Clinton harassment case becomes media Catch-22

ON POLITICS

May 10, 1994|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- The latest wrinkle in the latest womanizing (( charges against President Clinton is the disclosure that White House aides are considering forming a legal defense fund for him to which friends and supporters would contribute, possibly anonymously.

There was a time when such an acknowledgment probably never would have been made in advance because legal defense funds resurrect memories of the legal scramblings of Watergate, Iran-contra and lesser scandals in which political figures have had to spend small fortunes trying to save their reputations or escape jail.

But somebody has to pay the astronomical fees that high-powered lawyers charge these days, and it certainly can't be John Q. Taxpayer. Worse for Clinton than the financial cost, however, is the way the very talk about a legal defense fund generates news coverage and keeps the allegations of former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones front and center.

The whole Jones matter offers an interesting, and for the mainstream news media a troublesome, case study in what drives news coverage in this era of tabloid journalism and the financial incentives it often offers to people with a story to tell -- or sell.

Jones has said that she wants no money for telling her story and that if any is generated from her civil lawsuit she will give it to charity. But her generosity comes after reports that one of her lawyers sought a healthy settlement from Clinton's lawyers to drop the suit and had a contract with her for a cut in the proceeds of any book or movie deal.

Jones first came forward with her story in February, in a press conference arranged by an old Clinton archenemy from Arkansas at a conservative political conference in Washington.

These circumstances and the absence of any proof led most mainstream news organizations to lay off, and the story got little circulation, though some newspapers proceeded to investigate and to interview Jones at length.

The caution displayed was no doubt a product of the uncomfortable feeling many mainstream news organizations felt in early 1992 when the supermarket gossip tabloid The Star printed the earlier womanizing allegations against then-candidate Bill Clinton and most of the mainstreamers felt obliged to follow.

Among those that didn't at the time was the New York Times. Even when the accuser, Gennifer Flowers, held a televised news conference to tell her tale and play tapes, the Times mentioned it only briefly in a story inside the newspaper featuring Clinton's denial. At that point, however, trying to ignore or downplay the story when it was being plastered all over television and in other news outlets was an exercise in futility.

At the same time, the whole business sent newsrooms buzzing around the country over "the tail wagging the dog" -- the embarrassment of a gossip-mongering sheet in effect forcing other newspapers that considered themselves "respectable" to dish the dirt right along with them. Editors looked for legitimate "entry" developments that would justify getting into the story.

When the Whitewater affair began its second life as a news story -- the first came in a New York Times investigation that didn't fly during the 1992 presidential primary season -- the allegations of a respected moderate Republican congressman, Jim Leach of Iowa, provided the way in for news organizations that did not want to go off half-cocked. So did the congressional calls for a special investigator.

In the Jones matter, the filing of the suit and Clinton's hiring of a defense attorney were legitimate pegs for news organizations to print aspects of the story. Notably, a lengthy Washington Post account of its investigation, long in preparation, was published only when Clinton disclosed that he had hired the lawyer.

News organizations that strive to be more sensitive to the privacy of public officials than the gossip tabloids find themselves in a Catch-22 these days when stories of misconduct break in such tabloids.

Editors don't want to run them without proof, yet once they are injected into the public consciousness, and the legal process, the editors can't pretend they're not out there.

It is a dilemma not satisfactorily solved either by ignoring the stories or jumping aboard the bandwagon.

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