The Press And The Dress
The anatomy of a salacious leak, and how it ricocheted around the walls of the media echo chamber
By Adam Cohen/TIME
In a story with no shortage of lurid details, news that Monica
Lewinsky may have kept a dress stained from sex with President
Clinton was in a class by itself. For fans of the prurient, it
offered the tale of a woman so smitten by a sexual encounter
that she vowed to keep the most unseemly of souvenirs. For the
prosecution-minded, it promised hard DNA evidence. And for those
hoping to see the powerful humbled, it introduced a pulse-racing
new phrase: presidential semen. "Monica's Love Dress," as the
New York Post dubbed it, fast became a staple of water-cooler
talk and late-night comedy. Politically Incorrect's Bill Maher
said a survey of newspaper readers found it "the news story they
least want explained by a pie chart."
But despite its high nervous-giggle factor, the dress was always
a legitimate subject for journalistic inquiry. Physical evidence
of this kind is used frequently in prosecuting crimes. And the
media that ran the story generally had what appears to be
credible sources attesting that Lewinsky had at least boasted of
the existence of such a dress. Nevertheless, the dress story
provides a window on the tough judgment calls about facts, and
sources of facts, that must be made in reporting
difficult-to-confirm stories in today's lightning-paced media
environment. And it shows the occasional slipups that occur as a
story reverberates through today's journalistic echo chamber,
changing slightly each time it is repeated.
The dress made its first appearance in cyberspace. On Jan. 21,
Matt Drudge reported on his Internet Drudge Report that Linda
Tripp had told investigators Lewinsky allegedly confided she
"kept a garment with Clinton's dried semen on it--a garment she
allegedly said she would never wash." Drudge declines to
characterize his sources. But he says his initial report was
"very valid," and he stands by his account that the dress
exists. "I know it to be a black cocktail dress," Drudge says.
The next day Drudge appeared on NBC's Today show. In his
introduction Matt Lauer called the Drudge Report "a media gossip
page known for below-the-Beltway reporting." Lauer asked Drudge
about his story. Drudge said Tripp "has told this to
investigators." Asked if he had confirmation, Drudge responded,
"Not outside of what I've just heard, but I don't think anybody
does at this point." The Today show had just given NBC News'
imprimatur and a national platform to Drudge to report on the
President. "I wouldn't call what he does reporting," objects
University of Virginia professor and media critic Larry Sabato.
But Columbia Journalism School dean Tom Goldstein says it is
wrong to dismiss Drudge as dispensing mere cybergossip unworthy
of respectable news organizations. "Matt Drudge in this case is
a legitimate news source," says Goldstein. "He's part of the
The following day, Jan. 23, ABC became the first major news
outlet to break the dress story based on its own sources. Jackie
Judd reported that "Lewinsky says she saved, apparently as a
kind of souvenir, a navy blue dress with the President's semen
stain on it." In a tantalizing choice of words, Judd attributed
the story to "someone with specific knowledge" of the events.
Last week ABC spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said the network is
"satisfied with the sources," but declined to characterize them
As ABC's report reverberated through secondary media sources,
some of the subtlety got lost. United Press International ran a
story later on the evening of Jan. 23 saying, "[A] report on
ABC's World News Tonight quotes an unnamed source saying Monica
Lewinsky saved a navy blue dress stained with President
Clinton's semen." Check the wording. Now, instead of Lewinsky
talking about a dress, we have a secondhand source asserting the
existence of the dress. That was an error, according to U.P.I.
managing editor Tobin Beck. The story has been corrected in the
wire service's archive, he says.
On Jan. 24 the New York Times reported that on one of the tapes
Lewinsky is heard telling Tripp about a dress with a stain from
Clinton. The Times attributed its account to "investigators who
have heard the tapes." The next day, the Washington Post
reported that Lewinsky told Tripp "she has an article of
clothing with Clinton's semen on it" and attributed this to
discussions contained in more than 20 hours of taped
conversations between Tripp and Lewinsky, citing "sources who
have listened to" portions of them.
As the stained-dress story was bouncing and morphing about,
there were also reports of another Lewinsky dress. Newsweek, in
a Jan. 21 online report, said Lewinsky had been taped saying
Clinton had given her a dress. On Jan. 24 the New York Post
described the gift dress as a "multicolored peasant dress" and
distinguished it from the "black cocktail dress" that reportedly
had the President's semen on it. (A source close to Tripp has
told TIME there are two dresses. The gift dress, the source
says, is a "cheap" one purchased on Martha's Vineyard; the
stained dress is a black silk cocktail dress.)
But several major news organizations were reporting that the
gift dress and the stained dress were the same. The New York
Times' Jan. 24 story said that "Ms. Lewinsky made references to
gifts" from Clinton, including a dress, and that she told Tripp
on tape that this dress "contains a semen stain from President
Clinton." The next day, Jan. 25, the Baltimore Sun ran an
article that also indicated the stained dress was one given to
Lewinsky by Clinton. The Sun's story was attributed to "a series
of explosive news leaks," and national editor Lee Horwich says
the source may have been the previous day's New York Times. The
Times, which on Jan. 26 and Jan. 30 repeated the assertion that
the stains were on the gift dress, stands by "precisely what we
reported in the newspaper based on reports from investigators,"
spokeswoman Lisa Carparelli said late last week.
