Rare is a person that crosses the path of the White House without some emotion of envy or awe. This building epitomizes world leadership and unprecedented power. This renowned leadership may be the only association made by certain countries, while in the United States many see an other significance: Watergate, Whitewater, Kennedy’s brutal and mysterious assassination, and today, Clinton’s “zippergate” scandal. When the President of the United States takes oath, he gives up a part of his life. His private life becomes the public’s life, and they feel the right to know what happens behind the Oval Office. Now the Presidency must battle against Newspaper journalists, radio personalities, televised news reports and now, even more menacing: the Internet.
Presidents who are constantly reminded of their power and prestigious rank, become exasperated because they cannot control the news media, even though they can to a large degree set the news agenda. Media has expanded in its presence, becoming widespread on the Internet, perhaps monopolizing the domain, by becoming more powerful and more used than written, televised or radio journalism. The Presidents’ inability to control the press exposes their vulnerability and tends to question the actual power they can actually exert. All presidents, at some time or another, became frustrated at what they perceived as unfair treatment by the press, even while acknowledging its vital function in a free society, and many presidents have been a part of a scandal.
The current Presidential scandal with Monica Lewinsky had swept the Nation overnight. It seems quite impossible to know just how it will all turn out, and unfair to even speculate, but the media certainly seems to think they possess that right. It is obvious that this story has changed the face of journalism, has put online media on the map in a major way, and has made life more difficult for newspapers forever.
First, let’s take a look at how this story developed and how it acted on the Internet. David Noack of E&P in his article “Web’s Big Role in Sex Controversy” does a great job of detailing the twisting path this tale took from rumor to investigation to publication, and how the Internet played a key part. Noack points out in his article that the “Clinton/Lewinsky” scandal has drastically changed online media. He writes:
“A year ago, most newspapers and news magazines adhered to the hard rule that they would not stoop themselves by putting breaking news on their Web sites before it appeared in their print editions. But a rapidly-growing public demand for almost “instant” Web coverage of breaking national news stories has forced even the largest newspapers and magazines- like the Washington Post and Newsweek-to abandon the old rule.”
“Out with the old, in with the new.” It is easy to think breaking stories online could dilute journalists’ on-paper presence; now many have realized that online media puts all journalists on equal footing with radio and TV. So who drove this change, pushing away the status quo? Matt Drudge, author of “The Drudge Report”. It is still the Internet’s gold rush period and everyone is running around trying to make a profit.
The irony is that the person who best embodies what’s revolutionary about the Internet has made next to no money from it: Matt Drudge, 30, is the author of “The Drudge Report”, a bulletin of entertainment gossip, political rumor and witty meta-news. His web page ( http://www.drudgereport.com) is austere; it consists of a headline, links to news sources and some black and white clip art. Apparently he is really quite well informed, he reads 18 newspapers a day and he admires politics enough to go after both sides of the story when the time comes. Drudge’s contact list has been expanding far quicker than his bank account he now has a huge following, with a mailing list of over 85,000 people.
This web journalist has such an impact on the Internet that last week he managed to cause consternation in the White House-and this was not the first time. He flagged a story Newsweek had been sitting on for six months: that President Clinton may have propositioned a White House worker named Kathleen Willey on federal property.
I found an article on the Internet that seemed to sum up exactly what people’s opinion on Drudge is, very mixed:
“The best thing about the Internet is Matt Drudge. He knows how to use the online medium. He prizes speed, being first, and he connects strongly with an audience that wants personality and gossip. The worst thing about the Internet is Matt Drudge. He caters to the lowest common denominator. He gets stories wrong. He makes traditional journalists very uncomfortable. We don’t want him to represent us. But do we have a choice?”
What made Drudge tick and become such a Net phenomenon? He started poking his nose where others feared to tread-the White House. He broke the Kathleen Willey story: she was the reluctant witness for the Paula Jones defense team-a White House employee who was “comforted” by the president when she feared her husband might be in trouble. And Drudge certainly got the attention of the White House with his story.
