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American Journalism Review
In the Midst Of the Whirlwind  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   March 1998

In the Midst Of the Whirlwind   

How jounalists scrambled to chase the Clinton-Lewinsky story.

By Sinéad OBrien
Sinéad O'Brien is a former AJR editorial assistant.     

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Scurrilous rumors. Flying subpoenas. Burgeoning scandal. Frantic White House spin control. They all make for a scintillating political drama. But for Washington journalists, covering the Clinton/ intern contretemps meant frenzied, round-the-clock work in a push to score the next microscoop, or at least stay in the game.

While Washington buzzed with the story's salaciousness, the media buzzed with the caffeine necessary to keep primed for 18-hour workdays.

"It's been a dizzying whirlwind," says Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz. "You rarely get to eat lunch, and you're lucky if you pore over the other papers by 10:00 at night."

During the third week of January, the latest Clinton scandal dominated the airwaves as information poured in nonstop from all directions. And journalists from across the media were on high alert.

"I feel like I'm on a campaign, and I don't know when Election Day is," says New York Daily News White House correspondent Kathy Kiely, who was summoned home from vacation in Florida to cover the unfolding events. All week she left Capitol Hill at midnight, only to leave her home long before 9:00 a.m. the next morning. "We're out there on a dead run," she says. "It leaves you reeling."

Between the night of January 20 and the morning of January 21 – as Washington Posts complete with the scoop hit readers' doorsteps – the news from Washington evolved from Congress' customary post-holiday return to the most tumultuous event to hit the presidency since Watergate. The breakneck speed at which details were flying left few journalists out of the action. Even weekly alternative newspapers.

"We're not an organization that usually delves into breaking news," says Washington City Paper Editor David Carr, "but we were sucked in by a serendipitous event."

When newly hired senior writer Jake Tapper mentioned that he had had a date with the omnipresent Monica Lewinsky, Carr decided to throw the weekly into the fray. He scrapped the week's already designed cover and already written story. The new cover? A tongue-in-cheek tabloid take: "Exclusive! CP Writer Says – I Dated Monica Lewinsky." "We've had to act like newspeople – do it as good as we can, as quick as we can," Carr says. "We don't like having to make up our mind at the last minute because it doesn't lead to good decisions, but we had to get out of that prosaic mind- set. It was good for us."

Even the smaller Washington bureaus of regional newspapers got caught up in the frenzy. "We're on alert all the time," says Hartford Courant Bureau Chief David Lightman. "We want a story no one has and is meaningful to our readers."

With the wires all over the Clinton/Lewinsky saga, the Courant's three-reporter D.C. bureau and its peers didn't catch too many scraps. But after working all weekend – an anomaly for most such bureaus – the Courant's Washington office sent a story to Hartford exploring psychologists' views on what one's motivations might be when paying attention to 21-year-old interns. "No one else had that," Lightman says.

What really challenged the Courant's D.C. office was the never-ending torrent of information. "There's a real potential to miss," Lightman says. "Often you don't know until 9 or 10 at night what's going to happen."

During the frenetic week he had to update one story at 12:15 in the morning, nearly missing the next day's run. "I stayed awake until 1:30, when the deadline had passed," he says.

Even online, where any minute at any hour can be a deadline, journalists were working overtime. Though breaking news is not the online magazine Slate's forte, its pace became fast and furious. "I'm thinking and breathing the Lewinsky story," says senior writer David Plotz. Slate's plan of action was to "wait, watch and comment on what others have done." By the end of the saga's first week, every Slate staffer had weighed in. "Even if we're working harder, gathering more information, paying more attention, you don't notice because it's so exciting," Plotz says.

Beyond the barrage of trickling leaks, allegations and rebuttals that reporters often find titillating, this story had the bonus of competition so stiff that they were willing to kick into overdrive. Ten years ago, the evening news/morning paper news cycle would have shaped the story differently. This was another big chance – post-Persian Gulf War, post-Marv, post-Diana – for the traditional media to contend with competition from the Internet, 24-hour cable news and mid-program updates. "There's an endless news cycle," Kiely says. "Things break constantly... It's causing knees to jerk all over the country."

At the Washington Post, analysis and evaluation stories filled the front pages of the first week. "In this case, not only did the Post break the story, it's breaking new details almost every day," Kurtz says. "We help readers sort rumors from alleged fact."

On top of 18-hour workdays to get stories out, more than a handful of journalists served double duty as the Clinton story unfolded. Eager for analysis, television and radio journalists interviewed their print brethren nearly as often as sources leaked the latest tawdry tidbit. "There's a voracious appetite for anyone who can talk about the scandal," says Slate's Plotz.

"My phone rings every 30 seconds," Kurtz says. "It makes it hard to make phone calls." By the end of week one, he had to turn down more than 200 interview requests.

The crazed pace, endless work and lack of sleep seemed only to have a positive effect on the media's morale. Most considered it time well spent. While the story is a tawdry saga that prompts queasiness among some reporters, including Kurtz, he says, "It's an adrenaline rush that pushed you to write harder than ever before." l



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