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:
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.”
Scheer did not respond to either an e-mail query or a message left at the Times.
Cohen did not return messages left at his office.
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.
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