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I couldn't believe my ears. The press derides politicians for saying what voters want to hear, but now we learn that journalists are playing the marketing game.

During a panel session at the Magazine Publishers of America's annual conference in balmy Bermuda, a trio of top magazine journalists blamed their tepid coverage of Whitewater, Filegate and other Clinton administration scandals on their readers' lack of interest.

Just as politicians wait to see what issues "move the needle" before they speak out, the press hasn't given the assorted scandals bigger play because they believe noboby's interested, the panel admitted.

The three journalists even blamed the Republicans for not making a big enough deal out of the Clinton problems, indicating if they had kept the pressure on Clinton the media would be forced to as well.

A contributing factor, according to Time Managing Editor Walter Isaacson, is that after the Whitewater "morass," as he put it, "we got sort of exhausted" and "felt burnt out. Maybe we picked the wrong scandal."

But the panel conceded that the press would have jumped all over the Filegate episode had a conservative Republican president been in office.

They also conceded that the press has a liberal bias but said it wasn't as pronounced as it is for a "big story on a roll."

Joe Klein, columnist for Newsweek and the non-anonymous author of Primary Colors, complained of the "constant low-grade fever of scandal" dulling the senses of journalists. He said except for The Wall Street Journal's "berserk crusade" on Whitewater, "we're crusaded out."

The Journal doesn't appear to be anywhere near the exhaustion level. An editorial appeared the same day the panel was bemoaning an inability to mount a sustained effort to report on all the Clinton peccadillos. In it, the Journal stated: "The character issue, it is now clear, is a subject too unsettling, too outre for our fastidious political culture. It makes the political press palpitate to think of such things, and so it conveys to the challenging candidates that it will call them unfair meanies if they try to bring it up, so we can't either."

Peggy Noonan, who worked on the Reagan and Bush campaigns and is now a columnist and author, contends that the investigations of Whitewater real estate and financial transactions "helped Clinton a lot" because they were so complicated.

Journalists judge scandals by the yardstick of "if I understand it, it's a scandal," she said. But Ms. Noonan added that "there's a great role for the press to play here-as an idealist."

She said the press underplays the problems of morality: "We can't address it because of our perpetual skepticism." The press also underappreciates the "importance of stability" in our society, she said.

Now let me get this straight. What the three panelists were saying here is that the Whitewater shenanigans were so complex and consuming that they: 1.) were of little interest to readers, and 2.) wore out journalists covering them to the extent that they were too exhausted to report subsequent improprieties (neither Time nor Newsweek put the Filegate story on their covers).

As Peggy Noonan said, "Make all your scandals complex" and you can beat the rap every time.

Woodward and Bernstein, where are you when we need you?

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