Media Re-Dress

So there always was a dress. The reemergence last week of Monica Lewinsky's much doubted "love dress" tripped up an army of critics--including me--who'd pounded dress-happy news outfits earlier this year for reports that seemed slimly documented.

In early February, Press Clips attacked ABC's Jackie Judd, the first mainstream media figure to report the dress tale. On January 23, Judd declared: "Lewinsky says she saved, apparently as a kind of souvenir, a navy blue dress with the president's semen stain on it. If true, this could provide physical evidence of what really happened."

Looking at that sentence months ago, when Lewinsky's erstwhile attorney William Ginsburg was denying the existence of any such garment, this column called Judd's story "misleading." Judd's account, I wrote, "may well turn out to be accurate, but it remains hearsay."

Well, it was hearsay, but Judd certainly deserves recognition for the turning-out-to-be-accurate part.

"It feels good," Judd told The Washington Post. "We always believed that what we reported in January was right."

Press Clips was not alone. Within days of the frock's first appearance--beginning with the Drudge Report--there were strong media suggestions that the report was bogus. Just as the careful attribution of an alleged dress evolved into a real one with stains, so, too, did some cautions and doubts about the dress mushroom into fervent denials that it even existed.

Here's a snapshot of the dress skeptics and deniers:

On January 29, University of Pennsylvania professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson said on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer: "It turns out now that there may not be a dress. The lawyer for Miss Lewinsky has said that that's not true; there is no such dress."

That same night, CBS's Scott Pelley reported that "no DNA evidence or stains have been found on a dress that belongs to Lewinsky." That was dead-on accurate, but wrongly interpreted because Pelley and the feds had the wrong dress.

I am unable to find a single print or broadcast report that dared to suggest that Lewinsky had more than one dress that could fit the description.

Pelley would later boast to Steven Brill: "I'd much rather have our scoop about the semen dress than the scoop everyone else had."

What we now know is that Pelley had no scoop about "the semen dress"; his story, as he acknowledged Monday, was about a "similar dress" seized by the FBI. Somewhat surprisingly, though, Pelley still says he prefers his version to Judd's, because his was "the only thing that was solid at that point in time."

On January 31, in a widely syndicated column, Scott Shepard of the Palm Beach Post wrote: "The dress? It has vanished into the misty realm of yesterday's newspaper and last night's TV news broadcast."

On February 3, Robert Scheer of the Los Angeles Times began his column: "It's sick. There was no blue dress and no semen stain, but America's mass media fell for the lurid tales of two political hustlers out to humiliate the president of the United States."

Scheer did not respond to either an e-mail query or a message left at the Times.

The week beginning February 9, Time magazine ran an exhaustive account on "The Press and the Dress," which cast a skeptical eye on dress reports. Time called the dress story "a salacious leak [that] ricocheted around the walls of the media echo chamber." And while writer Adam Cohen said that the media generally "had what appears [sic] to be credible sources" for the dress story, he repeatedly cast questions with phrases like "If there is such a dress... "

Cohen did not return messages left at his office.

On February 11, New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote of "those phantom semen stains that have soiled the Lewinsky story from the start." Rich also claimed that Ginsburg's denial and Pelley's CBS report "shot down" the dress tale.

It may have been shot down, but it got up again.

This week, Rich told the Voice he is "waiting like everyone else to see what the truth is," adding, "I'm very curious what dress it was that CBS was reporting on." He said he will "absolutely" revisit the topic if the FBI finds more than phantoms on the dress it now possesses.

That same adjective, "phantom," appeared in the debut issue of Brill's Content. Brill scolded Judd's initial dress report, because it relied on Lucianne Goldberg as the principal--and, Brill implied, only--source. Although Brill never directly asserted that the dress did not exist, a photo caption in his endless story referred to the "phantom dress." In addition, Brill cast doubt on the idea that Lewinsky ever saved a dress, even if one had been stained. (Curiously, current opinion holds just the opposite: we know she saved it, but not for sure if it was ever stained.)

Commenting on a later Judd report about the clothes taken from Lewinsky's apartment having been dry-cleaned, 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."

On Sunday, New York Post columnist Jack Newfield called on Brill to apologize for his Judd-bashing. (It should be noted that the Post has run consistently hostile stories on Brill's project since before it even launched, including one implying that Brill's staff wrote misleading posts on America Online, which Brill and his staff say is not true).

On Monday, Brill told the Voice he hadn't seen Newfield's column, but had no intention of apologizing to Judd. "If someone reports something in January and doesn't really know if it's true, then the point isn't whether it turns out to be true somewhere down the line, but whether she had real reason to believe that the report was true," Brill said.

Brill even defended the magazine's description of the "phantom" dress, saying: "It was a phantom dress by the time it was reported."

There are reasonable explanations for why so many professional second-guessers reached unfortunate conclusions. First was Ginsburg's seemingly reliable denial that any such dress existed. Ginsburg was one of the only authorized, named sources in the entire Lewinsky saga, and the press quite understandably gave his pronouncement great weight. Alas, he was wrong, and ultimately misled reporters on this aspect of the Lewinsky story more than Lucianne Goldberg or Matt Drudge did.

Several of the above critics did important analysis, even if they overextended themselves. The dress story did fly around wildly, and was morphing into untruth when it was captured by the likes of Time.

And keep in mind: the dress that Lewinsky sent home may contain nothing more interesting than it did on the day it was bought (apparently at the Gap). On Friday, the Los Angeles Times quoted a "legal source familiar with the dress" who said, "The importance of the dress is probably exaggerated. There are no noticeable stains on it."

If only the same could be said about the record of media critics.

Ghost Writers on the Web

How many authors would die for the opportunity to write their own obituaries for The New York Times?

Last Friday, it looked like novelist and screenwriter Noel Behn had pulled it off. His obituary in Friday's editions began like this: "Noel Behn, a Manhattan novelist, screenwriter, theatrical producer and celebrated raconteur who held court nightly at Elaine's, the Upper East Side watering hole, died here Monday at Beth Israel Hospital. He was 70."

The newspaper version of the obit carried no byline. But, at least for a while, the version on www.nytimes.com read: "By Noel Behn."

The Times's press office explained that a glitch in the transfer of material from the Times news service to the Web site caused a mistake. Apparently the computer file had been slugged "Noel Behn," and that was erroneously transformed into the obituary's byline.

Subsequent Web site versions--like the print version--ran with no byline. "It was a mistake and it was corrected," said the Times's publicist.

Or so it seems, anyway. A friend of Behn's quoted in the obituary noted, "Noel was also in the counterintelligence, so there are a whole lot of mysteries, both in his life and in his writing." And now, perhaps, a small one after his death.

Research: Leila Abboud

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