What next? we asked as the satellite dishes came down and the remote trucks pulled away from the Los Angeles courthouse where the Trial of the Century had just ended. O.J. Simpson had walked away a free man, but we knew that we, the media, had incurred a great cost.
In short order, we got Diana. Chased to her death by a band of paparazzi, one of them named Romuald Rat. When the funeral procession ended and the anchors had returned to the States, we asked again, What next? Being a conflicted, sometimes self-flagellating group, we wondered if we had killed a woman and then eagerly beamed her funeral to the world on all those cable channels birthed out of O.J. We asked one another rhetorically if the line between the gossip press and the real press had inexorably been blurred. We wondered if the next time, we might not go so far.
While we were searching our cynical souls, something extraordinary occurred.
You think you know what happened in 1998: You remember January and the explosion, the wagging finger, the near immolation of a President, the long siege that followed; you think you’re tired of this terrible series of unanticipated events; you just want them to end.
But it was done for you. It was custom-made for you, voracious American consumer. The Starr report was a government document tailored to this cybertabloid age. It was a referral with a sexy narrative that had been co-written by Stephen Bates, a lawyer who had studied fiction at Harvard and had written nonfiction features for The Nation and Playboy .
Just as in the 1930’s, when the argument was made that the Federal Government shouldn’t be building dams and providing electrical power because that was something best done by private industry, this year-after spending tens of millions-the Federal Government usurped the celebrity culture and the press.
This was the year the Government became the Gossips.
And with an almost Maoist cultural-revolutionary assurance-with all three branches participating-the Federal Government provided not only the gossip column, but the glorious, publicly remunerated stars as well. It got right in there, and then-as if to gluttonously complete the monopoly that the Federal Government had once denied other entertainment providers like movie studios and broadcasters-it completed the circuit by distributing the scandal itself on the Internet. A public-sector scandal: produced, reported by, starring and distributed by the judicial, legislative and executive branches of the United States Government!
Trust this gossip columnist, they did a scary job. A little light on the alliteration, heavy on the breast imagery, but, hey, gossip is about details, and the Starr report has them in big sloppy buckets. Cigars … Altoids … bodily fluids … the President’s oral sex position for a bad back!
Take another look at page 11. There, about a third of the way down the page. Monica Lewinsky and President Clinton both attend a birthday party for a member of the White House staff, where, “in the course of flirting with” the President, Ms. Lewinsky “raised her jacket in the back and showed him the straps of her thong underwear, which extended above her pants.”
Throw in the phrase “portly pepper pot,” and it’s a scene that would fit seamlessly into the New York Post ‘s Page Six column or Cindy Adams, The National Enquirer or the pages of Vanity Fair . Many of the components of a killer column item are there: rarefied setting (a birthday party at the White House), power (that’s the President of the United States gazing at Ms. Lewinsky), and sex (those were Ms. Lewinsky’s lingerie-clad hips that P.O.T.U.S. was eyeing).
The best column items depict a transference of power and that, too, is evident. In that pivotal moment when she offered a glimpse of her thong to Mr. Clinton, Ms. Lewinsky not only put herself on equal footing with the world’s most powerful man, she took a leading role in the national tragedy that, at press time-an antique phrase in a culture where instant electronic information is quickly usurping daily newspapers-threatened to strip Mr. Clinton of his power.
What about the one where Ms. Lewinsky, in a clinch with the President, bites her hand so that she doesn’t give them away. Or how’s this for a tortured Orwellian image: Mr. Clinton staring wide-eyed out the White House study window as he kissed Ms. Lewinsky to make sure that no one was spying on them.
Mr. Clinton should have closed his eyes and enjoyed the moment, because he was cooked. The reporters who cover the White House can be kept at bay by stanchions and the Secret Service and whirling helicopter blades. But not the special prosecutor. He had what every journalist covets: scores of legmen, a Hollywood budget, a long deadline, a short lead time. And even better, the ability to put sources under oath and before a grand jury: Excuse me, Ms. Lewinsky, but if you don’t tell us more about that encounter, you might go to jail. If only I had subpoena power, I could have used these libelproof reporting methods to look at the Ronald Perelman-Patricia Duff divorce battle!
The content isn’t the only astounding thing about the Starr report. Mr. Clinton is hated in Washington because he is the postmodern populist President. He is a refutation of almost everything that the fragrantly insular one-industry town’s Republican and Democratic leaders have stood for. He is a young, sexy President who didn’t inhale marijuana, avoided military service, had a weakness for and a way with the ladies, and had an amazing seduction technique with the media and the American people.
So what did the hypertext-friendly new right Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, do when they had nailed him on the sex stuff? They did what any New Age media mogul would do-they grabbed the story and published it electronically. They combated the President’s modernity by beating him at the 21st-century tripe game with the most modern medium in existence, and the only one to which Mr. Clinton had shown any vulnerability.