It obviously doesn’t seem right to condone irresponsible reporting, but it should be pointed out that Drudge is not a journalist-and never claimed to be. Drudge is an Information Age pioneer in a much uncharted territory. He doesn’t live by the same standards as the press.
Newspaper companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars-perhaps billions-researching ways of effectively distributing their information on the Internet, since it is the way of the future. It has its benefits: it is an easy and instant way to compare and contrast news accounts from all over the United States. That discovery is scaring the establishment press as much as Drudge’s critical reports have scared the truth police at the White House. The Washington Post, CNN and other big news organizations have resorted to lawsuits to try to prevent the kinds of news links provided by Drudge and WorldNetDaily. Their excuse being that they did not want ordinary consumers to be able to compare their news accounts to those of other news organizations.
The White House, which was so often in alliance with the establishment press, is now trying to make Drudge disappear and they will not be satisfied with any other result. The lawsuits are not about money or apologies, but about extinction for alternative voices. If Drudge is silenced by the White House goon squad, the media world will definitely become a little less interesting and a little less free in the news realm.
Steve Silberman, a writer for Wired magazine, had a grudging praise for Matt Drudge with his role in the Clinton/Lewinsky story in one of his columns: “It’s a Drudge World After All”:
“In Drudge’s world, which is our world now, the act of uncovering what was formerly hidden – of getting the skinny, routing around bureaucratic firewalls, defying the spin-doctors to tap the loose-lipped confidant – is paramount. Second to the act of uncovering the dirt is the enthusiasm to spread it around. Garbage in, garbage out – and as quickly as possible. The velocity is largely the point.”
So how does it make traditional journalists feel? Uneasy? Tainted? The Clintn/Lewinsky scandal is that kind of story; nasty and dirty. But more than that perhaps, they are acting recklessly, and people like Drudge, operating in the high-speed, high-competition world of the Web, aren’t pushing us that way. For instance, Jan. 23, just a couple of days into the Clinton/Lewinsky crisis, when it was still just two people who both said nothing happened, television and radio commentators were already using words like “resign” and “impeach.” Which, to me seems like a quick rush to judgment.
Pack journalism and media frenzies aren’t new phenomenons, but the Internet has changed the character of the pact. Eleanor Randolph and Jane Hall of the Los Angeles Times make some interesting points about this in their article: “Media Coverage Turns Into a Full Press.”
“When you commit wall-to-wall coverage of a sensational story in which little is known, you’re inevitably going to wind up in a swamp of sleaze,” one network executive said, adding that television ends up “repeating half-truths and innuendoes because you’ve got air time to fill and people who come on have agendas.”
Maybe all this is true, maybe it is false and it is going more than a little patience to change something, because it is everywhere. You’ll have no trouble finding news about this latest mess in the White House but rather have trouble avoiding it. Despite the fact that it is a top story for all newspapers and television programs, a lot of the reporting is redundant, and the major papers are surprisingly slow to update.
The Internet media shares the same issues that the written or televised press have: censorship and morality. It does not seem logical for the media to feel they have the right to publish the President’s personal letters, such as the ones from Kathleen Willey:
Dear Mr. President –
You have been on my mind so often this week – There are so very many people who believe in you and what you are trying to do for our country – Take heart in knowing that your number one fan thanks you every day for your help in saving her wonderful state.
yet cannot write “f****ing” in complete letters in the transcripts of the Monica Lewinski-Linda Tripp tapes:
Lewinsky: Well, it doesn’t have to be a f—ing conflict.
Tripp: What do you mean? How? Tell me how? [What am I] supposed to say if they say, “Has Monica Lewinsky ever said to you that she is in love with the president or is having a physical relationship with the president?” If I say no, that is f—ing perjury. That’s the bottom line. I will do everything I can not to be in that position. That’s what I’m trying to do… I think you really believe that this is very easy, and I should just say f-k it. They can’t prove it.
In what way does it concern the American people whether or not Kathleen Willey is “proud of the President’s performance?” (No pun intended) and I’m sure we can deal with the use of a four letter word if we can deal with the fact that President Clinton had oral sex with his 21 year old intern.
