Is the next chapter in the ever-evolving White House scandal the public demonization of Monica Lewinsky?
That scenario looked more likely Wednesday after her former teacher announced he’d engaged in a lengthy affair with Lewinsky and his attorney blackened her reputation on the television talk circuit. As morning papers throughout the country carried the story, the New York tabloids led with blazing “Monica Stalked Me” and “My Affair With Monica” headlines.
The former lover’s tale adds another element to an already salacious story. But it also raises the question of what’s relevant and what’s voyeurism and poses troubling new judgment questions for journalists already under fire for their handling of the allegations against Bill Clinton.
“God, we had a hellacious argument” over what parts of the Lewinsky affair story “we were going to put in and what parts were relevant,” says Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, which ran the story on Page 7 of Wednesday’s Washington edition. McManus says he’s uncertain whether the claims of Lewinsky’s former lover Andy Bleiler prove Lewinsky is a “nut” or has a consistent story to tell.
“You have two people here who have interesting pasts,” says CNN Washington bureau chief Frank Sesno, of Lewinsky and Clinton. “What you report and what you don’t report is a judgment call.”
Newsweek assistant managing editor Ann McDaniel says, “There are tons of people coming forward and claiming things. You apply the same standards you would apply to anything else.”
Given some of the press excess on this story, that may not be a comforting thought. Nor may it bode well for Lewinsky’s reputation. For the past several days, news reports have suggested that the White House might be considering a strategy intended to portray Lewinsky as somewhat unstable.
McManus says, “I do not know of any leaks from officials of the United States government of allegations against” Lewinsky. But stories of strange behavior are beginning to creep out. CNN has reported that she arrived three hours early to get a prime position at a presidential fund-raiser. The New Yorker told of Lewinsky waiting at the White House gate for an hour one night before being admitted. In The New York Times Wednesday, Maureen Dowd quoted Representative Charles Rangel as saying of Lewinsky: “The poor child has serious emotional problems.”
And while no one disputes that Bleiler and Lewinsky had a relationship, the thornier issue is the importance of that news and statements made Wednesday by Bleiler attorney Terry Giles on the “Today” show that Bleiler and his wife believe Lewinsky “will engage in a habit of twisting facts, especially if they can enhance her own self-image.” He also characterized her as sex-obsessed and repeated Bleiler’s wife’s assertion that Lewinsky told her, “I want to go to the White House and get my presidential kneepads.”
Last week, Lewinsky’s image was damaged when “Nightline” aired an interview with Stephen Enghouse, a college friend of Lewinsky who opined that “it’s probably likely” she was fabricating a sexual relationship with Clinton. Enghouse got precious minutes of “Nightline” airtime as a Lewinsky expert despite the fact, as host Ted Koppel pointed out, that he “has not seen or talked with Monica Lewinsky in nearly three years.”
“Nightline” executive producer Tom Bettag says the show didn’t make its own decision about whether Enghouse’s conclusions were credible, but gave “the audience the tools with which to make their own decisions … What if his point of view, five days later, turned out to be the prevalent point of view?” Then, he says, “Nightline” would have been blamed for witholding vital information. Implicit in his comments are the intense competitive pressures of this story, which dictate a strategy of broadcast first and ask questions later.
CBS vice president of news coverage Marcy McGinnis says the first question she asked when video of the Bleiler press conference rolled in was: “Do you believe them? You have to have some degree of skepticism.” McGinnis notes that CBS did not air Tuesday’s Dallas Morning News story that a witness was ready to testify to seeing Clinton and Lewinsky in a compromising position. (That story was later retracted by the Dallas paper.) But “we got a lot of pressure to do it,” McGinnis said.