Leaving It "Out There"
By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
OK, SO IT'S NOT THE mainstream news media's finest hour. But maybe one of its finest minutes?
We're talking about the story ``out there'' in January that had journalists of all stripes waiting expectantly to see if DNA test results would prove that President Clinton was the father of a teenage boy in Arkansas whose mother is a black former prostitute.
``He's been told all of his life that Bill Clinton is his father, and late last month, 13-year-old Danny Williams of Arkansas underwent a DNA test to find out the truth!'' heralded cybergossip Matt Drudge in one of his ``World Exclusive'' dispatches on January 2. ``And now, just 24 hours after the DRUDGE REPORT first revealed that the White House was being rocked by a new DNA terror, the story was out of control and landing on front pages of newspapers all over the world!''
A front-page headline in the New York Post on January 3 screamed: ``Clinton Paternity Bombshell.'' Inside the paper, reporter Maggie Haberman wrote: ``A 13-year-old Arkansas boy whose mom claims he was fathered during a paid sex encounter with President Clinton has taken a DNA test to try to prove it, the Post has learned.''
No doubt you heard the story as it ricocheted around the Internet and became fodder for Rush Limbaugh, Don Imus and Jay Leno.
While the speculation received prominent play abroad, the Washington Times and New York Post, Clinton tormentors both, were the only American papers to put it on page one. The New York Daily News and the Boston Herald gave the story more modest treatment.
The notion of Clinton's black ``love child'' first surfaced in February 1992, when the supermarket tabloid the Globe ``broke'' the story. It went nowhere, although a variation showed up in Joe Klein's novel, ``Primary Colors.''
Then in November, NewsMax.com, a Web site with ties to the wealthy conservative Richard Mellon Scaife, ran a story about the president's ``secret son.'' It said the boy's mother was interested in definitively establishing Clinton's paternity.
The Star, another supermarket tabloid, paid to have Williams' DNA tested and compared to Clinton's. But the tab planned to wait until the results were in before publishing anything. That didn't stop Drudge, who reported on what the Star was doing. ``That has to be ironic,'' says Boston Globe media critic Mark Jurkowitz. ``Drudge is publishing it when it doesn't meet the standards of the Star.''
Then the New York Post picked up the story, and it was officially in play.
``The Ponzi sourcing is getting hilarious,'' says MSNBC editor Tom Brew. ``NewsMax apparently got the latest incarnation started. Then Drudge [publishes] a `scoop.' The New York Post follows suit and quotes Drudge. Drudge updates his site to quote the Post and also quotes NewsMax. NewsMax quickly [adds] links to all the `new' stuff, including a link to Drudge that notes that Drudge quotes NewsMax.''
Got that? And let's not forget that Drudge is a commentator for the Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox network; Murdoch also owns the New York Post.
For about a week, Drudge pumped up the paternity showdown story with dramatic postings and declarations that the boy looked just like Clinton. This Drudge dispatch appeared January 5: ``I know it is his!'' mother Bobbie Ann Williams told the Star magazine during a preliminary interview. ``He's the only white man I slept with that month.''
Alas, the story didn't pan out. The DNA tests cleared the president.
So where is the media's shining moment? Well, you didn't learn about the ``love child'' in the pages of most newspapers or on the major television newscasts. Yes, the story was ``out there,'' but most responsible news organizations wisely ignored it, and the world didn't come to an end.
``There are moments we have shown that the old standards apply,'' says Tom Fiedler, editorial page editor of the Miami Herald. ``Even under tremendous pressure, the story never popped into the mainstream news. You have Jay Leno doing monologues three or four nights in a row and Rush Limbaugh putting this stuff out undigested and as fact, yet it never saw the light of day in the Miami Herald or most other newspapers. That's pretty good.''