A veteran journalist examines the behavior of the press during the initial days of the Lewinsky scandal—and finds much to condemn.
Kalb (Washington Exec. Dir./Harvard’s Shorenstein Center; The Nixon Memo, 1994) has the credentials to command attention: 30 years as a respected TV newsman and now a worried citizen who holds to the fire the feet of his former colleagues. Accompanying this latest work is the powerful smell of much roasted flesh. Kalb begins with a confession: he once saw the Secret Service whisking a beautiful young woman up to the president’s suite in a New York hotel. Of course, it was 1963, and the president was JFK. Kalb says it never crossed his mind to report the incident. Much, he notes, has changed. After exploring the genesis of the scandal (Whitewater), he zeroes in on 13 days: Jan. 13–25, 1998. He tells what stories the major newspapers ran; he summarizes the news hours and talk shows. And, one by one, he drags the principals under the unforgiving lens of his moral microscope: Michael Isikoff, Matt Drudge (for whom Kalb expresses much disdain), Rush Limbaugh, Lucianne Goldberg (the Clinton-hater who “danced a jig of joy in her New York apartment” when the story broke), Linda Tripp, the Starr prosecutors (some of whom were leaking like ill-tied water balloons), William Ginsburg, and even media notables like Tim Russert and Ted Koppel (whose Nightline was the first to discuss the oral-sex issue). Kalb is not so much interested in what happened as in how it was reported, and he sees disturbing tendencies: going with stories merely because they are “out there”; rushing to judgment; blurring the lines between journalism and politics; and eschewing the two-source tradition. His conclusion about the scandal: “It stained the presidency, tarnished the reputation of the press, and cast a long shadow over the entire country.”
Stinging often lyrical, Kalb excoriates those who have diminished the profession he loves.