The press has its own version of Gresham's Law: the tendency, in the competition for readers, is to let the scandalous and sensational drive out serious news. An example is the press in Britain, where the tittle-tattle of the tabloids has lately infected the news judgment of the quality papers.

In the past week the American press has faced - and most of it flunked - a test of its resistance to the cheap and scurrilous. A story about the sex life of President Clinton, though dubious in its evidence and its promoters, nevertheless proved irresistible to most newspapers and broadcasters.Two Arkansas state troopers claimed they had arranged or overseen numerous assignations for Clinton when he was governor. Pushing their story was Cliff Jackson, an Arkansas lawyer long obsessed with hatred of Bill Clinton.

The story first broke into print in The American Spectator, a right-wing magazine devoted to cackling attacks on Democrats and liberals. The author was David Brock, the man who described Anita Hill as "a bit nutty, and a bit slutty," who has made himself chief manure-spreader for the extreme right.

If those auspices were not enough to make any reasonable editor wary of repeating the tale, there was the actual content of the Brock article. It quoted the two troopers, and two alleged others who withheld their names, as describing approaches by Clinton to many women, some of them strangers. Yet not one woman was produced in support of the charges.

The tone of the article is a wonderful mixture of salaciousness and piety. Here is Brock describing the motives of the troopers:

"They have come forward now because they believe the reckless personal behavior they witnessed by then-Gov. Clinton, if continued by the president, a subject on which they cannot speak authoritatively, could constitute a risk to the national security of the United States by making the president easy prey for blackmailers."

As Oscar Wilde said of a famous scene in Dickens, "One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing."

Yet numerous papers and broadcasters used the Brock story as the basis for articles on Clinton's sex life - apparently on the theory that a charge is news once it appears anywhere. That is Gresham's Law in operation.

The Los Angeles Times, one of the country's best newspapers, did its own reporting on the troopers' charges and published a long article - still without evidence from any woman. CNN, ABC and then others interviewed the troopers and repeated their charges. The Wall Street Journal printed nothing. The New York Times used only a brief wire story until Hillary Rodham Clinton denounced the charges.

Some editors, no doubt embarrassed, rationalized their decision by saying they were concerned not with sex but with a possible cover-up. But of course that was just a rationalization for an appeal to the readers' prurient interest. So was the tired claim that the issue was Clinton's "character."

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The voters had that issue before them in 1992, when charges of extramarital affairs were fully aired. Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution said correctly: "No one voted for Bill Clinton thinking they voted for a choir boy."

The most striking thing about these charges is their irrelevance to the real issues of the Clinton presidency. If we are worried about the morality of Bill Clinton, we should be asking why he is silent in the face of genocide in Bosnia - why he says nothing when Serbian aggressors agree to a Christmas truce and then, the next day, pour shells into Sarajevo.

There is much to criticize in this administration, along with much to praise. But only someone driven by hate would make the president's most intimate life the test. As the record of great figures in history shows, the correlation between a politician's sexual fidelity and his or her contribution to mankind is zero.

I do not pretend that it is easy for an editor to stay away from a story like this one, but then courage is what editors are for. I asked David Shaw, the greatly respected media critic of The Los Angeles Times, what he thought of his own paper's decision to publish. He said: "It's a tough call, but if I'd been the editor I wouldn't have run it."

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