Tilting at Rumor Mills

Tilting at Rumor Mills

Now that the Constitution has been rescued and sexual McCarthyism discredited, perhaps the most durable legacy of the Lewinsky mess is the central location of the right-wing slime machine on th


Now that the Constitution has been rescued and sexual McCarthyism discredited, perhaps the most durable legacy of the Lewinsky mess is the central location of the right-wing slime machine on the American political landscape.

Consider the toxic spill effect of Juanita Broaddrick’s decision to reverse her sworn testimony and insist to reporters that, in fact, Bill Clinton did rape her more than twenty years ago. NBC News worked the story for months but held it until February 24 as it sought to investigate Broaddrick’s story. During this period Matt Drudge hysterically charged that the network’s news president, Andrew Lack, “knowingly stood by as the White House manipulated NBC owner General Electric.” His source: an anonymous “senior executive at another network.” In other words, he had no source at all. There’s more. “‘Andy Lack should resign. Resign now. We have to save our face,’ declared one insider.” Insider? Insider where? Drudge’s sock drawer? Lucianne Goldberg’s cigarette holder? It gets worse: “It is not clear,” Drudge wrote, “if White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart has been in personal contact with NBC News President Lack, or to what lengths Lockhart has gone to keep the story bottled up.” In other words, “I make this stuff up as I go along.”

The story ultimately broke on February 19, when the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal joined its erstwhile political and journalistic comrade Drudge. Deploying tear-jerking prose, right-wing ideologue Dorothy Rabinowitz accepted Broaddrick’s claims at face value. She wrote, “To encounter this woman, to hear the details of her story and the statements of the corroborating witnesses, was to understand that this was in fact an event that took place.” The trusting editorial writer–“I am not a hard news reporter,” she has explained–asked Broaddrick no uncomfortable questions and turned up no contemporaneous evidence. Nor did she raise the issue of a voluntary polygraph. Woman-to-woman, Rabinowitz simply decided that Broaddrick’s twenty-one-year-old claims were true, and the massive news-disseminating resources of the Dow Jones Company were marshaled behind a story that its news division wouldn’t touch. Following this act of journalistic recklessness, the paper’s editors chided NBC for its commitment to ethical standards and even compared their own work to George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.

The Journal‘s extremist editorial page feeds on the credibility its news division has earned, even though its ideologically inspired flights of fancy often contradict its hard news reporting. Nevertheless, the story gets wings simply because it has the appearance of having run in a “respectable” outlet. Coverage in the wake of the Journal‘s bombshell was remarkably subdued, however, with much of it focusing on the ethical questions raised by the Rabinowitz story. Alone in hyping the sensational aspects of Broaddrick’s unsupported allegations were right-wing entrepreneurs Rupert Murdoch and Sun Myung Moon. Murdoch’s New York Post put it on the front page. His Fox News gasbags flogged it endlessly over the weekend. Moon’s Washington Times made further cover-up accusations against NBC. The stories that followed, predating NBC’s opening of the floodgates, appeared in the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, Time, USA Today, CBS News and the New York Times. All were defensibly handled, though arguable in terms of news value, given the paltry evidence supporting Broaddrick’s account.

I do not claim to know whether Bill Clinton raped Juanita Broaddrick, but I do know that rape is one of the most serious charges that can be leveled against a man–even one as morally challenged as the President. It is also the easiest allegation to make against a man of undeniable promiscuity. Waiting so long to make the charge and failing to present compelling evidence seems to mortally wound the credibility of the one making it. Leveling the charge in the Clinton-hating Journal editorial page hardly inspires confidence.

Even with the balance of news organizations deciding to behave responsibly in this instance, it was still not enough to keep the poison out of the system. This time it was Drudge, the Journal, Murdoch, Moon and finally NBC. Next time it might be Geraldo, Ollie North, John McLaughlin or any of the carnival barkers who now play journalist on TV. The explosion of the punditocracy, the hegemony of tabloidism and the continued dominance within both worlds of smut-minded conservatives have created a scandal machine that feeds on itself. As if locked inside a virtual prison camp, our democracy has no escape. Now, back to JonBenet.

Meanwhile, On Stalkers, Journalists and Lunch.

Neatly combining sex, fiction and ideology, the New York Post, the Wall Street Journal editorial page and other right-wing outlets have also been spreading a conveniently insane story designed to discredit the nation’s most effective liberal pundit, Frank Rich. According to the Post‘s Page Six, Rich left his wife for a Broadway director whose work he promoted in the Newspaper of Record by virtue of his behind-the-scenes lordship over its theater coverage. On the day following a particularly favorable Times Arts and Leisure piece–allegedly orchestrated by Rich–Arthur Sulzberger Jr. retaliated against the writer by doing away with Rich’s twice-weekly column and forcing him to write a 1,400-word Op-Ed essay twice a month and longer articles for the Times magazine. The new job, reports the Journal, is “generally viewed as a demotion.”

In fact, Rich’s marriage is doing fine, as is the relationship between his alleged lover and that man’s longtime companion. The person responsible for peddling the fictional story through Page Six is a theater writer of little repute who has been journalistically stalking Rich and his wife, Times writer Alex Witchel, for nearly eight years. Moreover, Rich has had nothing to do with the Times theater coverage for more than five years. He has for some time, however, hoped to create a new job for himself exactly like the one Times publisher Sulzberger announced in the paper on February 2. How can I be sure? We talked about it more than a year ago…at lunch. Just don’t ask me to sign any affidavits.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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