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The chat heard round the world

ABC's interview with Monica Lewinsky was the most-watched TV newsprogram by a single network ever. The Monitor asked a leading culturalhistorian to comment.

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Just when you thought the national soap opera called Lewinskygate had finally ended - the Juanita Broaddrick sequel having failed to attract an audience - Monica Lewinsky returned for her big, two-hour, sweeps-week appearance with Barbara Walters, which was touted by ABC as if it were the sexual Super Bowl. In a way, the buildup for once was appropriate since the Lewinsky show may actually have been a signal moment in American journalistic history, perhaps even in American cultural history.

Its significance does not lie in its having stripped away some of the last pretensions of broadcast journalism as a serious news provender. Those perished long ago, which is why ABC's announcer could promise at the top of the interview that "you'll understand the president as you never have before and the woman who desperately loved him," as if he were teasing "Melrose Place," and why Ms. Walters later promised, "For the first time you will hear a startling revelation." In fact, the tagline for ABC News is now "the stories that touch your life," which, roughly translated, means the stories that are most likely to provide entertainment value rather than information value. Nor does the significance of the Lewinsky show lie in the way it certified the power of the media to confer celebrity, though one of its most striking aspects was Lewinsky's cool assumption of that role. Not only did she undergo a makeover for the session, she behaved as if she were a young starlet stepping out from a screen to show her fans what she's really like.

She was poised, blithe, and confessional. When she told stories on herself, like the one where she put her hands on her hips at age 2 and declared that nobody was her boss, she was clearly star-tripping - giving us a peek into her psychology just as movie stars do, and assuming that we cared to know her this way.


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