October 20, 1998

The Clinton/Lewinsky Story

The Blue Dress

The Blue Dress

The press was largely on the mark in its reporting on the dress that quickly became central to the Clinton-Lewinsky story. ABC's early reporting turned out to be highly accurate. The stain did turn out to be the president's semen. And although Lewinsky in her testimony maintained the dress wasn't, as ABC called it in their report, "a kind of souvenir" (she said she thought the stain might have come from "spinach dip"), Linda Tripp's tapes of Lewinsky indicate otherwise.

ABC's initial report was based on a single source who, according to ABC, had "specific" knowledge of what Lewinsky had claimed.

Various factors may have led the media to later discount the story its potential impact, its unsavory nature, the possibility that Lewinsky was lying and the fact that ABC cited only a single source. On Jan. 24, the New York Times reported that the stained dress had been a gift from the president. Other organizations picked up on the Times's story and when "the gift dress" came back clean from DNA testing, the media speculated, and the public assumed, that the stained dress story was wrong. The speculation spawned a series of reports on how the media had botched the coverage of the story in general, such as Time magazine's Feb. 16 story "The Press and the Dress. The Anatomy of a Salacious Leak." This discounting was fueled by comments by William Ginsberg, Lewinsky's attorney, in which he dissembled about the dress enough to sound like a denial.

The attacks on the dress story, along with testimony leaks, made it easier for columnists and commentators to downplay the dress story, after it reemerged. It also made it more likely that they could be spun by the White House. One such comment: Geraldo Rivera's July 8 declaration that there is "absolutely no possibility that a so-called semen-stained dress exists" based on the fact that "Monica has insisted to everyone that things never went that far."

This confusion over the dress story points out an interesting argument. Was the reporting of the blue dress vindicated because it turned out to be accurate? Some journalists have argued no. It is not good enough that stories turn out to be correct, they argue. ABC was lucky, they contend, not good. The ends — whether a story is true — do not justify the means — a thin level of sourcing. That judgment may be too harsh. If ABC had good reason to believe its lone source–and it contends it did–that may be the result of having reliable sources, not luck.

The problem may be more subtle. Accuracy is certainly the first goal of journalism, but it is not the only one. Credibility and clarity are important as well. Before a news organization goes with a story, it needs to consider whether it has sourcing that is thorough enough that the account will be understood and believed. Making stories as clear and credible as possible, even if it means waiting, may also protect against stories being mischaracterized in subsequent versions as they echo through the media.

A Chronology of Stories on the Blue Dress:

  1. On 1/21, the day the story broke in the Washington Post, Newsweek goes on AOL with excerpts from the Tripp tapes. In its account Newsweek reports Lewinsky "says that Clinton gave her a dress."