Also on Jan. 25, a Mary McGrory column in the Washington Post
denounced Drudge for alleging on Today that Lewinsky possessed
"an item of underwear with presidential semen on it" as well.
Drudge had spoken of a "piece of clothing," but according to a
transcript of the show he did not say "underwear." Two days
earlier, in a column criticizing widespread rumors, Chicago
Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper cited a rumor of
"semen-stained underwear Lewinsky kept." Roeper says he cannot
recall where he heard reports of semen-stained underwear, but
that it was "definitely broadcast, not print."
Lewinsky attorney William Ginsburg disavowed knowledge of the
dress on Jan. 25's Meet the Press. Tim Russert asked if "some
dresses or a dress with DNA evidence" had been taken from his
client. Ginsburg called the question "salacious." If Lewinsky
"had a dress that was sullied or dirty, she would have had it
cleaned," he said, adding, "I know of no such dress." He also
said the FBI had searched her apartment and taken "black and
blue pantsuits and dresses."
On Jan. 25 TIME and Newsweek ran stories reporting on the dress
in similar terms. TIME stated that in an untaped conversation
with Tripp, Lewinsky "allegedly held up a dress she claimed was
stained with the President's semen and said, 'I'll never wash it
again.'" TIME's story did not contain attribution for this
point, but its source was someone close to Tripp that TIME
believes credible. Newsweek wrote that "Lewinsky told Tripp that
she was keeping, as a kind of grotesque memento, a navy blue
dress stained with Clinton's semen. Holding it up as a trophy to
Tripp, she declared, 'I'll never wash it again.'" Newsweek did
not attribute this part of its story. Newsweek also referred to
a dress Lewinsky was given by Clinton. In its next issue the
magazine wrote that it had "misinterpreted" a tape it listened
to. Newsweek is no longer sure, as it reported Jan. 21, that
there was ever a gift dress. "We don't know," says Newsweek
assistant managing editor Ann McDaniel. But she says Newsweek
stands by its account, obtained from nontape sources, that
Lewinsky claimed to have a dress bearing the President's semen.
On Jan. 27 the Washington Post reported that a "person who saw
Clinton over the weekend" told a friend that Clinton had said on
the subject, "There is no dress." It was unclear, the Post said,
"whether the President was referring to reports of a dress
containing incriminating evidence or a dress he reportedly gave
Lewinsky as a gift."
On Jan. 29 CBS Evening News was the first to report that FBI
testing was complete, and "no DNA evidence or stains have been
found on a dress that belongs to Lewinsky." The network did not
give a source. TIME has confirmed with its own FBI sources that
no semen stains or DNA evidence was found on any of the clothing
seized from Lewinsky. The next day New York Newsday ran a story
quoting forensic scientists saying tests for seminal stains can
be rendered useless if clothing is laundered or dry-cleaned.
Also on Jan. 30, Ginsburg appeared on ABC's 20/20. Asked by
Barbara Walters whether Clinton ever gave Lewinsky a dress,
Ginsburg responded, "Unless you consider a long T shirt a dress,
the answer is no." Last Friday the New York Times reported that
Betty Currie, Clinton's personal secretary, had turned over to
investigators items she had retrieved from Lewinsky, including a
dress. The Times did not say whether it was a stained dress, a
gift dress, both, or neither.
All that leaves many unresolved questions. Even if, as TIME and
others have reported, Lewinsky told Tripp there was such a
stained dress, was she telling the truth? If there is such a
dress, why did the FBI's DNA testing apparently turn up nothing?
And if there was a stained dress, was it a dress given by the
President? But, as Goldstein notes, "journalism is messy." The
truth does not always emerge immediately or neatly in a story
this difficult and fast-paced. It will take still more time
before the remaining wrinkles in the story of the dress get
ironed out. If it ever happens at all.
HOW TALES GET STARTED
Fast-track trade legislation and the Social Security trust fund
may have trouble piercing the nation's consciousness. But by
last week, only the most media-starved Americans were unaware
that Monica Lewinsky allegedly said she had saved a dress with
the President's semen on it. From where do such stories emerge?
For the "sex dress," as the tabloids dubbed it, the journey
began in cyberspace ...
Jan. 21: Matt Drudge alleges in the DRUDGE REPORT that Lewinsky
spoke of "a garment with Clinton's dried semen"
Jan. 22: NBC's TODAY SHOW lends Drudge credibility by letting
him repeat his story to a national audience
Jan. 23: Jackie Judd, on ABC's WORLD NEWS TONIGHT, gives the
first mainstream-media report of the stained dress
Jan. 24: The story earns its tabloid stripes as the New York
POST and DAILY NEWS play the dress on Page One
Jan. 25: Lewinsky's attorney, William Ginsburg, says on MEET THE
PRESS he knows of no such stained dress
Jan. 25: TIME and NEWSWEEK weigh in, both reporting that
Lewinsky said of the stained dress, "I'll never wash it again"
Jan. 29: CBS EVENING NEWS is the first to report that the FBI
found no DNA or stains on any of Lewinsky's clothes