How much Clinton news is fit to print? Editors weigh publication of intimate details

September 11, 1998|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Given fears that Kenneth W. Starr's report to Congress could make for the hottest reading since "Lady Chatterly's Lover," newspapers throughout the United States are faced with a common dilemma today: When it comes to President Clinton and his sex life, how much detail is too much?

Although some newspaper editors are inclined to leave out the most prurient details, the consensus is that what will be published could make for some decidedly R-rated reading.

"People do not want to read an edited version of what Ken Starr has presented to Congress," says Mark Morrow, national editor of the Boston Globe. "Graphic sexual detail appears to be an essential part of what he is documenting."

Agrees Washington Post Managing Editor Steve Coll: "Our present intent is to publish the document without editing, on the grounds that it is a government document being transmitted to Congress. We want to give our readers the same document that Congress is getting."

This should not imply that editors aren't nervous over the potential sexual nature of Starr's report. Many papers, including The Sun, are considering a preface that would warn people to expect language not normally found in a family newspaper.

"In terms of graphic descriptions, our inclination now would be to publish that which is supportive of the charges and gives context," says Rich Oppel, editor of the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman. "The basis of the decision would not be what is there to titillate readers, but what is there that would help readers better form a judgment about the validity of the charges."

Newspapers in more conservative parts of the country are planning to be extra cautious when it comes to printing the more salacious aspects of the report.

"In the daily newspaper, we are going to have to be very sensitive to our family audience," says Mary E. Kress, managing editor of the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. "A lot of times there are ways, through paraphrasing and careful editing, of getting the point across without offensive language."

But several editors said people know what to expect, so it's unlikely they'll be offended much.

"We don't intend to try and edit for niceties; it's too late for that," says Morrow of the Boston Globe. "People know what's in this thing. I don't think they'd turn their ire on a newspaper that is presenting a document that could lead to the fall of a president."

Sun Managing Editor William K. Marimow says tentative plans are to publish a special section -- enough to print a portion of the report. The language contained in the report, Marimow says, would not be altered.

Few newspapers are planning to print the entire report, since 445 pages would eat up a lot of expensive newsprint. (Among those with tentative plans to do so is the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette).

But like many newspapers, The Sun plans on making the entire report available on the Internet. "If the whole report is released, we'll have the whole report," says Tim Windsor, Web production manager for Sunspot, The Sun's Web site (www.sunspot.net).

"Our feeling," says Larry Eichel, national editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, "is that, in some ways, given the existence of the Internet, it's perhaps not as critical as it might have been in the past for us to publish the whole thing."

Since they haven't seen the report yet, some editors are hedging their bets.

"Starr's people and members of Congress have said this [investigation] has nothing to do with sex, it has to do with lying and obstruction of justice," says James E. Shelledy, editor of the Salt Lake Tribune in Salt Lake City, Utah.

If that is true, but the report still includes lots of sexually explicit detail, "what we have is a number of Starr's people and a number of members of Congress getting their jollies off on the details," he says.

But perhaps all these fears are for naught. As Los Angeles Times Managing Editor for News Leo Wolinsky puts it, "There's sort of a belief system that, written by lawyers, it's not going to be as

salacious as people believe, anyway."

Pub Date: 9/11/98

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