The story of George Bush and the incredible supermarket scanner has become the media yarn that wouldn't die.
First the New York Times gave front-page prominence to Bush's alleged amazement at seeing a quart of milk, a light bulb and a bag of candy rung up at an ordinary checkout stand, spawning a tidal wave of satiric columns and late-night comedy routines about an out-of-touch president.
Then came a round of debunking stories, disclosing that Times reporter Andrew Rosenthal never saw the incident but wrote the story from two paragraphs in a pool report. The author of the pool report, Gregg McDonald of the Houston Chronicle, didn't even mention the incident in his own story.
The Times returned fire Thursday, saying it had reviewed a network videotape of the Great Scanner Scandal and that Bush "was clearly impressed" by the garden-variety gadget.
Not so, says Newsweek, which screened the tape and declared that "Bush acts curious and polite, but hardly amazed."
It was a fresh demonstration of how a single, hazy anecdote -- Jimmy Carter's "killer rabbit" comes to mind -- can suddenly become larger than life when it seems to match the public perception of a prominent figure.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater called the story "totally media-manufactured," saying Bush had actually been impressed by more advanced scanner technology. "In hindsight, I probably should've done a better job of saying how new some of this stuff was," McDonald says.
Time magazine's Michael Duffy, another pool member, called the incident "completely insignificant as a news event. It was prosaic, polite talk, and Bush is expert at that. If anything, he was bored."
Philip Taubman, the Times' deputy Washington editor, says that "we stand by the original story, as the piece last week makes clear." He calls Rosenthal's reliance on the pool report "routine" for White House coverage.
The incident has spurred talk that the White House may be trying to keep pool reporters out of earshot during campaign events. In New Hampshire last week, Rosenthal says, a Bush advance man told him: "You can explain to your colleagues why they're going to be kept 50 yards away from the president from now on."
Bush campaign spokeswoman Victoria Clarke dismisses the remark as "a joke," saying, "We think the president is good at mixing with people and we'd like the reporters as up close and personal as possible."
Clinton Ad Flap
Presidential candidates love to quote news reports in their television ads because it lends an air of authority. But Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton got into a tangle with CNN last week over a commercial on the Gennifer Flowers saga.
Frank Greer, Clinton's media adviser, says the ad was one of several sent to New Hampshire and Boston stations but was never supposed to run. He says Manchester's WMUR-TV aired the commercial twice by mistake and that it was abruptly pulled.
"We consciously decided not to run that ad," Greer says. "We didn't authorize it. A low-level employee put it on 11 o'clock at night."
The commercial was part of a Clinton counterattack against Flowers, the nightclub singer who says she had a 12-year affair with the governor and taped some of their phone conversations.
"The president's Republican operatives were involved in promoting the untrue Gennifer Flowers story to destroy Bill Clinton," a narrator says in the ad. The statement is attributed to CNN.
"Where that came from was Gennifer Flowers's live press conference, which was carried by CNN," Greer says. Asked whether the ad unfairly suggests that CNN reported the charge, Greer says, "It suggests to me it was on CNN."
As CNN's Brooks Jackson noted in a report on the controversy, even Flowers did not claim any contact with Bush "operatives," saying only that she had gotten a call from "a local Republican."
The Clinton ad also cited CNN in charging that the Flowers tapes were doctored. "We had a tape expert who said the tapes may have been doctored," Jackson says. "They removed all the qualifiers. ... They misquoted it." Greer calls the criticism "an unfair cheap shot over something that really is not that important."
The Honolulu Advertiser recently ran a story on Aileen Wuornos, "a hitchhiking prostitute portrayed as a calculating killer of seven men" who "has a self-destructive personality and suffers from a slightly dysfunctional brain," according to a witness at her trial in Florida. Unfortunately, the story was accompanied by a photo of Hanan Ashrawi, the Palestinian spokeswoman. ...
The Advocate, the national gay magazine, is opening a Washington bureau. John Purnell, a former Washington Times reporter, will keep readers apprised of capital developments affecting the gay community. ...
Great minds must buzz alike. On the "CBS Evening News" last week, Richard Threlkeld reported that "this year the buzzword for the Democrats is electability." Seconds later on ABC, Peter Jennings said: "In a moment, presidential politics and the latest buzzword, electability."
Correction of the Week "Statistics that were called in to The Washington Post and published Sunday about a boys basketball game between Edmund Burke and St. Albans were fictitious. The game never took place."
George Solomon, assistant managing editor for sports, says the paper generally relies on student stringers for high-school scores. "Someone called the office and gave us a box score with real names," he says. "It sounded to the young person who took the call like a legitimate box score. The next day we heard from both coaches and subsequently apologized."
Solomon says jokingly that the high scorer in the imaginary game is "my prime suspect."