  2. On 1/21, the Drudge Report wrote "investigators have become convinced that there may be a DNA trail that could confirm Clinton's sexual involvement with Lewinsky. Tripp has shared with investigators a conversation where Lewinsky allegedly confided that she kept a garment with Clinton's semen on it — a garment she allegedly said she would never wash."
  3. On 1/22, Sam Donaldson on Good Morning America announced that in his Paula Jones deposition Clinton denied he had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, but "apparently acknowledged giving her gifts, including a dress." That same day the Washington Post reports that Starr is "searching for gifts that might show whether there was a relationship, including reports that Clinton gave Lewinsky a dress."
  4. On 1/23, ABC first reported a "semen-stained" dress. "According to a source, Lewinsky says she saved–apparently as a kind of souvenir — a navy blue dress with the president's semen stain on it."
  5. On 1/24, the New York Times reported: "Investigators who have heard the tapes said Ms. Lewinsky made references to gifts she had received from President Clinton, including a dress. On one of the tapes, the investigators said, Ms. Lewinsky tells a friend, Linda R. Tripp that the dress contains a semen stain from President Clinton."
  6. On the 1/25, This Week Lewinsky's attorney, William Ginsburg said: "There is a report, which I was advised of initially a week ago by the office of independent counsel, that there was a dress that might be forensically important in terms of DNA evidence." That same day, as Ginsburg appeared on Meet the Press, Tim Russert asked Ginsburg about "reports that there may be some dresses or a dress with DNA evidence." Ginsburg: "That's a salacious comment. It's a salacious comment, because I would assume that if Monica Lewinsky had a dress that was sullied or dirty, she would have had it cleaned. I know of no such dress." Russert: "But did they take some of her clothing?" Ginsburg: "Oh, yes. Oh, yes. … They took her black and blue pant suits and dresses."
  7. On 1/28, MSNBC reported Starr's investigators are "awaiting laboratory test results" on one of Monica Lewinsky's dresses. That same day Ginsburg on CNN acknowledged the testing but added "I don't anticipate that they're going to find a thing." CBS announced the FBI has "finished DNA tests on one of Lewinsky's dresses. The results are due soon." Later, CNN reported "We've been told by sources that all of the garments appeared to be clean, had come back from a dry cleaners, but presumably, they think that if there are any stains, or whatever on those garments, DNA testing might show that, so they're going through that very, very carefully."
  8. On 1/29, the New York Post wrote: "The dirty little secret is that some Democrats are quietly crossing their fingers in hopes that Lewinsky really does have a dress with semen stains so Clinton will have to exit quickly, instead of dragging them down."
  9. On 1/29, CBS reported that "that no DNA evidence or stains have been found on a dress that belongs to Lewinsky. The dress and other clothes that were seized by the FBI from Lewinsky's apartment after she told a friend that they might contain physical evidence. But again, tonight, the FBI lab has found no such evidence."
  10. In its 2/16, issue Time magazine ran a piece on the dress headlined: "The Press and the Dress. The anatomy of a salacious leak, and how it ricocheted around the walls of the media echo chamber." The piece chronicled how the story made its way from Drudge's web site to the mainstream media. The piece said the dress story showed, "the occasional slipups that occur as a story reverberates through today's journalistic echo chamber, changing slightly each time it is repeated."
  11. On 6/20, Lucianne Goldberg told Matt Drudge on Fox News Channel that she was the source of stories that Lewinsky had a semen-stained dress: "That's a true story. there's a lot more to that story. … Hopefully, when Linda (Tripp) is able to speak for herself we'll know more about a lot of things. … Trust me, when this thing hits, it will be explosive, the accumulation of all the things that people don't know yet."
  12. On 7/8, Geraldo Rivera told his audience, "There is, ladies and gentlemen, absolutely no possibility that a so-called semen-stained dress exists because Monica has insisted to everyone that things never went that far, never went to completion."
  13. On 7/29, ABC reported Lewinsky will turn the dress over. "Legal sources tell ABC News that as part of the immunity deal with prosecutors, Monica Lewinsky agreed to turn over evidence she claimed would back up her story that she had a sexual relationship with the President. The sources confirmed that one piece of evidence is in fact the dress Lewinsky said she saved after an encounter with Mr. Clinton because it had a semen stain on it. … The dress may provide Starr with forensic evidence of a relationship."
  14. On 7/30, the New York Times and Washington Post reported that the dress will be turned over to Starr. The Post writes, "If there is bodily fluid" on the dress, "it would take just a day to determine whether there was enough to submit for DNA testing and just a few more days to yield a unique genetic marker. … Such a test, though, would be meaningless without a blood sample from the president to compare with and it was unclear whether Clinton would agree to provide that."
  15. The evening of 7/30, the blood-test angle received prominent play. ABC: "White House sources say there has been no discussion of whether Mr. Clinton would turn over a sample if requested by Starr. It is clear that an ordinary citizen could be compelled to provide such a sample. … Starr clearly is hoping that the physical evidence Lewinsky provided, including the dress will prove that Mr. Clinton's sworn statement denying a sexual relationship was false." NBC: "A dress containing the President's DNA would dramatically change this case…Experts say the FBI lab could know within a day if there's bodily fluids on the dress; tests to identify the DNA could take at least a week. Only if there is a definite DNA finding would the prosecutors consider asking the President for a blood sample."
  16. In its 8/10 issue, Newsweek reports that Goldberg said Tripp and Goldberg plotted to steal the dress from Lewinsky's Watergate apartment. "We were just two girls having a Nancy Drew fantasy," Goldberg says in the piece.
  17. On 8/4, Geraldo Rivera on his CNBC show announced that "one source very close to the president" had told him that "one lab says it's positive," meaning there is human genetic material on the dress. About an hour later, "NBC sent out a system-wide computer message warning its journalists not to follow" Rivera's footsteps. The message: "NBC News has not confirmed and will not report the information about test results from 'Rivera Live.' " Rivera did "back off from one part of his report." NBC did not criticize Rivera's account because he "reported what he had heard," but also said, "We were concerned that if it was taken without context, it would take on a life of its own."
  18. On 8/21, the New York Times reported that the FBI crime laboratory "has determined that the stain on the blue dress was semen, two officials briefed on the results said."

The Starr Report and Supporting Documents

The report confirms the accuracy of the blue dress story:

"After reaching an immunity and cooperation agreement with the Office of the Independent Counsel on July 28, 1998, Ms. Lewinsky turned over a navy blue dress that she said she had worn during a sexual encounter with the President on February 28, 1997. According to Ms. Lewinsky, she noticed stains on the garment the next time she took it from her closet. From their location, she surmised that the stains were the President's semen.(1)

Initial tests revealed that the stains are in fact semen.(2) Based on that result, the OIC asked the President for a blood sample.(3) After requesting and being given assurances that the OIC had an evidentiary basis for making the request, the President agreed.(4) In the White House Map Room on August 3, 1998, the White House Physician drew a vial of blood from the President in the presence of an FBI agent and an OIC attorney.(5) By conducting the two standard DNA comparison tests, the FBI Laboratory concluded that the President was the source of the DNA obtained from the dress.(6) According to the more sensitive RFLP test, the genetic markers on the semen, which match the President's DNA, are characteristic of one out of 7.87 trillion Caucasians.(7)"