News coverage of the attacks on the First Lady says some disturbing things about the role the media now play in American politics.

Since Hollywood played an important role in helping to elect the Clintons, it may be instructive to pause for a moment to consider what is happening to the Clinton White House. A brief warning: The writer of this column has voted over the years for more Republicans than Democrats.

For three years now, the Republican leadership has been assuring us that Hillary Rodham Clinton would ultimately become a major embarrassment to the Democrats, and they’ve worked feverishly to make this come about. At this point in time, however, the biggest embarrassment over Hillary-bashing has been to the news media, not to the White House.

As evidence, one need only examine the way four major newspapers covered the never-ending investigation of firings in the White House travel office. Two newspapers, the New York Times and USA Today, concluded recently that the hearings demonstrated, as the Times headlined it, that the “First Lady Did Not Order Dismissals, Ex-Aide Testifies.” On the other hand, the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times drew the opposite conclusion, the latter paper declaring in its headline that “Hillary Clinton’s Credibility Takes a Hit.”

All of which underscores that the news media, print and TV have absolutely no idea how to handle a situation in which a public figure in politics or in showbiz comes under siege. In the case of the First Lady, what the media have done is to dutifully carry the sound bites about Whitewater or “Travelgate” and hope it all adds up to something.

But what if it doesn’t? All three network national news shows have faithfully carried Senator Alfonse D’Amato’s diatribes against Hillary, but some of the people who run these shows concede they’ve been snookered. D’Amato and his candidate of choice, Bob Dole, have obviously decided that the Hillary-bashing probe, which thus far has cost taxpayers $30 million, is the best way to erode confidence in Democratic leadership. The trouble is that a lot of viewers are growing sick and tired of the nightly fusillades. Included among them are the network presidents, who have cooled on Dole now that his status as GOP frontrunner is in doubt and because he held up passage of the telecom reform bill by advocating auctions of digital TV spectrums, a position networks view as a naked tax hit.

It’s a fascinating commentary on social attitudes in this country that Hillary has become the most controversial First Lady in American history. Clearly the American public doesn’t trust strong women any more than it trusts lawyers, and Hillary is a strong woman lawyer who tends to respond to questions in a circumlocutory, lawyerly way.

Hollywood’s increasingly powerful and well-paid women executives and stars would do well to take note of this phenomenon in deciding what face to present in public. If Hillary scares that many people, then stars making more than $10 million a year should perhaps weigh the impact of their own social and political positions.

The remarkable thing about Hillary-bashing is that it emanates from the very heart of the so-called “media elite.” Three of the New York Times’ regular columnists, William Safire, Maureen Dowd and A.M. Rosenthal, endlessly natter on about the First Lady’s evil deeds. Rosenthal, a former executive editor, raged incoherently that Bill Clinton, in ceding his wife so much power, has “evaded the law and democratic practice.” According to Rosenthal, it’s OK for the president’s wife to occupy the position of “First Gadfly,” like Eleanor Roosevelt, but not “First Ladyship,” like Hillary. Eleanor simply “nagged” her husband on policy matters, but didn’t actually articulate policy, Rosenthal tells us, thereby espousing a fascinating precept that the role of women is to be obnoxious, not constructive.

Not surprisingly, the Wall Street Journal has also done its utmost to blow Whitewater into something important, but even its most loyal readers are beginning to nod off with the daily tirades.

The problem facing the Hillary-bashers is that many reasonable people have started asking some hard questions: What exactly has Hillary done? Did she start the war in Bosnia? Did she send troops to rescue Saddam Hussein? Did she dispatch CIA operatives to assassinate foreign heads of state?

If the news media passively participate in character assassination, they are tacitly endorsing this practice as a weapon of political strategy.

As a result of “the destructive instincts of today’s media,” notes James Fallows in his new book, “Breaking the News,” people and policies are being destroyed, not through democratic debate, but by “the tyranny of leak and scandal.”

Many critics, particularly on the right, enjoy denouncing Oliver Stone’s films on the grounds that he distorts history, but Stone emphasizes that he is striving for theater, not fact. The network news, however, is supposed to present fact, not theater. I think it’s time to send in the old sandbag and remove Alfonse D’Amato from center stage. For all his furor, D’Amato and the Republicans have hurt the credibility, not of the president, but of the presidency and government as a whole. And we in the media shouldn’t allow ourselves to become his cheering section.

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