That had occurred in January, when cybercolumnist Matt Drudge-a man a continent away from the conformist pressures of Washington’s media elite-had used his on-line column, the Drudge Report, to force Newsweek ‘s hand on the Lewinsky story. The House voted 363 to 63 to post the Starr report on the Internet on the same day it was released in Washington, thereby insuring that nobody-including the press and the President-could see or spin the document before the public. Next came the sound of dams breaking.
By constructing a compelling, testimony-driven narrative and releasing it directly to the public-without their distorting, meddling adversaries, anchormen and New York Times editors-these forces dictated the course of the story. The media had no choice but to follow, as this year’s New York Observer 500, our fourth annual ranking of the world’s most famous, indicates. Virtually all of the players in this national tragedy, or farce, depending on one’s perspective, have made the list, and they dominate the top 20.
The intensity of Mr. Clinton’s hazing may be unprecedented, but the act itself is not unique. Many who ranked near him on The Observer 500 (the President is No. 1 for the second year in a row) have, this past year, found themselves suffering from variations of the same malady. At No. 7, Leonardo DiCaprio’s every move is so scrutinized by the media that he seems to have been outfitted with some kind of celebrity LoJack device. (See “Leo ™ New York,” on page 56). Mr. DiCaprio’s interest in the lead role in a small-budget film adaptation of American Psycho resulted in the project being turned into a large-scale public relations disaster this past summer. No wonder he dressed as a member of the band Kiss for Halloween. His life is a psycho circus.
At No. 23, singer Mariah Carey has discovered that she’s much more under the microscope since she split from her husband and Svengali, Sony Music chairman Tommy Mottola (No. 59). Ms. Carey’s postmarital romances, including some canoodling with Yankee Derek Jeter (No. 167), have helped, but, quite frankly, some of the press are watching closely for the moment when Ms. Carey-stripped of Mr. Mottola’s protection and muscle-stumbles.
One rank above her, Brad Pitt seems to have had the worst kind of celebrity problem. His fans can’t seem to get enough gossip about his love life with Jennifer Aniston or downloadable photos of his naked self. (Which is probably why, when asked by Oprah Winfrey what he thought about gossip columnists, Mr. Pitt formed an “L” with his thumb and index finger and tagged them as losers.) Yet for all their zealousness, Mr. Pitt’s fans can’t seem to drag themselves to his movies. Mr. Pitt’s last two films, Meet Joe Black and Seven Years in Tibet , have tanked at the box office.
Jerry Seinfeld (No. 27) hasn’t had to worry about the Nielsens for years, but he may want think about dating some single women. Mr. Seinfeld has always exhibited a healthy view of fame. He wanted it, he got it, he’s cool with the consequences. One of those consequences is that when he played an amoral, self-absorbed character on TV, people laughed. When he does it in real life (see Jessica Sklar Nederlander), they don’t.
Even the dead aren’t safe. Witness Frank Sinatra (No. 16), who went out earlier this year in a hail of hosannas. Sinatra had barely tipped his hat to St. Peter when the F.B.I. released its substantial dossier on the singer. After examining the contents, which revealed Sinatra’s mob ties and other particulars, the New York Post headline read: “King Rat!” a reference to Sinatra’s informing on his celebrity friends during the blacklisting days.
And what of the once sainted Princess Diana? Little more than a year after the world watched her funeral cortege make the long, solemn ride through London, revisionism was already setting in. In October, Page Six reported that Labor Party member Lord Woodrow Wyatt, in his posthumously published secret diary, wrote of Diana after his wife reported seeing the Princess behaving childishly in the royal box at Ascot: “I’m not surprised Prince Charles is bored with this backward girl.” The headline for that item? “Doltish Diana Recalled As a Nitwit.”
It would have been interesting to see how Mr. Clinton’s indiscretions would have played had they been discovered in the midst of the media’s handling of Diana’s death. As Mr. Clinton’s rotten luck would have it, the story broke just as the media was finishing doing its penance for the way in which Diana had met her end. Suddenly, there were three 24-hour cable news channels in need of a ratings fix, and one fedora-wearing Internet columnist, Mr. Drudge, itching to make a name for himself-and none of them had to apologize for dogging Mr. Clinton as they had the Princess of Wales.
“I think the Internet by itself wouldn’t have made that as strong a process as the fact that you suddenly had three cable news channels instead of one. And at least one was carving out its own niche as the place to turn for Scandal Talk, 24 hours a day,” said satirist Harry Shearer, referring to MSNBC. “Just as they were beginning to sit around MSNBC and scratch their heads and say, ‘What do we do after Diana?’ this fell in their copious laps. I think that magnified and amplified the Internet effect. And the Internet magnified the MSNBC effect, which became sort of the national echo chamber for this process.”
The entire media structure, which has developed in recent years to feed the needs of a public hooked on the opiates of celebrity and scandal, awoke from its enforced slumber.
Mr. Starr’s spokesman, Charles Bakaly, did not return The Observer ‘s calls for comment, but it is interesting that in preparing a prosecutor’s document, Mr. Starr and his crew gave this media structure exactly what it was best equipped to handle: sworn testimony given before a grand jury that read like a Danielle Steel novel.
