March 29, 2020

A recent poll of news watchers found people terrifically interested in the President Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal and really irritated at the press for bringing it to them. This may sound hypocritical; in part, it is. But it is also a measure of how extensively this story has been leaked, packaged, shaded and spun.

Put aside for a moment whether the president cheated on his wife and had Ms. Lewinsky lie about it — no one has enough facts on that yet. Besides, that story wouldn’t fill one newspaper column’s worth of news. What is being covered now is the web of stories around it, and that’s where the public gets fed up.

The surrounding stories so overwhelmed the media that television networks Tuesday barely made space for the president’s State of the Union address, sandwiching his comments on Social Security, the tobacco deal and the potential of bombing Iraq between the latest salacious piffle. The programming looked like this:

Speculation, rumor, gossip

State of the Union address

Speculation, rumor, gossip

The print media have been no better, with the tabloids doing what they do best and then some. Even respected newspapers such as the Dallas Morning News got caught in the excitement, reporting that a secret service agent was prepared to testify that he had found the two subjects in a tryst. (That paper had the good sense to retract the story the next day.)

The media haven’t the imagination to make these stories up by themselves, so they look to sources who are eager to spin them for anyone with a pen and a notebook. The fewer the facts, the sleazier the story. And, in this story, sources are having a hard time keeping even the innuendo straight. First Lady Hillary Clinton may have overstated it when she described a “vast right-wing conspiracy” against her husband, but she had the right idea about well-coordinated hatchet jobs that mask as news.

Her husband’s team, in fact, is chopping away right now at Ms. Lewinsky’s reputation. The stories of her past were as predictable as the attack on the president’s marital fidelity. Look for women in his administration to suddenly become more visible outside of Washington as they make the local news, defending their boss and attacking his accuser.

If the public is simultaneously entranced and disgusted by this scandal, it is because this is juicy gossip — the good stuff — that won’t stay contained. Unlike sitcoms that deal with these sorts of topics nightly but end on the half-hour, this one won’t stop until real lives are hurt, perhaps permanently.

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