The Greek Chorus Changes Its Tune
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 19, 1998; Page D01
For some weeks, many pundits and politicians contended that if President Clinton told the truth to the grand jury and apologized to the country, it would be time to move on.
"The scandal may be moving into another dangerous phase," reported the Boston Globe.
"The investigation of subornation of perjury and other obstruction issues must continue," said the New York Times.
"Admission Might Not End Clinton Problems," said the Los Angeles Times.
Clearly, the Monica Lewinsky scandal machine remains in high gear. For the major newspapers and networks, there is a journalistic commitment some would say an emotional investment to pursue a story that combines a criminal investigation of the president with tawdry tales of infidelity. Others see commercial motives across the broad media landscape.
"The press is invested in this story, and there are business motivations to be invested in this story," said Ken Auletta, media writer for the New Yorker. "The press will say, it's not private, the guy lied. We told you so. We told you he lied, and we're going to keep on reporting it. It also happens to be good for ratings and circulation."
"People are not exactly going to jump off a wave that's cresting," said Fox News analyst Juan Williams. "All these cable shows, from Geraldo to Chris Matthews, have seen a tremendous bump in the ratings. They're going to get the last drop of blood out of it."
To be sure, there are many players in this long-running drama who must be covered. Independent counsel Kenneth Starr is required to complete his probe and, if he finds impeachable offenses, deliver a report to Capitol Hill. Some Republican lawmakers, and a few Democrats, are calling on Clinton to resign or face impeachment proceedings. And Clinton's acknowledgment that he misled the country about Lewinsky inevitably opens up other questions.
As ABC's Jackie Judd asked on the air: "Was he being less than truthful when he also denied making sexual advances towards Paula Jones and White House volunteer Kathleen Willey?"
But the gap between the journalists' take and the public view of the Lewinsky affair remains as wide as ever. In an overnight CNN/USA Today poll, 65 percent said Clinton's admission of an improper relationship with Lewinsky should end the matter, while 31 percent said it should not.
By contrast, the nation's editorial pages were strikingly harsh, casting Clinton as either lame duck or dead duck.
"The shame should haunt him for the rest of his life," said the San Jose Mercury News.
"Little more than an attempt by Clinton to save his flailed skin," said USA Today.
"It's hard to know which to do first: scream, cry or take a shower," said the Philadelphia Daily News.
"On this issue, he has no credibility," said the Los Angeles Times.
"President Clinton . . . has figuratively bared the scarlet letter he wears an L for liar," said the Houston Chronicle.
The New York Post and Daily News reduced the essence to the same first-edition headline: "HE LIED."
Magazines are feasting on the story as well: Time is rushing out next week's issue so it will hit newsstands tomorrow morning.
Carl Bernstein, the former Watergate sleuth who now writes for Vanity Fair, said the print press has "done a pretty good job covering this story. They've covered not only the allegations against Clinton but the allegations against Starr, the political story and the reactions of people."
But Bernstein assailed the "uninformed and ideologically driven speculation" on the 24-hour cable news outlets, which he said "now drive the media cycle for much of the press. Every hour there is a drumbeat on these networks, with 'Victory at Sea' music and Monica in that godawful beret in slow motion, throwing her arms around the president. But when they get to the courthouse, there's nothing new there."
John Gibson, host of MSNBC's "News Chat" and "InterNight," defended the relentless focus, saying: "I would love for there to be another story. When people say why are you still on this, I say that if this isn't Topic A, what is? We are driven, more than anything else, by the attention of the public. . . . I don't think it's just sex or lies but getting in the way of people who are investigating you."
White House spinmeisters, bruised after having been lied to by the boss for seven months, dutifully dragged themselves before the cameras to defend his revised account. "I don't feel personally betrayed at all by what happened. He explained himself, I'm satisfied with it," Rahm Emanuel said on "Today." "I think when a guy is down you lend a hand and you try to pick him up," James Carville said on the same program. "Last night was for me . . . a very moving moment," Ann Lewis said on "Good Morning America," refusing to say whether Clinton had apologized to her.
But such former presidential aides as George Stephanopoulos and Dee Dee Myers did not disguise their disappointment. "As far as his legacy, this is always going to be a shadow over that," Stephanopoulos said on "Imus in the Morning."
The radio airwaves crackled with criticism all day.
"There isn't any executive in any company in the world that could get away with this kind of behavior without getting blown out of there in five minutes," said Don Imus, who was once friendly toward the president. "This is outrageous. . . . It's a clear, abject abuse of power."
"He only testified because he had to," said conservative icon Rush Limbaugh. "There was nothing voluntary about this. . . . I think the president as a president, as a governing leader, is toast."
"The speech simply was, I got caught. . . . How could you be defiant about having lied for seven months? That's like O.J. saying I've been publicly humiliated," said Ronn Owens of San Francisco's KGO, who twice voted for Clinton.
"The president of the United States has a sexual addiction," said Michael Reagan, son of the former president.
Some prominent liberals also let Clinton have it. "I feel betrayed by Bill Clinton, like a lot of Democrats, because I think he disgraced the presidency," Bill Press, the co-host of CNN's "Crossfire," said on KGO. But he maintained that nothing the president said "would be enough to satisfy the media, who want to continue to talk about this because the ratings are good."
Ratings aside, Auletta argued that "one of the awful things Clinton has done here" is to let the media off the hook.
"Not only did he betray the country, his family, his staff, he has reinforced the cynical view of the press that all politicians lie," Auletta said. "Those who criticize the press, their position has been immeasurably weakened. Clinton allows us to reclaim the moral high ground, and we don't quite deserve it."
Staff writer Libby Ingrid Copeland contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company