The Media Come out of Denial

No question about it, the Monica Lewinsky story has dominated the media like few others in history. But of all the pronouncements coming from the seemingly inexhaustible sully of commentators out there, one statement was the most salient. I was struck by Bill Safire's read on "Meet the Press": "I may be the last person in America who still thinks that the financial relationship that Bill Clinton has with the Riady family in Indonesia than any possible sexual relationship he had with a White House aide."

No matter what Monica Lewinsky ultimately has to say, Safire is right. But he's whispering into a tornado. The Monica story, with its fury drawing from six years of unresolved Clinton scandals, is a potent cocktail of jailbait sexual allegations and perjury charges that have already captured the usually apolitical public that feeds on the table scraps of O.J. and JonBenet updates. It's water cooler dynamite. We can mourn the lack of attention to the Asiagate swamp or Dan Burton's House hearings on political manipulation of the Interior Department's Indian casino decisions, but this is one story the media actually may be determined to take to the finish line. I hedge on that a bit simply because the media have never taken a Clinton scandal to resolution.

In theory , there are three journalistic stages to scandal stories: allegation, investigation, and resolution. The media's record covering this administration is sorry. Many times they won't even touch the allegation, even after some legal body has resolved the story for them. Take Judge Royce Lamberth's decision to fine the White House $285,000 for bald-facedly lying about the composition of the Clinton health care task force. Lamberth declared "It is clear that the decisions here were made at the highest levels of government. " From start to finish, the media have virtually ignored it.

On other occasions, a scandal would start with a small burst, then peter out as the White House pounded their liberal friends into submission by suggesting they didn't want to be tools of a right-wing conspiracy. Take Hillary's $100,000 commodities bonanza. The allegations led to the famous Pink Lady press conference, with everyone cooing about the First Lady's "performance," all style and no substance. The story just died, never to be resolved.

What is painfully apparent is that each of these scandals is part of a wider mosaic that, when all the tiles are placed together, show an administration that is pathological in its dishonesty. Give credit where credit is due: to Newsweek's Michael Isikoff for exposing this depraved President, and to ABC's Sam Donaldson, who refuses to be fooled by White House doubletalk.

Then again, we should also focus on those unfortunate family members who've been embarrassed along with the President by these sordid stories. I refer not to Hillary and Chelsea, but to their surrogate family members in the media, like poor Eleanor Clift and Bryant Gumbel. Whatever shred of credibility they hoped to retain throughout the Chutzpah President's remaining days is gone, but it seems no one's told them. The day the story broke, Clift defended Clinton on MSNBC: "Well, he's been elected twice with people knowing that he has had affairs. Now is the fact that this woman is 21, I mean she's still of age I suppose." Besides, Clift argued, "libido and leadership is often linked." You could almost hear the laughter.

On his Nielsen-challenged CBS show "Public Eye," Gumbel was even more partisan, and pathetically so: "These allegations have been spawned by a series of secretly recorded audio tapes, behind the tapes and the charges: Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr, the same Republican partisan who has unsuccessfully dogged Mr. Clinton for three and one-half years." Gumbel asked reporter Scott Pelley: "Scott, as you and I both know, a popular move these days is to make a titillating charge and then have the media create the frenzy. Given Kenneth Starr's track record, should we suspect that he's trying to do with innuendo that which he has been unable to do with evidence?" No, but we should suspect that Gumbel is trying to do with innuendo what he could never do with objective truth.

Clinton may still be in denial about his behavior, but the media are just coming out of their denial. It's as if they've all suddenly found a code word for his modus operandi: "Slick Willie." Welcome to the club, folks. And maybe after you finish the Lewinsky story, you might try to tie up all the other loose ends you've left untied.