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... And in Cyberspace

The House of Representatives' vote to go public with the Starr report began a new chapter for more than the long-running Lewinsky-Clinton narrative.

Politics in America also flipped to a new page, veering into the reaches of cyberspace as never before. In an instant, millions of people around the globe were privy to a document that could topple an American president. This was democracy, involving the masses of people in political decisionmaking, on an unheard-of scale.

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It's a bit soon to draw conclusions about the value of this turn of events. It's not too soon, certainly, to lament the degrading subject matter in many of those 455 globally disseminated pages.

The Starr report didn't inaugurate the entwining of politics and the Web. The Internet has been a political player for a number of years. Dozens of Web sites are devoted to politically charged commentary and dialogue. Politicians have home pages; so do both houses of Congress and nearly every executive agency.

But these resources for the politically interested gave little hint of what could happen when a matter of intense public concern hit the Web. Companies that track Web use estimate 6 million people viewed the Starr report online. Some 800,000 copies of the report were downloaded by customers of America Online in the first day. That was AOL's biggest day ever, with subscribers spending 10.1 million hours online. Sites, such as MSNBC and CNN Interactive, had similar levels of activity. Other media and government sources also offered all or part of the Starr text and White House lawyers' rebuttal.

Their decision to do so raises fresh questions about the impact of the Internet on society's moral tone and civic culture. Many newspapers debated whether to run material so laced with sexual content. The Monitor chose not to, either in the paper or on its Web site.

But Congress - until now known for its determination to curb salacious material on the Net - seized on that medium as the means of dispersing the Starr report's often-blue findings. Newness and immediacy were factors, surely. But the issue of what gets transmitted into millions of homes remains front and center.

If instant access to the Starr findings started a recasting of public sentiment, early opinion polls have yet to show it. It's impossible to know how many of those who logged on right away last Friday really read all, or most, of the Starr team's labors, and pondered their implications. That digestive process is still at work, helped along, no doubt, by the analysis and follow through provided by newspapers and broadcast media.

That's one lesson that can be drawn from Starr's place in cyberspace. Instead of eclipsing traditional print, the Web's instant, raw access may underscore the older medium's continuing strengths of analysis, context, reaction, and history.

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