Monday, February 16, 2004

The story is being shushed around the family dinner table — and in newspaper city rooms — but all the neighbors are talking about it.

What the neighbors are talking about are rumors of marital infidelity by Democratic White House front-runner John Kerry, and they have learned about them from the Internet, talk radio and the foreign press.

There has no been confirmation of the infidelity rumors, nor any admission by the parties directly involved. Mr. Kerry himself said there was nothing for him to talk about on a radio show Friday.

But the foreign press, U.S. tabloids and the Internet are writing and talking about it anyway. American newspapers are getting it into print by writing about not talking about it.

“White House hopeful John Kerry’s campaign plunged into crisis last night amid sex scandal rumors,” reported the Daily Record of Glasgow, Scotland. “U.S. website The Drudge Report, which revealed former President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, claimed married Kerry had a similar relationship with an intern.”

A headline in Canada’s Calgary Sun declared “Democrat denies any Kerry-ing On,” while Australia’s Melbourne Herald Sun, quoting a remark by the father of the woman in question, trumpeted “Sleazeball hit on my daughter.”

The Times of India reports the “Presidential contender and favourite John Kerry brushed aside reports of an extramarital affair and said his campaign was not vulnerable.”

Even if American newspapers, anxious not to be tarred as “sensationalistic,” are merely clearing their throats, the tabloids and Web pages have extended the “story hour” at the kiddie table overtime through a half-dozen news cycles with still no proof.

“Despite his outward unconcern, Kerry’s campaign was rattled by the rumor, which first appeared Thursday and was widely discussed on conservative talk radio,” said the New York Daily News.

“Campaign operatives worked hard over the past two days to silence the whispers, strenuously reminding reporters that no one was making any clear allegations,” the Daily News said.

The New York Post posed questions to the Kerry campaign, with no response, about whether the candidate knew the woman or whether he had invited her to Washington to discuss his campaign.

“Rumors about Kerry’s personal life have been swirling for days, sparking intense discussions among his own supporters at a time when he seems close to locking up the Democratic nomination to challenge President Bush,” the New York Post reported.

The Drudge Report on Thursday did not say Mr. Kerry had an affair, but that “a serious investigation of the woman and the nature of her relationship with Sen. John Kerry has been under way at Time Magazine, ABC News, The Washington Post, The Hill, and the Associated Press, where the woman in question once worked.”

The woman, identified by several British and European newspapers as Alex Polier, went to Kenya after a reporter asked whether she had a two-year relationship with the senator from Massachusetts.

Mr. Kerry said Friday on “Imus in the Morning” there was nothing to the rumors.

“It hasn’t been reported anywhere, but people are talking about it,” said host Don Imus.

“Well, there’s nothing to report. So there’s nothing to talk about. I’m not worried about it. No. The answer is no,” Mr. Kerry replied.

The Washington Times included three paragraphs, in a story about Wesley Clark’s endorsement of Mr. Kerry, about Mr. Kerry’s remarks on the Imus radio show. Mr. Kerry’s remarks, something less than a categorical denial, made ABC News’ “World News Tonight.”

“The senator was asked if rumors about him and a young woman had any substance. The senator denied it categorically,” anchorman Peter Jennings said.

Internet “blogger” and magazine columnist Andrew Sullivan told CNN yesterday that he is “deeply conflicted” over how to approach the unsubstantiated but widely circulated story.

“Can you anymore not talk about something that’s on the front page of the Times of London, front page of the Drudge Report, on everybody’s minds?” Mr. Sullivan asked. “There comes a point at which the media has to acknowledge people are talking.”

The first Drudge Report item appeared shortly before noon Thursday. The speculation instantly leaped to talk radio, where Rush Limbaugh spent the first hour of his No. 1-rated program discussing the Drudge exclusive with an audience of more than 10 million.

Mr. Limbaugh blamed the rumor on Democratic rivals trying to “take out” Mr. Kerry, and compared the story to continued press inquiries into President Bush’s Vietnam-era Air National Guard service.

“If Kerry denies this, that’s not going to be good enough,” Mr. Limbaugh told listeners. “We’re going to demand pay stubs, and we’re going to demand dental records from Kerry and the alleged woman to prove that the affair never happened, and we’re not going to stop there.”

Republican media strategist Cheri Jacobus said yesterday there is a double standard in the media on how presidential candidates are being covered on unsubstantiated rumors.

“President Bush’s service with the National Guard was pounded on by the press and Democrats, yet it was based on unsubstantiated rumors. Now they owe President Bush an apology,” said Miss Jacobus. “The media needs to quickly evaluate standards on how they are going to cover this campaign, rather than make it up as they go along.”

The story was soon picked up by radio news reporters in Boston and Washington. WMAL-AM led its 1:30 p.m. news break with the Kerry rumor. On his drive-time radio show, Sean Hannity discussed the Kerry rumor with Democratic campaign operative Susan Estrich.

On Thursday evening, Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of The Washington Post, told Editor & Publisher magazine that his staff was “looking into” a rumored Kerry affair. The journalism magazine promptly put the statement on its Web site (

Fox News Managing Editor Brit Hume yesterday called the gossip/stories/news reports “much ado about not very much.”

Mr. Hume noted that the original report was that there was “an investigation,” and said on the political show “Fox News Sunday” that this is “pretty thin stuff on which to base a lot of reporting. Nobody in the mainstream media did anything with it until Kerry’s denial.”

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