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Washington Diary

New Lows for News

[TIME Magazine]

By Margaret Carlson

(TIME, July 15) -- The press has caught Mad Lie disease, marked by a loss of appetite for the truth and projectile regurgitation of anything fed to it. No one was surprised when the New York Post and the Washington Times reported wild allegations from a slapped-together and unsubstantiated book about the Clintons. But when a formerly immune host such as ABC's David Brinkley succumbed to the infection and gave airtime to the screed's author, retired FBI agent Gary Aldrich, the sickness had reached epidemic proportions.

Although by showtime the only words in the book anyone could be sure were true were a, and and the, Brinkley's producers proceeded on the ground of not wanting to give in to White House pressure (even if it was the right thing to do) and claimed they wanted to discuss Aldrich's expertise in security. Of course, scarcely a minute was taken up by that subject; the other nine were consumed by his scurrilous accusations. Washington Post press critic Howard Kurtz says the overall coverage of Aldrich marks the collapse of journalistic standards as we know them: "We've gone from needing two sources to needing no sources to someone being able to make something up and get us to report it. The hardcover is the fig leaf that allows the press to publish what they couldn't otherwise." While Brinkley's This Week shot down some of Aldrich's statements, it had to give the book life in order to do so--and then failed to kill it off. The day after the show, there were 88,450 new orders for Unlimited Access, which is about to go into its fourth printing.


Other shows refused to put Aldrich on after they read the book, finding its Liz-Marries-Space-Alien tenor beneath credibility. For example, Aldrich goes on for five pages about the December day in 1994 when he helped decorate the White House Christmas tree with an anatomically correct gingerbread man, lords doing a lot more than leaping and other "sex toys and self-mutilation devices" approved by Hillary Clinton. This is ludicrous. First, the entire press corps sees the tree and would notice three hens fornicating. Second, all the decorations sent in from artists are screened for appropriateness (two were tossed), logged in and photographed in October.

Pornographic paraphernalia in the Blue Room has the ring of one of those preschooler fantasies elicited by overeager therapists in the McMartin child-sex-abuse case. Even David Brock, a fellow Clinton hater, had to cut Aldrich loose. An American Spectator writer in his early 30s who has purchased more than $1 million worth of real estate since penning poisonous attacks on Anita Hill and the First Family, Brock revealed that he was inadvertently the source for Aldrich's most sensational charge: that the President slipped out for assignations under a blanket in the back seat of a car, reminiscent of a scene from Dave. Pure, unverified gossip, said Brock.

There was a time when by common agreement a book like Aldrich's would die for lack of oxygen. Now the mainstream media strive to get every sensational rumor "in play" without being held responsible. The classic gambit is to print a rumor by way of criticizing the tabloids for running it. The new laundering device is hardcovers. Then, no matter how outlandish the content or how biased the publisher, you can cower behind "I read it in a book."

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