The controversy surrounding President Clinton is making history.
Not because a president had an affair. Presidents have done that before.
No, the history that's being made is the dawning of a new mass media, one that's perhaps more powerful than print or broadcast media: the Internet.
There have been other recent Internet media frenzies. When Princess Diana died in a Paris tunnel last summer, millions crowded onto the Internet to share their grief.
Let's not forget the Internet silliness that resulted from the Heaven's Gate tragedy or the crash of TWA Flight 800.
This story is different. First, it broke on the Internet, on the site of a notorious gossip who fancies himself a modern-day Walter Winchell.
The Drudge Report
Matt Drudge is a 31-year-old former store clerk with no background or training as a journalist. At his Drudge Report Web site -
http://www.drudgereport.com - he basically just repeats rumors that he's heard. When he was tipped that Newsweek magazine Jan. 17 had held an investigative piece about Mr. Clinton having an affair, he posted it with his flashing blue light.
In typical Internet fashion, the story - just an unsubstantiated rumor - quickly spread to newsgroups. Then to TV and radio talk shows.
Not only did people believe it, but a media feeding frenzy ensued.
Hits on Mr. Drudge's site increased 10-fold. Newsweek found itself knowing more but reporting less about the biggest story of the year.
So it turned to the Internet, quickly updating and publishing the story on America Online and the Washington Post Web site http://www.washingtonpost.com. (Newsweek is owned by the Post.)
Before the age of Internet news, you had to head down to the local newsstand and buy whatever magazines and newspapers you could find - or flip to CNN.
The Web allows us to quickly find and peruse hundreds of sites ranging from legitimate to lurid. The news is as immediate as television, yet infinitely broader in scope and sleeze.
Salon magazine http://www.salon.com posted a story about how Ms. Lewinsky's mother, writer Marcia Lewis, hints of an affair between Ms. Lewis and Placido Domingo in her 1996 book, The Private Lives of the Three Tenors - although most believe the claim is ridiculous.
Or you could link to the Portland Oregonian http://www.oregonian.com
to read about how Ms. Lewinsky might have forged a letter on her college stationery to help a friend and how college friends said she bragged about an affair she had with an older man.
And there are the numerous ''fan sites'' for Monica and the woman who taped her allegations, Linda Tripp.
The Internet is changing the way news is reported. Before the Internet, reputable news agencies reported facts dished out by reputable sources such as the government. Today, we struggle with myriad voices and media, and the Internet stirs the cauldron. We as a nation question much of what we're told.
The Internet is also accelerating news. The wired world is like a small town where rumor and gossip precede and sometimes replace the truth. Those on the Internet party line are sharing and shaping the news. Those who still haven't tapped in are left confused by the gossip that passes as fact.
TWA Flight 800 is a good example. While investigators puzzled over the tragedy, the Internet community developed its own story: The U.S. Navy mistakenly shot it down and then covered up the mistake. This absurd rumor hardened into an Internet ''fact'' and investigators practically reassembled the shredded airplane to disprove it.
Online journalist Michael Kinsley explains the phenomenon well in an essay for Time magazine http://www.pathfinder.com/time/magazine/1998/dom/980202/kinsley.html
''Clinterngate, or whatever we are going to call it, is to the Internet what the Kennedy assassination was to TV news: It's coming of age as a media force. Or some might say media farce. . . . After all, the Internet beat TV and print to this story, and ultimately forced it on them, for one simple reason: lower standards.''
Send e-mail to Charles Brewer at CBrewer@enquirer.com.