A rumour of a story of the scandal...

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LISTEN UP. Bob Woodward, he of the Woodward-Bernstein duo who skewered Richard Nixon, with help from "Deep Throat", in the Watergate scandal 24 years ago, has a humungous story. You haven't heard? He is about to spill news of a second White House intern who twined limbs with the President of the United States.

Or at least that is what the rumour mill in Washington is saying. Fred Barnes, executive editor of the Weekly Standard political magazine, said as much on Fox Television more than a week ago and political reporters across the city have been frantic for days trying to nail the story for themselves.

But there is a problem. "Absolutely untrue," Mr Woodward retorted to the New York Daily Post last week.

It is easy to see why editors here are in no small tizzy. They have perhaps the hottest story to hit Washington since Watergate, and yet for now they find themselves in a twilight zone where rumours and gossip are rife and provable facts virtually absent.

We do know, at least, that President Bill Clinton misbehaved with Monica Lewinsky because he has finally told us as much. But for the rest, who knows?

Matters will improve dramatically, of course, when the vaunted report into the Lewinsky affair, from the special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, finally lands in Congress, perhaps as early as this week.

With luck, leaders on Capitol Hill will agree that at least an executive summary of the report can quickly be made public. Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the House of Representatives, would like that to be placed on the Internet.

Until then, the American media is operating in a slurry of whispers and innuendo that is fraught with peril. So much now surfacing is juicy indeed, ranging from the second intern gossip to Ms Lewinsky's reported use of cigars as sex toys. But can they be published without confirmation? And how can the editors protect themselves from being manipulated in this environment by players in the scandal?

The White House is understandably angry about the second intern buzz. "This media circus, which has gotten so out of hand that you're writing about it, is feeding off rumours with no factual basis and ignores the devastating impact on the human beings involved," a spokesman, Jim Kennedy, told Howard Kurtz, media editor of The Washington Post. "No wonder the public is so fed up with the press."

And that is an additional concern. In poll after poll, Americans have signalled their distaste with the whole Lewinsky business, which they wish would simply go away.

If the media is perceived to be glorying in the whole tawdry business, a backlash against it could quickly gather momentum.

"This is the sickest measure of what we've come to," Mr Woodward remarked about the second intern gossip in an interview with Mr Kurtz. "If there's no story, people have to talk about a story that might be coming. We fill the vacuum with an expectation."

But the White House itself has been accused of press manipulation. So says Dan Burton, a Republican representative from Ohio who had been leading the charge against Mr Clinton on Capitol Hill for months after calling him a "scumbag".

On Friday, he admitted to his local newspaper that he had an affair in the early Eighties that produced a child, a boy now in his teens. He was forced into the revelation, he claimed, because the White House had prodded Vanity Fair to write a story about him.

If the White House is indeed using the media to smear its critics on the Hill, it is playing a dangerous game. It has denied it, of course. That did not stop the commentator George Will claiming on television at the weekend that the Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal had been spreading muck to reporters about Henry Hyde, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee that will consider the Starr report. That, replied Mr Blumenthal in turn yesterday, was "an outrageous smear".

At the very least, the White House has been using reporters to try to blunt the impact of damaging information before it actually comes out. Days before the President finally testified before the Lewinsky grand jury on 17 August, aides were whispering that he would on that occasion confess to a sexual relationship with the former intern. Thus, they hoped, we would be less shocked when that testimony actually came and the President appeared before the public in his television address.

Such is the level of anxiety in the media, that debate has even been engaged on whether the Indianapolis Star and News was right to pursue Representative Burton to such an extent that he was forced into making his confession last Thursday. It did seem like the height of hypocrisy for Mr Burton to have called the President a "scumbag" when his own past was hardly without flaw. On the other hand, his mistress was not an intern in the White House, his wife knew all about the affair and he had been paying support for the child. Should he, therefore, have been left alone?

In the meantime, rest assured. The Washington Post, and all articles by Mr Woodward, will be our first read every morning. If his second intern story drops, you will be the first to know. Until then this newspaper will never mention this completely unproven morsel of rotten gossip again. Maybe.