By Howard Kurtz
For months now, many media commentators have been saying, in private and on television chat shows, that the public would come to share their outrage about President Clinton soon enough. Once ordinary Americans learned the seamy details of Clinton's conduct, once the independent counsel's findings became public, the president's poll ratings would surely plummet.
Yet four days after the release of Kenneth W. Starr's sexually explicit report, there has been no such public explosion. Sizable majorities still tell pollsters they approve of the president's job performance and oppose impeachment or resignation.
The contrast with the media's collective sense of betrayal has never been starker. USA Today yesterday joined such newspapers as the Philadelphia Inquirer, Des Moines Register, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, San Jose Mercury News and Detroit Free Press in urging Clinton to resign over the Monica S. Lewinsky affair. The weekend talk shows were filled with indignant questions and harsh commentary, as were the newsmagazines that came out yesterday.
All this underscores what David Corn, Washington editor of the liberal Nation magazine, calls "the umbrage gap."
The Lewinsky saga is, after all, hard to escape. Americans are bombarded daily with what news executives regard as a story of grave consequence -- on the front pages, on the nightly news, on talk radio, on the Internet.
This leaves many journalists, who gauge public opinion for a living, puzzled that so many people can give Clinton such low marks for honesty and integrity and yet approve of his performance as president.
"The greatest surprise in this whole story is the ongoing gap between the elites -- who now almost uniformly despise Clinton -- and the people, who have stuck with him so far," writes Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter.
In Corn's view, the story feels personal for the Washington press corps.
"There's a yuppie revenge attitude going on here," Corn said. "We in the media class know Bill Clinton or people who work for Bill Clinton; he's in the same college dorm as we are. He's the guy raising his hand in the front of the classroom, always getting away with stuff. But the public looks at politicians and says, 'We care about whether you care about us. We're the story, not you.' "
Cokie Roberts, co-host of ABC's "This Week" and the daughter of two members of Congress, described the journalistic view of public officials this way: "We admire them more. We hold politicians in higher regard than the public does and therefore we expect more of them. The notion that 'they're all like that' offends us. . . .
"I'm sure that for some [media] people there's a sense that we're going to prove ourselves to be right, the people who said early on that he'd never live through this. I have more of a sense of sadness."
In recent days, many media commentators have expressed disgust both with Clinton's behavior and his insistence that he did not commit perjury when he denied under oath having had "sexual relations" with Lewinsky.
Fox's Brit Hume: "If this were in a court of law and he tried to make a distinction like that . . . there'd be a 10-minute recess while they got the jury's laughter to stop. This is absurd."
Time's Margaret Carlson: "What I'm struck by in reading the report is it took $40 million to nail this piece of human Jell-O to the wall. He can't slither away from what he did because of this report."
Wall Street Journal columnist Al Hunt: "It is sleazy. It is kinky. It is repulsive and I couldn't wait to turn the page."
Interviewers questioning the president's lawyers Sunday struck a tone of disbelief. After White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff insisted on "Meet the Press" that Clinton had not committed perjury, host Tim Russert said: "Now, are the American people supposed to believe that?"
On "This Week," ABC's George Will asked presidential attorney David E. Kendall: "Are you a normal person? . . . The president says he did not have sexual relations as normal people understand the term. Did he not have sexual relations as you understand the term?"
Fueled by this sort of skepticism, the Lewinsky story has become a driving force in the media culture, providing fodder for the nightly cable shows, cover stories for the newsmagazines, pictures for Vanity Fair, front-page exposes for the newspapers. This week's New Yorker has a cost-benefit piece on "Monicanomics," while the political Hotline carries regular dispatches on "Moniculture."
"We're psychologically invested in this story because journalists emotionally don't like liars," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "We think of ourselves as being truth-seekers."
At the same time, he said, "the mass media needs a huge audience to sustain itself, the networks in particular. They need a blockbuster, a crossover hit . . . MSNBC has sustained itself, first on Diana, then on Monica."
But this relentless, full-speed-ahead coverage has also produced a backlash against the media. Indeed, some readers and viewers have suggested that perhaps journalists' sex lives should be scrutinized with equal fervor.
Texas columnist Molly Ivins, writing in Time, scolded the press: "You shoved his sex life in our faces last January, and rubbed our noses in it for eight months more, so by now we're more disgusted with you than with Bill Clinton."
This cultural divide is not new. Large majorities of Americans believed that the media went overboard on the Whitewater investigation and the 1996 campaign fund-raising probe, both of which received huge amounts of attention until Lewinsky came along. Reporters who have covered Clinton since the Gennifer Flowers flap of 1992 -- and during seven months of misleading answers on Lewinsky -- have long wondered why the president's bobbing and weaving does little to damage his public standing.
The scandal has transcended the media's ideological boundaries. Liberal columnists such as Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune and Lars-Erik Nelson of the New York Daily News have joined those urging Clinton to quit. USA Today's defection is a particular setback for the White House, which has long regarded the Gannett paper as more of a bellwether and less scandal-obsessed than its national rivals. Even the president's few defenders in the media say he is a liar and a lout but shouldn't be run out of office.
Clinton's resilience has been especially frustrating for conservative journalists. "I'm perfectly willing to say there are times the people are wrong, or at least haven't yet come to what I regard as the correct view," said William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard.
"It's important that people in the media who are convinced they are absolutely right stop and think whether there's a lesson to be learned from public opinion," he said. "It should be difficult to convince people to be for impeachment."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company