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The Sex Scandal

[whitespace] The end of credibility ... but for whom?

By Bob Harris


None of what I am about to say is necessarily a fact.
--Former Clinton adviser Dick Morris, in a KABC radio interview on the scandal

IF YOU HAD ANY FAITH left in commercial news reporting, last week should have killed it for good. Look, I enjoy good gossip as much as anyone. It's fun to joke about comparisons to Watergate's catchphrase: "By whom was the president blown, and when did she blow him?" Or the passive phrasing of Reagan's Iran-Contra mea culpas: "Intentions were good. Mistakes were made. BJs were had." In the span of mere days--Watergate unfolded for almost two years, remember--this ludicrously inbred subculture called the press managed to convince itself that President Clinton was about to be destroyed on the basis of ... what, again, exactly?

CNN reported that a dozen of Clinton's "close associates" were discussing a possible resignation. Other outlets repeated the rumor. Problem: it wasn't true. The Dallas Morning News claimed a Secret Service agent was ready to testify that he had personally seen Clinton getting it on with Monica Lewinsky. Again, other outlets repeated the rumor. Problem again: it wasn't true.

The mainstream papers are filled with lurid tales of semen stains, incriminating gifts, and secret testimony. Problem once more: no one reporting any of it knows for sure if it's true. But there it is--in the papers, on the radio, and all over the TV. We'll find out how much of it is actually true some other time. The inescapable conclusion? Truth--ostensibly the goal and purpose of all news reporting--simply no longer matters.

The only certainties in this case are the names of the players and the broad outline of the disagreement. Beyond that, we have only a mass of leaks, none of which can be independently verified. Leaks are not actual news. Ask Richard Jewell. Undaunted by this near-total lack of legitimate data, however, every TV network has now created special graphics and music (look for a John Tesh cover of "Monica's Theme" from CNN to hit record stores any day now) to bookend the ongoing crisis--even when there's nothing to cover.

All involved regularly interrupt their coverage of the story with commercials promoting even more coverage. NBC even broke into the Super Bowl pre-game--just to tell us that they didn't have anything new to tell us. Never mind that newspaper polls across the country overwhelmingly show that most Americans think the media are spending way too much time on the case.

Strangely, in all the 24-hour saturation TV coverage, that little tidbit isn't getting reported. Still, there are only so many times a bunch of news drones can tell an audience that absolutely nothing has changed--really urgently!--before the audience figures out that absolutely nothing has changed. So new angles are invented and presented as news.

Combing Monica Lewinsky's life for new and thrilling details is a national pastime. Her yearbook photos have been burned into our skulls more firmly than our own high school memories. (Are those the only two photos she ever posed for? There are more and better pictures of alien spacecraft.) Finally, somebody found five seconds of Clinton actually hugging the girl, which we now see highlighted and looped and run back and forth like an illicit Cat Chow commercial.

Some media outlets are now even offering a bounty for anything new on Lewinsky. So alleged former lovers and boyfriends have begun coming forward. Prom dates, orthodontists, and newspaper delivery boys are surely close behind.

THE GERMANE POINT isn't sex, it's subornation of perjury, a charge that Clinton and Vernon Jordan have denied from the start. Which means that if Clinton's initial statements imply that some contact did occur, the same strained theorizing indicates that impeachable offenses did not.

But it doesn't get mentioned much. Instead, we're assaulted with the insane implication that consensual sex between adults (if it occurred) is itself grounds for impeachment--so at least a dozen earlier presidents should have been removed from office--from the tongue-clucking mouths of self-righteous reporters and conservative pundits whose own lives couldn't bear one tenth of this scrutiny.

Someday I'll tell you the stories about which anchor got the gig by sleeping with the producer and which right-wing TV host once gave one of my ex-girlfriends fifty bucks for reasons you'll have to imagine (speaking only on background and not for attribution, of course). This false moralism, incidentally, further legitimizes the president's more puritanical opponents, some of whom have spent half a decade lobbing fully discredited charges at the Oval Office in a most un-Christian manner.

And yet, when Hillary mentions the existence of a group of right-wingers devoted to attacking the president on personal grounds, she's derided as paranoid. Is she? Kenneth Starr is pursuing the Lewinsky tale via statements made in the case of Paula Jones ... who is a ward of the Rutherford Institute, which is run by a crony of Jerry Falwell, a major player in perpetuating charges against the Clintons ... which in turn are propagated in media outlets funded by Richard Mellon Scaife ... who in turn is the main money guy behind the Pepperdine gig awaiting Kenneth Starr. (That is, when he's all done subpoenaing underwear.) That's a very small circle.

Far be it from me to defend the Clintons, many of whose policies I detest (as regular readers know), but is there indeed a bias to the way scandals are reported? You decide:

Linda Tripp announces that George Bush had an affair with one of his secretaries. No outrage. Linda Tripp announces that Bill Clinton had an affair with an intern. Swarms of reporters. Linda Tripp's secret recording of conversations with Lewinsky--which definitely occurred--is, without question, a felony in direct violation of Maryland state law. No outrage.

The leaking of the tapes to the media--which definitely occurred-- thereby obstructing justice by preventing the independent counsel from securing Lewinsky's testimony via standard legal procedures, is itself, without question, a direct violation of federal law. No outrage.

The president is accused of a sex act--which may or may not have occurred and which is, without question, not a crime. Swarms of reporters. And so on. Look, I'm as titillated as anybody by the prospect of Clinton and Lewinsky getting a little Executive Action. I'm personally inclined to believe it might have happened.

How much truer a democracy we could have if only reporters spent one tenth this much effort examining campaign contributions, the performance data of our weapons systems, and the fine print of tax proposals and international trade agreements. Until that day comes, we'll just have to settle for fancy graphics and theme music built around hypothetical blow jobs. And even at that, we still don't know anything for sure.

The only thing we do know for sure is this: Maybe--maybe--a White House intern at some point decided to stimulate the president below the waist. And every time we turn on the TV, some producer is trying to do the same thing to us.

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From the February 5-11, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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