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Public Excess Channels

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 18, 1998; Page D01

At 9:30 yesterday morning, Monica Lewinsky cried on Fox News Channel.

"I can't take it anymore, I just can't," she sobbed.

But cable news viewers had little choice. Fox, CNN and MSNBC went virtually wall-to-wall with the taped conversations between Lewinsky and Linda Tripp. The airwaves were filled with the sounds of the two women whining, plotting, arguing, commiserating and, in Tripp's case, constantly eating.

It was a classic test of television values: Transcripts of the entire 22 hours of surreptitious tapes were released six weeks ago, widely reported and widely debated. So the substantive news value was close to zero, while the entertainment value was off the charts.

"What's fundamentally here?" CNN's Frank Sesno asked shortly before the House Judiciary Committee released the stacked boxes of tapes.

"Word for word what was in the transcripts," reporter Brooks Jackson replied.

It was, of course, more than that, the chance to hear Lewinsky's voice for the first time as she described her relationship with "the creep" -- her name for President Clinton -- along with such Valley Girl-isms as "I'm like" and "you know" and "blah blah blah" and "da da da." Tripp complained about her bangs, her "Excedrin headache," scolded her dog, Cleo, and urged Lewinsky to keep the famous stained dress in "a Ziploc bag." Baseball games blared in the background. And the three cable networks just kept on playing the tapes, punctuated by plenty of punditry.

"We're all forced to sit here -- at least on this set I'm forced to sit here -- and listen to this," former White House lawyer Lanny Davis told MSNBC from London. While Davis said he felt "unclean" and "voyeuristic," the reason for his captivity was made clear in the label beneath his talking head: "MSNBC Legal Analyst."

"There is a small but fervent audience for this material, and that's all it takes for the cable networks," said Robert Lichter of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. "Even though we know the script, the show must go on."

The broadcast networks, which covered the story on their evening newscasts (NBC and ABC led with it), stayed largely aloof during the day. CBS aired a five-minute special with Dan Rather at 9:40 a.m., NBC a one-minute report at 10 a.m. Only ABC declined to break into regular programming, although "Nightline" featured the tapes on last night's show.

"We just didn't consider it breaking news," said ABC spokeswoman Eileen Murphy. "It's not like this provides any added value. There are no surprises here. We've all seen the transcripts."

Brit Hume, Fox's Washington managing editor, said the value of the tapes is "much diminished" because so much other evidence has emerged in the investigation. He said people were "curious" whether Lewinsky had "a chirpy voice or a Marlene Dietrich voice," but that "the demand is not there" for journalists to stitch together elaborate excerpts.

Al Ortiz, executive producer of the "CBS Evening News," called the tape release "an important story," saying viewers would be interested in "the way they discussed these things. We do know basically what was said. For radio and television, the experience is in hearing how they talked."

Throughout the morning, other subjects -- such as weapons inspections in Iraq, the story that gripped the media last weekend -- were blown off the cable screen. Instead, a parade of pundits analyzed the voices and personas of Lewinsky and Tripp.

"Monica sounds exactly like the woman who plays her on 'Saturday Night Live,' " Newsweek's Howard Fineman said on MSNBC. "Linda Tripp sounds even more dominant and manipulative than we'd been led to believe."

"It's very clear on these tapes that Linda Tripp is leading her on," former Clinton adviser Dick Morris said on Fox, which helpfully provided captions.

"Linda Tripp is creating this," argued CNN's Greta Van Susteren.

Attorney Larry Klayman, who has filed a number of suits against the Clinton administration, told Fox: "I'm not a psychiatrist but it looks to me [Lewinsky] enjoyed being needed by the president. . . . I think it's sick."

Fox commentator Stan Goldman questioned whether Lewinsky's histrionics were "the ravings of a paranoid."

Reporters were split on whether the playing of the audiotapes, in which obscenities had been deleted, really transformed the story. "Having read it millions of times myself, it certainly is more compelling hearing it on tape," said MSNBC's Chip Reid. "It may be titillating to some, it may produce some yuks, but we know the content here," said Fox's David Asman.

As one tape after another was cued up, a channel surfer could not escape the Monica madness:

Lewinsky, on Fox: "I freak out when I think about not talking to him."

Tripp, on CNN: "I feel like I'm sticking a knife in your back."

Lewinsky, on MSNBC: "You have no idea how hurt I am."

Lewinsky, on CNN: "He's so full of [expletive]."

White House spokesman Joe Lockhart got into the loop by saying that most of the country didn't care, "but the people who are obsessed with this story, this will just be a day in Heaven for them." Not to mention the journalists obsessed with the story.

By 1 p.m., CNN had reverted to regular newscasts, devoting considerable coverage to a meteor shower. "We took the deliberate approach. We were not going to wallow in this thing all day," explained Sesno, CNN's Washington bureau chief.

But MSNBC and Fox stuck with the story. Even when Fox veered off topic for a couple of minutes, it kept teasing the Tripp tapes.

"Up next, it gets juicy. Don't touch that dial," said Fox anchor Shepard Smith.

Not all Fox guests played along. "I don't want to take the wind out of the show, but I think it's a big nothing-burger," said David Corn of the Nation. "It's going to make the public even more sick of this whole episode."

Undeterred, Fox played a tape segment introduced as "girl talk" about sex. Lewinsky recounted eight men she'd had sex with -- she couldn't remember all their names -- and then turned to the president:

"We didn't have sex, Linda. . . . We fooled around. . . . Having sex is having intercourse."

A Fox pundit said the exchange caused him to add up his own sexual scorecard.

C-SPAN, meanwhile, told viewers it would begin airing 11 straight hours of tapes at 8 last night. "We think people have a right to listen to them in their entirety," spokesman John Maynard said.

By midafternoon, MSNBC had switched to its "Hollywood Squares" format, with pundits shouting at one another from four boxes.

Radio host Victoria Jones said that Tripp "would eat her young, this woman." Former prosecutor Cynthia Alksne said that "Monica's pretty pathetic" but that Tripp "is mean as a snake."

It soon became clear that the same analysts were engaging in the same arguments they had made so many times before the audiotapes were released. Even Dick Morris, who has often attacked his former boss, was dismissive. He said he couldn't believe that "this chit-chat, this gossip, is the foundation of what has wasted a year of America's time."


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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