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Tuesday, February 3, 1998 Published at 12:53 GMT

World: Analysis

Clinton Scandal: US media chastened
image: [ Hillary Clinton appears on ABC defending her husband ]
Hillary Clinton appears on ABC defending her husband

After 10 days of frenetic speculation that President Clinton might resign, the White House sex and lies scandal has abated. In the past few days the President's popularity rating has soared. Even the lawyer representing Monica Lewinsky -- the White House intern Mr Clinton is alleged to have had an affair with -- has acknowledged that the President is likely to survive. American newspapers and television and radio networks have reacted to this vacuum by turning inward, assessing whether their blanket coverage of the Lewinsky allegations was justified. The BBC's US Affairs Analyst, Maurice Walsh, reports on how the Clinton scandal has left the American media assailed by self-doubt.

Public reaction has left American editors stunned. For 10 days, the media served up a relentless stream of coverage of the allegations that President Clinton had an affair with a White House worker and then told her to lie about it. All of this was based on the premise that this sensational news could bring down the President. Now, the American public is signalling that they don't really care if their President had an affair. Suddenly the leaks have dried up and the news shows and front pages are filled with a sense of anti-climax and self-criticism.

The most common self-criticism is that that standards of accuracy and editorial rigour were swept away in the rush to keep the story moving. Several of the most eye-catching details of the scandal -- that Monica Lewinsky had preserved a dress stained with the President's semen, that colleagues in the White House had seen them in an amorous embrace -- remain unproven or were categorically denied by the participants. That these stories were repeated so often, even when editors felt unsure about their veracity, is put down to the intense competition between news organisations, fuelled by 24-hour television news which allow no time for restraint or reflection.

The competitive pressures have been further increased by the Internet. Newsweek magazine had the story about the Lewinsky tapes but held it back for further checking. But a journalist specialising in political gossip published it on his website. The Internet has made common property of rumour and gossip once shared only by insiders in Washington.

Then there was the question of taste. Some commentators have been aghast at discussions about oral sex on primetime news programmes. Looking back, many serious-minded editors and reporters feel that the criteria of the tabloids have invaded mainstream news.

Underlying all the commentary in the American media on its own performance in the past 10 days is a profound uncertainty about its judgement. It was the media which introduced the "character issue" as a litmus test for American politicians 10 years ago. But all the indications are that the public -- in whose interest the media claims to act -- is not convinced that private morals matter as much as public deeds. And is it really a White House scandal when most Americans -- according to the polls -- thought there was simply too much coverage of the allegations against the President?

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