Another Campaign Star Turn  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   October 1996

Another Campaign Star Turn   

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


It's unlikely that the tabloid Star will ever be one of President Clinton's favorite publications.

Four years ago, it almost fatally wounded his candidacy when it splashed Gennifer Flowers' revelations about their alleged affair over supermarket checkout lines from coast to coast.

In August, Star struck again, with call girl Sherry Rowlands' detailed account of her kinky adventures with Dick Morris, the political wizard who rescued Clinton's career after the "Republican revolution" of 1994.

Heavy coverage of Flowers' allegations in the mainstream media triggerred a barrage of criticism. Many concluded that the press had lowered its standards to an alarming degree by picking up a bought-and-paid-for piece of tabloid sleaze.

But there was no angst this time around: Morris' rapid resignation gave the press an actual news event on which to hang the tale.

Edward M. Fouhy, executive director of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, frequently criticizes the media for their preoccupation with insider events and frivolous side issues at the expense of substance. But not in this case. "The reality was he [Morris] resigned," Fouhy says. "It was a major news story and was treated as such."

Editors at Time magazine agreed. The controversial guru was on the magazine's cover as a political miracle worker the week his career crumbled. He made a rare back-to-back cover appearance the following week when Time featured a story on "The Morris Mess." (The last person to appear on consecutive Time covers? You guessed it, O.J. Simpson.)

Wasn't running consecutive covers on a political operative a bit much? Time Managing Editor Walter Isaacson doesn't think so. He says Morris was simply a big story two weeks in a row, albeit in entirely different ways. "Life is made up of good human drama," says Isaacson, "and this is clearly an interesting story."

Nevertheless, there's no doubt the saga was another instance in which the tabloids set the agenda for the rest of the journalism world to follow. But Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz points out that, unlike some previous tab extravaganzas, the Morris exposé was thoroughly documented, "therefore giving every editor in the country a perfectly good reason to run the story."

"The only part that continues to make me uneasy," he adds, "is that Rowlands was paid for her story and had incentive to embellish her tale."

Ironically, Star was at first reluctant to pursue the story because its audience is thought to be far more interested in celebrities than pols. But once it took the plunge, it did so with typical tabloid panache.

The Morris downfall was clearly world-class news to the inside-the-Beltway crowd. But it also got huge play outside of Washington, though the emphasis was often more on the story's titillating aspects than on what the development meant for Clinton's campaign.

"Call Girl Talks; Clinton Strategist Quits," was the headline in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The Boston Herald, playing the foot fetish angle to the hilt, proclaimed: "Sherry Rowlands: The kiss-and-tell call girl high-stepped her way onto the cover of Star magazine, leaving top Clinton foot soldier Dick Morris looking like a heel."

There's no question the personal drama gave the story impact far from the White House. "This would appeal to anybody," says Bill Snead, deputy editor of the Journal-World in Lawrence, Kansas, "someone in a responsible position getting caught doing something a lot of people do."

Martin Kaiser, managing editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, says that interest in the story shifted the farther west the news spread. "The closer you are to the Beltway, there's more interest in the political angle," says Kaiser. "The farther out, there's more interest in the sex and bizarre."

"I think inside the Beltway," says Tom O'Hara, managing editor of the Palm Beach Post, "it's a far bigger story than to my next door neighbor."

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