Clinton Accused Special Report
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NY papers/AFP
Sunday's New York papers were full of news about the latest accusations against President Clinton (AFP)

For Some, Scandal
Breeds Success

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 27, 1998; Page D01

Allegations of sexual and legal impropriety may be causing political trouble for President Clinton, but they're turning into some very good news for the media.

Newspapers crammed with the latest developments are selling briskly. Cable and broadcast news ratings are up. World Wide Web sites specializing in news and politics are setting usage records.

More than just a media field day, in fact, the scandal swirling around the White House is rapidly creating its own mini-economy. Much like the death of Princess Diana in August -- the most recent media circus -- widespread interest in the Clinton sex allegations has news organizations scrambling to produce special reports and special sections.

USA Today said it distributed an extra 500,000 copies of its weekend edition on Friday, a 20 percent increase over its usual winter run. The Washington Post, which first printed the story of special prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr's investigation last Wednesday, has been printing about 15,000 extra copies a day for newsstand distribution.

Time magazine -- out this week with an exclusive cover photo of the president and his alleged paramour, Monica Lewinsky -- added 100,000 copies to its usual newsstand run of 250,000. "Anytime you get a story this big, you expect a newsstand bounce," says Time spokeswoman Diana Pearson.

The TV networks, too, are getting a helping hand from Clinton. CNN's viewership was up about 40 percent over its typical Wednesday and Thursday ratings, reaching its highest non-Diana levels in the past year. Its smaller cable news rivals, MSNBC and the Fox News Channel, also reported increases, based on Nielsen Media Research's overnight surveys.

Disney-owned ABC, which has been the most aggressive of the broadcast networks on the story, saw ratings for its three "Nightline" programs on the subject rise 29 percent over the previous week; its Sunday public-affairs program, "This Week," recorded a 36 percent increase in viewership.

Two primetime specials on Thursday and Saturday nights also performed better in the Nielsens than the regularly scheduled programs they replaced, said ABC spokeswoman Eileen Murphy.

Ironically, the only end of the media spectrum that isn't being helped much by Clinton's tabloidy troubles are the tabloids themselves.

Neither the Globe nor the National Enquirer said it expects much of a bump from the story, and they have no special plans for printing additional copies.

"Tabloid readers expect to read sexual revelations about celebrities, not politicians," said Tony Frost, editor of the Globe, which first reported sportscaster Frank Gifford's dalliance with a flight attendant last year. Indeed, tabloid scoops on Clinton's alleged affair with Gennifer Flowers and pollster Dick Morris's fling with a prostitute did little for sales, he said.

Besides, adds Frost, "Although the Globe is the most hard-edged tabloid, it's very difficult for us to out-tabloid the mainstream press on this story."

No one knows, of course, how long the Clinton story will stay hot. So far, its trajectory has been jagged. Unlike Diana's funeral, or the O.J. Simpson murder trial, the Clinton affair has featured few predictable news events to cover. Instead, information -- a new fact here, a rare photo there -- has trickled out.

But if it maintains its sizzle over the long haul, media executives say it could translate into an advertising bonanza.

Since almost all advertising prices are negotiated in advance, it's too soon to say whether the short-term spike in sales and ratings will result in increased ad revenues. Among media companies surveyed yesterday, only CNN has had "a small number of advertisers" inquire about increasing their advertising purchases as the White House story is developing, according to sources.

Yet the public's apparent fascination in Clinton's sexual and legal entanglements has helped advertisers who were in place when the scandal broke, said Shelley Morrison, vice president of advertising for ESPN/ABCNews Internet Ventures, which maintains news-oriented Web sites.

All of the media are hoping they'll be able to hold onto the public's attention after the controversy wanes; that ultimately would translate into more advertising and circulation revenue.

"If we're up 20 percent [in users] and this were to go away tomorrow, we'd probably still keep 10 percent of [them]," said Martin Nisenholtz, the president of the New York Times Electronic Media Co., which runs the paper's Web site. "We're hoping for a long-term gain."

Staff writer Rajiv Chandrasekaran contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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