The media prepare to turn page

As Lewinsky story nears end, 'industry' that formed to cover it ponderswhat next.

When the impeachment saga does finally end - and even some rational people think that could happen soon - the question becomes: What will Rush Limbaugh and Geraldo do now?

The answer: probably more of the same. The massive infrastructure that forms around virtually every national crisis - from lawyers and talk-show hosts to pundits and partisans - will not vanish overnight.

The Monica Industrial Complex created by the scandal will take time to disassemble. And if past morality plays are any guide, its players will be recycled and its plot lines will provide subtext to the way Washington institutions function in the future.

Perhaps foremost, the scandal has reshaped the elements that constitute a modern blockbuster news event. "It has helped create the current definition of a big story in the absence of cold war," says MSNBC host John Gibson.

As he sees it, those elements are: Is it a mystery? Is there an element of denial to a charge? Does it have a compelling cast of characters? And finally: Is there an unfolding of events that lasts a long time?

MSNBC has seen its ratings double during peak times of the Lewinsky scandal. Past crises, too, have attracted loyal audiences, spawning new types of programming and personalities.

ABC's "Nightline" was created as an update on the status of American hostages taken captive by Iranian radicals in the late 1970s. The O.J. era spawned televised legal analysis typified by CNN's "Burden of Proof," where attorneys comb the legal fine print of the day's news.

These shows explain to the layman the difference between an interrogatory and a deposition, and have, for better or worse, made "discovery" something other than a scientific breakthrough.

Future impact on media

Some media watchers believe the impact of the Lewinsky story will have an even greater influence on the way cable frames its stories in the future.

That's because the scandal broke during the formative stages for many cable outlets. MSNBC was getting its sea legs, and others, including the Fox network, were expanding and hiring away high-profile anchors and reporters from the major networks.

"Now you have MSNBC fighting with CNN fighting with Fox News. What increases audiences for these outlets are continuing stories that have characters that provide a hook," says Rich Noyes, editor of Newswatch, the Web-based magazine of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington.

Cable has turned obscure K Street power brokers into familiar characters. Some of them have been helped, though, by their association with past scandal. Lawyer John Nields, who represented Clinton friend Webster Hubbell, played a role in the Iran-contra scandal. So did Plato Cacheris, Monica Lewinsky's attorney. Watergate icon John Dean from time to time has provided commentary for MSNBC during key proceedings in the impeachment process.

For others, the moment in the spotlight is fleeting - perhaps by choice. True, Marine Col. Oliver North ran unsuccessfully for a Senate seat in Virginia and now hosts a radio talk show. But John Poindexter and Colonel North's loyal secretary, Fawn Hall, have disappeared from the media radar.

Many players in the current scandal are already looking over their shoulders to see how history will judge them. Former White House special counsel Lanny Davis, for instance, was recently asked how he might be viewed. "How am I going to come out?" he asked rhetorically. "Like Kato Kaelin," responded a reporter, provoking howls of laughter.

The story has also given a boost to a new class of pundits in the 24-hour hothouse of cable and Internet. The experts and opinion mongers currently getting lots of air time will likely be wearing pancake makeup again during the next scandal.

"There will be lawyers and experts who weren't seen much before," says Mr. Noyes.

Not everyone working in the Monica machine has enjoyed the ride. Reporters often complain of "scandal fatigue." Many long ago tired of chasing the details of people's private lives.

Instead, many wish they were investigating other issues, such as the transfer of sensitive technology to China. Keith Olbermann recently left the "Big Show" at MSNBC for a job at Fox. He said he made the move when his program, intended to look at major events of the day, "began to mutate into an entity called 'White House in Crisis.' " In a recent opinion piece, he called it "The Scandal that Ate My TV Program."

Still, as unpleasant as the experience has been for some, it has been profitable for others. Law firms, hotels, restaurants, and taxi drivers have seen business boom as a result of all the activity surrounding the scandal.

"I don't follow it, but this is the busiest year I've ever had," says one Washington limo driver. He has gotten other perks as well: Tim Russert, host of NBC's "Meet the Press," gave him four tickets to see the Capitals, the local hockey team.

More to come

For those who still can't get enough, there is the Barbara Walters interview with Monica Lewinsky coming up, as well as a book authored by famed Diana biographer Andrew Morton.

But for the daily grind of news coverage, many are looking forward to the day the wind fails to fill the sails of the Lewinsky story.

"We went with O.J. for an awfully long time, but there was a day when it ended with a thud," recalls MSNBC's Gibson, who's already scoping out the next story. "There's always something going on."

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