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MediaWatch: April 20, 1998

Vol. Twelve No. 5

Today Paula Jones, Next Kenneth Starr

After the Jones Dismissal, Media Say "Put Up or Shut Up"

Judge Susan Webber Wright’s dismissal of the Paula Jones case on April 1 caused media jubilation both on and off the air. The next morning, New York Times White House reporter James Bennet filed from Senegal: "Repairing to a French restaurant here for a late dinner, some of the President’s senior advisers wondered over champagne — ordered and paid for by journalists — whether this development in the case might cause the news media to stop panting after salacious details about public officials."

John McCaslin of The Washington Times later fingered the bubbly-buyers: New York Times Washington reporter R.W. "Johnny" Apple and columnist Maureen Dowd. (Dowd later denied paying.)

The networks took shots at the Jones case the night the dismissal broke. ABC’s Peter Jennings suggested to Clinton spin controller Mandy Grunwald the Jones case was little more than a tool of Clinton-haters: "Mandy, who do you think is now going to carry the water, briefly, for the anti-Clinton clique in the country or the anti-Clinton people in the country?" On CBS, Dan Rather said "The accuser in this case, Paula Jones has been variously described as a victim, a woman wronged, and a political pawn of the Republican far right."

Many reports quickly turned the corner from the Jones case to putting the pressure on Whitewater counsel Kenneth Starr. Dan Rather asked reporter Scott Pelley: "Scott, is there any doubt there that this increases the pressure on Ken Starr to put up or shut up, to show whatever cards he has and do it fairly soon?"

Newsweek put Starr’s picture on the April 13 cover with the words "Put Up or Shut Up." Evan Thomas and Daniel Klaidman reported "public patience with Starr is running out. Starr is increasingly regarded as an uncomfortable, politically biased figure, an oddly jolly Captain Ahab ...By nearly two to one — 57 to 38 percent — voters think that it’s time for the Whitewater independent counsel to give up his investigation into Monica Lewinsky, according to the latest Newsweek poll."

Next to a cloying photo of the President holding Hillary’s hand to his cheek, Time Senior Editor Nancy Gibbs cheered the Wright decision as "an antidote to a poisonous winter of scandal." Time put the Jones charges, along with Willey’s and Lewinsky’s, into the second half of a summary titled "The Legal & The Loony." That’s quite a change from Gibbs’ 1991 Time piece comparing Anita Hill to Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Rosa Parks.