Clinton scandal all over Net

Widespread Net coverage of the alleged affair between President Clinton and a former White House intern is a tribute to the medium's real-time nature.

4 min read
The juiciest news about this week's "sex, lies, and audiotape" scandal involving an alleged affair between President Clinton and a former White House intern is showing up on the Net, proof that the real-time deadlines of the Web are pervading those of print publications.

A prime example is Newsweek, which decided Saturday not to publish the story in this week's print edition but rushed to post it online last night once the story broke online and in daily newspapers. To catch up, the weekly newsmagazine, which does not have its own Web site, posted its story on America Online, either four days early for next week's edition or four days too late, depending on how you look at it.

"Because the magazine did not have enough time for sufficient independent reporting...Newsweek decided to hold off publishing the story last week," editors explained on AOL's Newsweek Interactive. The magazine said it will publish the story, in its entirety, in its print version next week.

In the meantime, the story's author, Michael Isikoff, joined Newsweek editors in television and radio appearances to tout their "scoop."

"At the end of the day, Newsweek will come out looking better because of this," said Steve Ross, associate professor at the Columbia School of Journalism. "If more people showed that kind of restraint not only in their reporting life but also in their sexual life, we would all be a lot better off."

Although many people still dismiss the Internet as an electronic rumor mill, the decision by these publications to post their stories online instead of waiting for the next print deadline is a boost to the medium's clout in providing breaking news.

"We've broken a lot of stories on our Web site," said Graham Cannon, a spokesman for Time New Media. "If the story is ready to go, it doesn't need to wait for the weekly edition. Our Web site is a wonderful adjunct, not a competitor."

Ross, however, is a little more skeptical when it comes to the journalistic standards that seem to fly on the Net. "If you have a thousand monkeys writing a thousand stories all based on very thin reporting, and you sling all that mud on the wall and one turns out to be accurate and you don't even know which one it is, well, it certainly doesn't prove the Internet has come of age," he said.

Despite such criticism, news sites reported that stories about the scandal were some of its most popular. MSNBC reported that their traffic nearly tripled yesterday, a news day that included the conclusion to the Unabomber trial, the Pope's historic visit to Cuba, and the settlement between the Justice Department and Microsoft.

Time Online launched a Clinton scandal "supersite" to handle the deluge of traffic. "As with the death of Princess Diana, we're creating a definitive, one-stop supersite for the millions of people who look to the Internet as the first and best source for news and information," said Linda McCutcheon, president of Time New Media in a statement.

Clinton need only look to Vice President Al Gore to see how quickly news, especially scandal, can be distributed via the Net. Last week, Gore distanced himself from a campaign site that allegedly was set up using White House resources, a violation of federal campaign finance rules. Although the existence of the site had been reported months earlier, the story only gained notoriety when rogue reporter Matt Drudge covered it.

Online news sites, such as CNN Interactive and MSNBC, were among the first to post pictures of the former intern, Monica Lewinsky, as well as details about her background, including information that she is living with her mother at the Watergate complex. According to Lewinsky's resume, published online by CNN, she was "proficient in MacIntosh [sic] for Microsoft Word 6.0 and Excel, WordPerfect Windows 5.2, Infosys."

Some sites disclosed allegations that she had been offered a job by United Nations ambassador Bill Richardson; that she was taped admitting to the affair; that possible DNA evidence exists linking the 24-year-old to Clinton; and that Vernon Jordan, an unofficial adviser to the president, suggested that she lie about the affair.

President Clinton has denied the charges. Lewinsky has also signed an affidavit denying there was a relationship.

The Web sites featured audio and video clips of Clinton refuting the reports, as well as message boards and polls regarding the president's credibility. They report robust traffic to their sites since the stories surfaced.

The bulletin boards and newsgroups, such as "alt.politics.clinton," were rife with speculation about the possible consequences of the administration's latest scandal, as well as lively debate among Republicans and Democrats.

"Is this the kind of man who should be president of the United States?" asked one poster to the Time message board. "Please bring back Gary Hart!" (Hart, once a Democratic presidential contender, dropped out of politics after reports surfaced of an extramarital affair.)

Others defended the commander in chief, pointing out the political motivations of those who are investigating him. "The country loves Clinton, and the country loves it when [politicians] start tripping over [their] own egos," went a message posted to the Washington Post message board.