“It’s easier to understand politics than it is to understand policy,” said political consultant Mary Matalin. In the world of sound-bite media, it is also easier to explain politics than policy. “This story was great,” said Ms. Matalin, “because it was devoid of policy.” It was a sex story with political consequences.
The right wing does not agree with the government-as-the-gossips argument. Their argument, for the most part, is that Mr. Clinton, as literary agent Lucianne Goldberg said, “forced Starr into a position of overkill. He had to go blowjob by blowjob to overwhelmingly refute what the President of the United States was saying.”
During ABC’s broadcast of Diane Sawyer’s interview with Mr. Starr on Nov. 25, Ms. Sawyer handed the independent counsel three pages of excerpts from the Starr report.
“It’s very uncomfortable,” Mr. Starr said as he perused the material that his office had produced.
“I’m trying to imagine you-deciding to include in those footnotes,” Ms. Sawyer began, “that cannot be denied that they are there to outrage and they are there to shock.”
“I totally disagree,” said Mr. Starr.
“You put them in a referral as narrative, as storytelling. Everybody knows how a soap opera reads,” Ms. Sawyer continued, “and it reads like a soap opera.”
Mr. Starr, in his casual checked shirt, bristled.
“Diane,” he said, “we didn’t create those facts. These were-“
“But the tone was created,” she replied. “Sixty-two mentions of the word ‘breast,’ 23 of ‘cigar,’ 19 of ‘semen,’ and that there is a way of summarizing these things and talking about the dates and the times.”
“Right,” Mr. Starr replied.
Years before Mr. Drudge forced the Monica Lewinsky story into the mainstream press, Speaker Gingrich recognized the power of the Internet. Back in 1995, Mr. Gingrich was instrumental in getting all Congressional documents put on the Internet via Thomas, the Library of Congress’ Web site. “That was explicitly done on the theory that information is power,” said his former press secretary, Tony Blankley, who is now an editor-at-large at George magazine, and with the purpose of “providing the public information at the same time that lobbyists and Congressmen and Washington people get the information.
“The Washington press corps, like lobbyists and everybody else in town, acts as, at best, a filter, and, at worst, a sort of constipator and a distorting filter,” said Mr. Blankley. “It’s not hostile to journalism to say that in the electronic age, the public should have unfiltered access and also hopefully go out and buy newspapers and watch TV if the journalism is worth it.”
Mr. Blankley’s comments about the filtering of news are interesting in light of his observations of the period between Jan. 21, 1998, when the Lewinsky story broke and Sept. 11, 1998, when the Starr report was issued.
“That whole period … we had nothing other than commentary and the original Newsweek story,” he said. “It was in that zone that all the defense lawyers and political consultants of the Democratic Party were up on the air. I was dueling happily with them. They were up there putting out a consistent message. I mean, you know, I could go from a show at 8 o’clock in the evening to [another] show at 9 o’clock and be up against two different Democrats who were saying exactly the same thing.”
The three cable news networks’ audiences are relatively small, but the din that they have created during the Clinton scandals has leached into the broadcast news and the print media. The cable news networks, though, as Mr. Blankley pointed out, are “still an invitation-only” medium. “There is a screening process that the networks use to decide who they want to have on the air.”
The Internet, on the other hand, said Mr. Blankley, “doesn’t require an invitation to come play. So Joe Citizen, who is not in politics or journalism or in Washington, can get up and put up anything they want there.” Even the Starr report.
Once it was there, downloadable for any Joe Citizen with a computer, the press had no choice but to report it, without applying the usual rules of taste that govern the broadsheets and the broadcast networks. Fragrantly, Ms. Matalin likened it to “a turd in the punch bowl. You’re going to pretend it’s not there? You just can’t.”
As the House of Representatives gets ready to vote on the four articles of impeachment that the Judiciary Committee has approved against Mr. Clinton, the third act of this play is looking like it could be a grim one. Not for everyone, though. According to Ms. Goldberg, the removal of Mr. Clinton would be “the healthiest thing for this country since Roto-Rooter.” Mr. Drudge said he is anticipating “the death of those who would limit information.”
He added, “I don’t know what they’re going to do when there are tens of millions of reporters” on the Internet.
As usual, Lucianne Goldberg got the last word. “It may have begun with a blowjob, but it’s not going to finish with a blowjob,” she said. She was talking about Mr. Clinton’s predicament, but her comment applies to what’s next. Here at the end of the century, we have entered an unsentimental digital age of instant information. Communicated in the impersonal minimalist language of the on-line enthusiast and illuminated by the cool glow of the computer monitor, all information-true or not-appears equal. And Matt Drudge, its poster boy, makes me feel old, slow and priggish.
Five years from now, maybe next year, maybe next month-if a trial is being broadcast from the floor of the United States Senate-the thought of 7-year-olds hearing the word “blowjob” being uttered on virtually every popular medium will no longer be shocking. Something else will have taken its place. This year, Kenneth Starr took mine.