The Clinton-Lewinsky story may have set off an unprecedented media blitz, but the American Presidency is no stranger to scandal. Throughout history, residents of the Oval Office have been known to participate in “improper relationships” with unsavory political associates or women who were certainly not their wives. If White House walls could talk, here are some of the tales they might tell:
As early as between 1913-1921, the President, Woodrow Wilson, had a nickname “The Merry Widower”. He was the son of a straight-laced Calvinist minister, Wilson was depicted by Sigmund Freud as someone who identified himself with Jesus Christ. In fact, Wilson’s reputation as a devoted husband and father was squeaky clean until his wife’s death two years into his first presidential term.
After a deep (but brief) period of mourning, Wilson began to enjoy the frequent company of Edith Bolling Galt, the widow of a prominent businessman. Public opinion swung wildly against Wilson: Rumors flew that the nation’s 28th president and his paramour had conspired to poison Wilson’s wife.
Eventually the couple wed and public opinion swung again, this time wildly in favor of President Wilson’s new wife and marriage. When a stroke left Wilson partly paralyzed in 1919, Edith took over many of his routine duties as part of her self-described “stewardship” of the presidency. She died on Dec. 28, 1961, the 105th anniversary of Wilson’s birth.
More currently, there was the John F. Kennedy scandal, his presidency which extended from 1961-1963 was peppered with his reputation of being a womanizer. The list had many famous names like Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Angie Dickinson, stripper Blaze Starr and Judith Campbell Exner, lover of reputed Mafia boss Sam Giancana. “They are only a few of the better-known paramours with whom JFK has been linked,” University of Virginia government professor Larry Sabato writes in his book “Feeding Frenzy,” “not to mention a healthy dose of anonymous airline stewardesses, secretaries and aides. By many credible accounts, John F. Kennedy was not King Arthur but Sir Lancelot in the Camelot of his presidency.”
There were also other presidential scandals that weren’t sexually related, such as Richard Mulhouse Nixon, who was in office between 1969 and 1974. When five intruders were caught inside Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate hotel on June 17, 1972, American history changed forever. An investigation into the break-in revealed a web of political spying and sabotage – and unraveled the Nixon presidency itself. The illegal activities and cover-up attempts resulted in the indictments of some 40 government officials and the resignation of the 37th president of the United States.
In the 1980s, Nixon regained some stature in the field of international affairs. But the release in 1997 of more than 200 hours of tapes made in the Nixon White House threw yet another shadow over his complex presidential legacy.
And today in 1998, we have a full blown “modern scandal” of our own. But a fundamental change separates modern-day presidential scandals from those in the past: publicity. Except for Cleveland’s paternity case and recent allegations against Bill Clinton, presidential love scandals have “always come out after the fact,” says James W. Davis, author of “The American Presidency.” “Tongue-wagging” was kept to a minimum in the pre-Watergate era, he says. “The press in those days honored the privacy of the White House. It was a different era.” American attitudes toward presidential scandal may have arrived at yet another level in the late 1990s. “Perhaps we’ve reached a point where Americans really do compartmentalize to separate the president’s public actions from his personal life”, says Larry Berman, a political science professor at the University of California, Davis. “Today the voters realize they have a human being in the White House who has the same shortcomings and foibles that we all have,” Davis adds. “It’s like Melrose Place all the time.”
“The establishment of the office of independent counsel in 1978 also changed views of the presidency”, says Shirley Anne Warshaw, associate professor of political science at Gettysburg College and author of “The Domestic Presidency”. The Clinton-Lewinsky story “is all based on a series of leaks,” she notes. “Ever since Watergate, society has said ‘Let’s investigate our officials at a different level.'”
The Clinton sex scandal supplies all the evidence. It is a story made in Web media heaven: Too complex for a 90-second TV report, too fast-breaking for print newspapers and too titillating for the public to ignore. People flocked to the Internet in record numbers when the story broke. At Fox News Online, the Clinton scandal generated more traffic than the death of Princess Diana. At AP Online, the scandal outran the Super Bowl 3-to-1. At CNN Interactive, it contributed to a tenfold hike in traffic in one day. And the Washington Post’s Web site was hit so hard, it had to add extra servers.
