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Tainted Dress Story Takes Media Ethics To Cleaners

Sat., Jan. 31, 1998

The dress? It has vanished into the misty realm of yesterday’s newspaper and last night’s TV news broadcast.

And yet, in the nation’s collective consciousness, the dress is fixed - undeniable evidence that the president of the United States committed adultery with a 21-year-old White House intern.

Why is all America talking about a navy blue dress, with semen stains, owned by former intern Monica Lewinsky?

Because of the well-traveled route of hearsay in today’s information world, where a few established “facts” are repeated and mixed with speculation and allegations from unidentified sources.

In fact, the dress followed a route of “hearsay once and twice removed,” with “absolutely no proof of its existence,” said Michael Josephson, an California ethicist and former trial lawyer.

As such, the dress perfectly symbolizes not only the unfettered way in which news organizations pursue and report the news, but how the public receives news and then recycles it.

No one knew about the dress until the evening of Jan. 23, when ABC led its newscast with a story that Lewinsky had saved a “navy blue dress” with residue left from an encounter with the president.

“If true, this could provide physical evidence of what really happened,” said Jackie Judd, basing her report on someone with “specific knowledge of what it is that Monica Lewinsky says really took place between her and the president.”

On Saturday The New York Times reported about the dress, attributing its information to “people who have heard the tapes” former White House staffer Linda Tripp made of conversations with Lewinsky.

On Sunday, Newsweek came out with “exclusive excerpts” of Lewinsky’s “explosive tapes,” quoting her as saying she was keeping a dress stained with the president’s semen. “I’ll never wash it again,” she declared to Tripp, according to the magazine.

On the same day, Lewinsky’s lawyer, William Ginsburg, said: “I know of no such dress.” But he acknowledged that FBI agents working with Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr had taken some of Lewinsky’s clothes, including pant suits and dresses.

And finally, on Thursday night CBS News reported that the FBI had found no evidence of semen on any of the clothes taken from Lewinsky’s apartment.

So where did this chain of events begin?

“The dress story?” laughed literary agent Lucianne Goldberg in an interview with the Daily News. “I think I leaked that. … I had to do something to get their (the media’s) attention. I’ve done it. And I’m not unproud of it.”

It was Goldberg who had suggested to Tripp that she tape her conversations with Lewinsky.


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