Clinton accused: Internet blamed for media's feeding frenzy

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As the Clinton scandal has unfolded, the mainstream US media have come under fire for every journalistic crime in the book. They have hit back by blaming the influence of the new media - especially the Internet. Mary Dejevsky considers the charges.

It should be said at the outset that - the immediate players and stone- faced spokesmen from the White House apart - Americans are having a ball.

They tell the pollsters that they heartily disapprove of the media coverage, but that has not stopped them reading, watching and logging-on as never before.

A rise of 20 per cent across the board is the conservative estimate for increased circulation, viewing figures and Web-site "hits" since the scandal broke.

In recent days, however, perhaps for lack of definite new developments, perhaps at the prompting of worried politicians, the media have been indulging in some mass breast-beating. The cable network CNN (owned by Clinton supporter, Ted Turner) broadcast a two-hour special on the "media madness" on which a succession of luminaries, including the White House spokesman, Mike McCurry, appeared.

The burden of the charges is that in the frenzy of pursuit, the mainstream US media have thrown caution and responsibility to the winds and built stories on little more than gossip and hearsay. What is worse, in the view of the contrite journalists, is the nature of the subject, sex, which America's mainstream media, locked in the Puritan tradition, have shunned for longer even than their British counterparts.

Bearing the brunt of the mainstream media's attacks, however, are two new media forms: the commercial radio talkshows and above all, the Internet. The radio talkshows, which often assume a rabble-rousing tone, are calculated to bring out the baser instincts in the callers. They have flourished during the Clinton scandal, but have few claims to offer fact rather than opinion.

The Internet is a different matter, and here the mainstream media have a genuine difficulty. The speed with which information can be posted and accessed allows unchecked and inaccurate reports to circulate at once and alongside carefully checked and sourced information. If the mainstream media said nothing, they could be accused of protecting the President, censorship, or prurience. That applies with every new report that finds its way on to the Internet.

This scandal, and the speed with which it developed into a national obsession, undoubtedly owes much, perhaps everything, to the growing influence of the Internet in the United States. Anyone can post a tip or a view, and everyone else can read it.

The mainstream media are catching the flak, but if they hope that the popular thirst for new information will fade or that readers will come to behave like traditional American reporters, sourcing and fact-checking material before believing it, they will probably be disappointed.