WASHINGTON -- You might have thought the news media had gone about as far over the ledge as they could with "disclosures" in the sex-and-lies allegations against President Clinton. You might have thought so, but you would have been wrong.
Now comes word, culled from more legal documents filed in court by the lawyers of Paula Corbin Jones, of an allegation that Mr. Clinton, while attorney general of Arkansas, may have committed a foul deed against another woman, variously described by news reports as an "assault," a "sexual incident" or even a "rape."
If true, that story certainly would be pertinent to the Jones' case and independent counsel Kenneth Starr's inquiry.
The problem is that the "evidence" against Clinton filed by Jones' lawyers, who are striving to depict a pattern of sexual offenses, is a 1992 letter to the woman in question from a friend recounting, obviously for the record, details of an alleged incident 14 years earlier that he says she provided to him.
A White House spokesman said after the letter's release in court that the woman had denied the story in a deposition, but the deposition was not part of the filing. When her lawyer was asked about it, he said he would neither confirm nor deny the incident.
The woman told the Associated Press that she was "aware of the letter" but had "no comment on any of it."
That replay was certain to trigger the same doubt that William Ginsberg, Monica Lewinsky's lawyer, set off when her name appeared in the saga and he said she was standing by "at this time" her denial of any sexual encounter with Mr. Clinton.
That news outlets realized they had a hot potato on their hands was evidenced by the fact that stories about the latest Jones' legal filings led not with this alleged incident but with the charge that Mr. Clinton had withheld correspondence with former White House aide Kathleen Willey that had been specifically requested by Jones' lawyers.
Up to this point, it could be argued that the news media acted with restraint in their reports. The New York Times, always wary of ethical considerations, discussed the letter in two paragraphs far down in its story about Mr. Clinton's tardy release of the Willey correspondence. It called it "a hearsay account of an otherwise unsubstantiated encounter," and printed the White House response to the accusation as "outrageous and false," saying the woman had denied it in a deposition.
But at least two other newspapers, the New York Post and the Washington Times, and some television outlets, mentioned the name of the woman. So did the Associated Press, which said it had been released by mistake and quickly retracted it. The New York tabloid quoted the letter at length, including its description of the alleged incident as a "brutal rape" and a detailed account of what the letter writer said the woman told him.
When the allegations broke in January, many newspaper, radio tTC and television outlets lost their bearings, disregarding standard practices on numbers and quality of sources, and too often printed rumor as fact. The news business earned a black eye with the public for its excesses. But once the first wave passed, the old standards generally took hold again.
This latest episode posed another challenge. The filing in court of the letter in question gave the news media legal cover for reporting it, and the name of the woman as well. But the ethics of revealing that name was another matter.
How was the public's right to know served by its disclosure? The clear answer: It was not.
What was served, instead, was the conviction of the skeptics, cynics and just plain haters of the news business that when a hot story comes along, responsibility goes out the window.
Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 4/01/98