Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Most of U.S. Press Flunked the Test

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Most of U.S. Press Flunked the Test

Article excerpt

The press has its own version of Gresham's Law: the tendency, in the competition for readers, to let the scandalous and sensational drive out serious news. An example is the press in Britain, where the tittle-tattle of the tabloids has lately infected the news judgment of the quality papers.

In the past week the American press has faced - and most of it flunked - a test of its resistance to the cheap and scurrilous. A story about the sex life of President Bill Clinton, though dubious in its evidence and its promoters, nevertheless proved irresistible to most newspapers and broadcasters.

Two Arkansas state troopers claimed that they had arranged or overseen numerous assignations for Clinton when he was governor. Pushing their story was Cliff Jackson, an Arkansas lawyer long obsessed with hatred of Bill Clinton.

The story first broke into print in The American Spectator, a right-wing magazine devoted to cackling attacks on Democrats and liberals. The author was David Brock, the man who described Anita Hill as "a bit nutty, and a bit slutty," who has made himself chief manure-spreader for the extreme right.

If those auspices were not enough to make any reasonable editor wary of repeating the tale, there was the actual content of the Brock article. It quoted the two troopers, and two alleged others who withheld their names, as describing approaches by Clinton to many women, some of them strangers. Yet not one woman was produced in support of the charges.

The tone of the article is a wonderful mixture of salaciousness and piety. Here is Brock describing the motives of the troopers:

"They have come forward now because they believe the reckless personal behavior they witnessed by then-Gov. Clinton, if continued by the president, a subject on which they cannot speak authoritatively, could constitute a risk to the national security of the United States by making the president easy prey for blackmailers."

As Oscar Wilde said of a famous scene in Dickens, "One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing."

Yet numerous papers and broadcasters used the Brock story as the basis for articles on Clinton's sex life - apparently on the theory that a charge is news once it appears anywhere. …

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