Rumor? Scandal? Cigar?
Weeks before Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr sent his report to Congress September 9, President Clinton's grand jury testimony gave the Monica Lewinsky scandal its second wind, reigniting debates about media fairness, anonymous sources and just what details should be printed.
With dilemmas about risqué items aplenty, the mainstream media initially shied away from printing one salacious rumor--thrown into the gossip ring by the Drudge Report in late August--detailing a sexual encounter involving Clinton, Lewinsky and a cigar. While the New York Post had no problem going with the story and speculated that other news sources "either insist on waiting for more evidence, or spike it on the grounds that it's too kinky for general audiences," some papers opted for cryptic references.
Warren Payne of Louisville's Courier-Journal included an item about Lewinsky dining out in D.C. under the subhead "Close, but no cigar." No other mention of cigars appeared in the August 26 column. The same day, San Francisco Chronicle columnists Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross quizzed readers, "Did you hear the one about Bill, Monica and a cigar? Well, according to the Drudge Report, the cigar story ain't no joke." And the Washington Times printed a vague reference to the "cigar tales," with no explanation, in a column by John McCaslin on August 27.
Why the use of such hint-hint, nudge-nudge references? "It was kinda for people who knew what it might refer to," says Payne, "an insider kind of thing, as opposed to being strictly declarative." Payne says there was no discussion about printing the actual innuendo. As for McCaslin, he says he didn't write the phrase "cigar tales"; it must have been edited in at night. Washington Times Editor in Chief Wesley Pruden says he won't discuss the paper's editing process but says other columns in the paper have included similar oblique references. Says Pruden, "I don't think most adults are in the dark anymore about what it means."
Members of the public who watch late-night monologues or listen to morning shock jocks have been out of the dark for some time. Those who don't--including the eight friends I quickly polled, before Starr's report was released--were clueless.
Howard Kurtz, media writer at the Washington Post, addressed the issue a little more forthrightly, writing "Matt Drudge has alleged a kinky sexual episode..." and stipulating that the Post "has not confirmed the allegation." Meanwhile, several British and a few Canadian papers were all over this one, not skimping on Drudge's details.
On a hypocritical note, AJR isn't going to dish the dirt either. Visit the water cooler or read the Starr report.
The Butt of Jokes
Presidential scandal is always good fodder for the Jay Lenos of the world. As of July 31, this year's top 10 monologue targets were:
1. President Clinton*
2. Monica Lewinsky
3. Kenneth Starr
4. O.J. Simpson
5. Paula Jones
6. Linda Tripp
7. Al Gore
8. Hillary Clinton
9. Saddam Hussein
10. Janet Reno
*1,028 quips were fired Clinton's way, 218 more than his 1997 total.
Source: Center for Media and Public Affairs
Too Deep for TV
After CNBC's Tim Russert questioned Watergate icons Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein August 15 about the identity of Deep Throat, Russert turned the conversation to the current presidential scandal, creating a pun one can only assume was unintentional.
Russert: Has there been a Deep Throat in this case?
Mr. Woodward: Bad image.
Russert: I--I think we'd better get out--I--I think we're all in trouble with that one. It was a..
Mr. Bernstein: I think you--I think you ought to tape the end of the show again. I really do.
In a Word...
AJR asked journalists to use one word to describe their feelings about the never-ending (there's one) President Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal.
"Juicy"--Tony Kornheiser, columnist, Washington Post
"Tragic"--Doug McKelway, anchor, WRC-TV, Washington, D.C.
"Tired"--Phil Kuntz, staff writer, Wall Street Journal
"Boring"--Bonnie Weston, reporter, Orange County Register
"Painful"--Trevis Mayfield, assistant editor, Indiana's Terre Haute Tribune-Star
"Unsemenly"--Dana Milbank, senior editor, The New Republic
"Embarrassing"--Pam Curry, reporter, WFAA-TV, Dallas/Fort Worth
"Stop"--Rick Bragg, national correspondent, New York Times
"Baffled"--Brent Hunsberger, reporter, Portland's Oregonian
"Circadian"--Keith Olbermann, MSNBC anchor
"Sad"--Andrew Ross, vice president of business development, Salon Magazine
--Compiled by Childs Walker and Amy Jeter
Those Worldly Europeans
"I asked [a TV producer in Amsterdam] how he would feel if Wim Kok, the Dutch prime minister, confessed to having oral sex with a 21-year-old intern? 'At his age? We'd all be proud of him.' "
--Brent Gregston, a Salon Magazine correspondent, reporting from Amsterdam