Mar 1 1998

In Hot Pursuit–or in Heat?

"Sex sells" has become a journalistic principle

MSNBC, the cable news channel, has a headline for its breathless, round-the-clock coverage of the Clinton sex scandal: “The President in Crisis.”

A better headline might be: “The News Media in Heat.”

In the media environment of 1998, when it comes to a sex-related scandal, many national news outlets can’t seem to avoid binge coverage. It’s possible that President Clinton has a sex addiction–but it’s clear that much of the mainstream news media do.

Hillary Rodham Clinton is a bit off-target in blaming a right-wing conspiracy. If there’s a conspiracy driving the story, it’s a cabal that combines a ratings-hungry, tabloid-oriented news media with a lurid story and a president whose denials on personal matters are widely disbelieved.

No one thinks mainstream media should ignore allegations that have rocked–and might one day end–the Clinton presidency. When NBC anchor Brian Williams (1/28/98) asked, “Should we not cover this story at all?,” he was erecting a straw man to ward off criticisms of overwrought scandal coverage that had circulated unverified stories based on unnamed sources.

Clearly, this is a big news story due to allegations of obstructing justice. It rightfully should have been the top story. But should it have been virtually the only story on TV news hour after hour?

On television, Clinton’s State of the Union speech (dealing with Social Security, new child care and education programs, etc.) was clearly viewed as an obstacle to getting back to the real news. Post-speech analysis focused on whether the president’s address, an 80-year tradition, had “succeeded in diverting attention from the scandal.”

In the last decade, while sliding down the slippery slope of ever-greater scrutiny of the consensual sex lives of politicians, mainstream media have always deployed a journalistic fig leaf.

With each sex panic, news outlets were quick to offer justifications:

  • Gary Hart, 1988: “What we’re covering isn’t about sex, it’s about judgment and integrity.”
  • Gennifer Flowers, 1992: “It isn’t about sex, it’s about whether ethical journalists should report sexual allegations from the supermarket tabloids.”
  • “Troopergate,” 1993: “It isn’t about sex, it’s about the misuse of Arkansas state employees.”
  • “Interngate,” 1998: “It isn’t about sex, it’s about obstruction of justice.”

    To hear journalists talk, it’s never about sex. But let’s face it: Sex sells on TV. This scandal has caused ratings to boom, especially on “all-news” cable channels and on Nightline and primetime newsmagazines.

    Try to imagine that the news media had gotten wind of new obstruction of justice allegations involving, say, influence peddling or campaign finance irregularities–but no sex angle. Would we be experiencing such a media deluge?

    Leaks and unnamed sources

    The problem is not just the quantity of coverage, but the quality. In the current feeding frenzy, the practice seems to be: “If something has been reported anywhere, it’s okay to report it everywhere.” Hearsay and unnamed sources have been acceptable underpinnings for news, even when they purport to relate extremely intimate information.

    Seamy stories (and story tangents) that once would have been left to supermarket tabloids are now readily reported. Mainstream TV correspondents feel liberated to carry on about sexual variations and bodily fluids on garments.

    Many national news outlets reported, without verification, the shaky Dallas Morning News story (1/26/98) that a Secret Service agent had spoken with the independent counsel about having witnessed a sex act involving the President and the intern. After the story was largely retracted, Nightline‘s Ted Koppel referred to it as “sort of flaky” (1/27/98), though he’d rushed to report it the night before.

    Many journalists seem to see themselves in heroic pursuit of Clinton (CNN calls its nightly primetime special “Investigating the President”), but reporting has been propelled less by independent digging and more by leaks emanating from the independent counsel’s office and the Paula Jones camp.

    There’s been much media talk about Clinton’s lack of ethics, dishonesty and possible law-breaking–and remarkably little on the unethical and illegal actions of a special counsel’s office that leaks its case to the press, especially egregious when the information is so personal.

    The closest thing this scandal has to a Woodward or Bernstein is Newsweek reporter (and MSNBC analyst) Michael Isikoff. To his credit, Isikoff has shown dogged determination, independence and an unwillingness to settle for White House evasions. But how much time should such a reporter spend on the presidential sex beat?

    In Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein pursued the White House over break-ins, spying and wiretaps aimed at administration opponents. Reporters like AP‘s Robert Parry broke the Iran-Contra scandal, exposing a policy of arming avowed enemies, diverting government funds and carrying out a secret war.

    Isikoff, on the other hand, has been pursuing the White House over sexual advances, gropes and Oval Office trysts.

    Near the beginning of Newsweek‘s “exclusive” on “Clinton and the Intern” (2/2/98), co-written by Isikoff, readers are offered many personal details about intern Monica Lewinsky, the “flirty girl in a beret”–including this revelation from an Oregon real-estate agent who showed a house Lewinsky was renting: She “kept a container with about a dozen new condoms by her bed on a table.”

    Over the past week or more, Americans have been awash in factoids like the one about the condom container. Too bad most of us can’t identify our member of Congress.

    This column ran in the Baltimore Sun (2/1/98) and was reprinted in dailies across the country.