It’s been quite an exciting few weeks for the nation. Since the alleged President Clinton/Monica Lewinsky alliance first hit the news, the public has been treated to scandal coverage of the first order. The power of 24hour news networks, the print media, and the Internet have been at the public’s service to help them wade through the sordid morass of the Clinton sex files.
From the beginning of the coverage, there has been a perception that this was the media’s big break with Clinton. Heavily criticized by many on the Right for not pursuing the Clinton Administration enough during earlier scandals, the media now seemed to lay into Clinton. Though differing explanations emerged, the prominent one was that the President’s slick maneuvering through previous scandals had irritated the press. Now, with allegations of actual presidential dishonesty, as well as revelations of previous dishonesty to the press regarding the Gennifer Flowers affair and marijuana usage, the press was not going to give the President a free ride.
The accusations of lying to the media and the American people seem like a pretty plausible claims. Clinton (and for that matter, VicePresident Gore) is sneaky, and likes to play the “literal truth” game. Especially in his explanation of his statements in the infamous 1992 60 Minutes interview. At that time, he said allegations of an elevenyear affair with Gennifer Flowers were false, but conceded that he had previously “caused pain to his marriage.” In his deposition in the Paula Jones trial, he admitted to the affair. It doesn’t take a philosophy class in logic to sense that the two statements are inconsistent.
Clinton’s explanation shows his adeptness with literal truth. Apparently, the reason he denied an elevenyear affair with Flowers was that the affair wasn’t eleven years old. Now, it would seem to you or me that this avoids the substantive issue of the question; generally, a question regarding the existence of an elevenyear affair is dealing with the existence of the affair, not the timespan. Clinton stays literally truthful, but avoids the real question … such is the “literal truth” game.
Clinton is surely not the first to do this; while you or I may not do it on a very consistent basis, I’ll bet we all have at one time or another. I am sure that we have all been caught at one time or another and when you get caught at that sort of thing, your victim’s assessment is that you are dishonest.
Given this, we can see why the press might be annoyed with Clinton, for this “literal truth” game has been played consistently from the Press Briefing Room for six years. From Flowers to Whitewater, “Zippergate” to the campaign contribution scandal, the press has been, at worst, told the literal truth only; at best, they have been used.
So, the relentless media push on this current Clinton scandal is understandable. Yet if they believed that hard investigative reporting of White House shenanigans would hurt President Clinton this time, they were clearly wrong. No matter how many hour long Investigating the President specials CNN runs, it seems that the Lewinsky affair is the “Little Scandal that Couldn’t.”
Yet the press, for all its highminded condemnations of Clintonian morality, certainly cannot look to anyone but itself for the public’s current lack of concern, since their focus has in some ways created the problem. The implications of the Lewinsky affair for Clinton have boiled down to two separate issues. The moral issue of Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky is quite different from potential presidential obstruction of justice and subordination of perjury.
Now, the moral / sexual issue is by far the most appealing, ratingswise. Surely, more people are interested in the sordid details of what went on between Clinton and Lewinsky during the throes of passion than what may have transpired in their later conversations. Thus one can understand why media coverage of the Lewinsky affair begins, proceeds, and ends almost totally over questions over the sexual allegations.
The problem is that the issues with teeth are those of subordination of perjury and obstruction of justice. They are the ones that people actually seem to care about; polls suggest that the public does not care about the sexual charges. If Clinton lied, the public says, then he should go, if it is just an affair, then so what?
The result has been a press focus that is distinctly not persuasive to the American people. Market forces demand sex, the public hears of the sex, the public doesnt care about the sex, so Clinton isn’t seriously hurt by the sex. While people are aware of the potentially more serious charges, these issues have not received the serious focus they deserve.
