one involving alleged prosecutorial leaks. While researching a book, Moldea recorded a conversation with Starr's deputy, Jackie Bennett, in which Moldea asked to pay a courtesy call on Starr.

If Moldea wanted "substantive information," Bennett said, "then there are other people who are really better to talk to." End of exclusive.

Faced with the white-hot coverage, White House allies seem to be subtly shifting their line of defense from "he didn't do it" to "if he did something, it's not so bad." Lanny Davis, the former White House lawyer who has become Clinton's chief defender on television, said on "Larry King Live" that Starr had lost all sense of "proportionality."

Davis said this is "a case involving, at worst, an alleged false statement about sex. . . . Most of the American people have decided even if that's true, they don't care." Earlier, he conceded: "I think most people do think something happened."

Administration spokesman Jim Kennedy, for his part, produced a stack of clips in which reporters questioned whether White House aides, particularly Bruce Lindsey, had written the so-called "talking points" that Lewinsky gave to Linda Tripp. Several news outlets now say Lewinsky has told prosecutors she wrote them herself.

"It strikes some of us as ironic and aggravating that a whole cottage industry developed around the talking points and people like Bruce Lindsey were being connected with them, particularly on television," Kennedy said. "The whole episode is a commentary on what's wrong with reporting things of which we really don't have hard evidence."

But that was yesterday's controversy. Rivera popped up on NBC's "Today," debating conservative pundit Laura Ingraham. He called Clinton "the most maligned and assailed man in the history of the executive office." He questioned whether Congress would impeach Clinton "for doing something that virtually every member has done at some time in their lives."

"President Clinton really has to make a decision: Do I go after Monica Lewinsky's credibility?" Ingraham said.

"You guys are driving me crazy because you keep veering off the subject," host Katie Couric interrupted.

By yesterday afternoon the story was again moving at warp speed. David Kendall, Clinton's normally taciturn lawyer, faced the cameras to finally confirm the subpoena and announce that the president will provide a videotaped deposition on Aug. 17. Half an hour later, Linda Tripp faced the cameras to describe herself as a "suburban mom" and "faithful government employee" who had suffered through "a seemingly endless barrage of lies."

At this rate, weary reporters will be canceling their vacations. "We're right back where we were in January," Pelley says. "There's going to be a new big story every day. It'll be wall-to-wall coverage for a long time."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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