Accuracy in Media

Steven Brill made a big splash weeks ago when the premier issue of his magazine alleged that reporters for the Big Media were feeding out of the hand of independent counsel Kenneth Starr. He said the media were running with all kinds of unverified rumors. One of them was a report of a Monica Lewinsky dress with evidence on it of a sexual encounter with the president. ABC News reporter Jackie Judd was ridiculed for reporting the story and CBS News reporter Scott Pelley was praised for supposedly debunking it.

Brill wrote, “Whether it turns out that Bill Clinton had sex with Monica Lewinsky or not (and whether it turns out that he stained one dress or 100 dresses) has nothing to do with the fact that Judd’s every utterance is infected with the clear assumption that the president is guilty at a time when no reporter can know that.” That still begs the question of whether there was a dress or not. As the Washington Post has noted, Jackie Judd now feels vindicated, “and with good reason.” It has now been reported by many different news organizations that the FBI is testing a stained dress that Lewinsky had hidden at her mother’s house.

Brill not only suggested Judd’s story was wrong, but that she refused to admit she was wrong. In a caption next to a picture of Scott Pelley of CBS News, Brill’s magazine said that Pelley had gotten a “better scoop” than ABC’s, that “no stains were found on Lewinsky’s dress.” But this was a reference to a dress and other clothing found at Lewinsky’s apartment. Pelley had reported that “no DNA evidence or stains have been found on a dress that belongs to Lewinsky.” Brill accused Judd of playing down this finding. But now we know that they are talking about two different dresses. The dress with the alleged evidence was NOT at Lewinsky’s apartment.

The new development not only vindicates Judd but Matt Drudge, the Internet reporter who disclosed the existence of the dress two days before Judd’s report aired. This is the same Matt Drudge ridiculed by White House press secretary Mike McCurry as a source of erroneous information. McCurry has refused to respond to any questions based on reporting by Drudge because he is supposed to be so unreliable.

The erroneous information has come from those, like Brill, who tried to dismiss the story. Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory attacked Drudge for saying that Lewinsky had an item of stained “underwear.” In fact, Drudge had never called it underwear. So the response of the Clinton defenders was to distort what Matt Drudge and Jackie Judd had said and then try to knock it down. The rumor mongers in this case were on the president’s side.

We don’t enjoy rehashing these tawdry details about the president’s alleged personal conduct. But they are important when the media are being accused of rushing into print or on the air with information that is not supposed to be true. In this case, the initial stories apparently were true. If there is any evidence left on the dress, it could sink the Clinton presidency.




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