The distinction is crucial, since it appears more and more likely that the sexual allegations are true and provable, while the perjury and obstruction charges could well elude investigators. Clinton supporters in all this have several key facts they will need to explain away if they are to put together a coherent story in which Lewinsky and Clinton had no sexual relations. Why
so long before a clear presidential denial of such relations? What explains the hours of tape of Lewinsky talking to Linda Tripp? Perhaps most crucial, what explains the 37 visits by Lewinsky to the White House, after she was transferred to the Pentagon by a White House manager concerned about Lewinsky’s zealous attempts to get close to the President?
The attempts so far to exonerate the President of these sexual allegations all bear trademark similarities. There are the ad hominem attacks on Kenneth Starr and Linda Tripp. There are the appeals to the wonderful merits of the Clinton presidency (yes, it is apparently more than simply staying out the way of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan). There are the mysterious rumors of the “rightwing conspiracy” out to get the President. What do all these have in common? While interesting questions, they are clearly not particularly relevant to the fundamental questions of what Clinton did. The fact that the President’s defenders do more attacking of Clinton’s accusers than disproving their allegations is quite telling.
But for all the press coverage the sexual charges have received, it will be helpful for Starr only so far as it provides links to the other allegations of wrongdoing. There is a real risk here that the questions involved in these matters will reduce to legal discussions to which people will not listen, or (worse) to which people will not care. This raises the question: can the press be counted on to cover these charges with as much vigilance as they have the sexual issues?
There is some evidence that the press will not be reluctant to go after these issues; in fact, in some cases it appears many in the press have leapt to conclusions on the basis of flimsy evidence. The Dallas Morning News, for example, scooped the story of certain Secret Service officials being subpoenaed for their knowledge of the President’s affairs, only to find that crucial details of their story were not entirely accurate.
Such errors of reporting should not occur, and the press certainly has a special responsibility in this case not to put forth scurrilous allegations, given its nature. However, these previous difficulties, Presidential disavowals and denials, mounting criticism from the Left, and potentially declining ratings could combine to create an environment where important issues will not be covered. It happened with Whitewater, it happened with the campaign finance violations, and it could happen here.
This is where conservatives (and Republicans) have an important role. Up to now, the Right has wisely stayed quiet, letting Clinton simmer in the face of criticism from his own party. Their role in the coming weeks should not be to directly attack Clinton, but to monitor the developing situation and make sure the press remains vigilant in its quest for answers. All signs indicate that the public cares more about the perjury and obstruction charges; they may watch the news for the titillation, but the titillation is not so relevant when they decide their opinion as to Clinton’s fate. The Right should do all it can to make sure relevant information is available to the public. MR
Shows like “Access Hollywood” and “Extra” base their shows on celebrities’ lives. But now the focus is on Bill Clinton and his sex scandal trial. Instead of thinking about getting high ratings, they should consider the influence they have on the American people and the potential damage that could cause. Much of the United States is uneducated and believes that the word of the media is the absolute truth, and they form their opinions and actions on what the media preaches.
You cannot even turn on the TV without seeing the same images of Monica Lewinski, Paula Jones, Gennifer Flowers and other key players in the presidential scandal. The media failed to turn up any new evidence and spent weeks broadcasting special reports that were nothing more than speculations. The famous image of Bill Clinton embracing Monica Lewinski was all too much a subliminal message telling the American people that it is allright to disrespect and dislike the leader of their country. Despite these allegations that are certainly should not be condoned, Bill Clinton was elected twice to run the most powerful country of the World and will continue to do so nomatter what.
Now every day some new story breaks about a different woman that claims Bill Clinton agressed them sexually. Bill Clinton can only prove so much to prove his innocence and probably isn’t innocent, but nontheless it doesn’t concern the American public since it doesn’t concern his ability to perform in the Oval Office. (No pun intended.)
Even though being in the spotlight comes with being a world leader, the media don’t need to worry about the every move and the secrets from his past. The media needs to inform the public of the Presidents misgivings that could possibly put his capabilities. There are also victims, and what about their rights? It is very difficult to write a complete and current paper on this subject as more and more information surfaces daily.