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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

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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 story."

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 further.

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.


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

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: February 16, 1998

The Press And The Dress
Drip Drip Drip
Behind The Scenes With Monica
Just An Affectionate Guy
Ain't We Got Fun
Time To Off Saddam?
With A Little Help From His Friends
Eyes On The Oval
The Art of the Leak
Inside the Magic Bubble
Give Me a Break!

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