I respect the work of the liberal media watchdogs of Media Matters. I appreciate that its website has occasionally linked to my personal blog. Max Blumenthal, a staffmember at Media Matters, has written for The Nation and is a fellow blogger of mine (who isn’t?) at HuffingtonPost.com.
I am a friend of Michael Isikoff, who has been catching much flak for his 10-sentence Koran-in-a-john Newsweek item (cowritten with John Barry, another Newsweeker I know and like) that led to deadly rioting in Afghanistan.
Thus, I am saddened to see Media Matters piling on Isikoff in a selective manner. The MMers have a right to criticize Isikoff’s performance in this episode and to draw whatever conclusions they wish to regarding Isikoff’s and Newsweek‘s reporting practices. But their primary beef is that the mainstream media, while covering the Newsweek controversy, has not focused on Isikoff’s “checkered journalistic record.” What particularly ticks off the good folks at Media Matters–which was founded by David Brock, the right-wing journalist who defected from the conservative movement–is that Isikoff was a “leading reporter on the so-called ‘Clinton scandals’ in the 1990s, including the Paula Jones, Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky cases.”
Media Matters’ critique of Isikoff draws heavily from Sidney Blumenthal’s The Clinton Wars. (Sidney is Max’s justifiably proud father.) In that book, Sidney notes, “Isikoff never hesitated in plunging himself excitedly into a wilderness of sex rumors.” Using The Clinton Wars as its key source, Media Matter observes, “Isikoff’s leading role in reporting sex stories relied heavily on his relationships with [Linda] Tripp and [Lucianne] Goldberg, who provided leads, testimony, and tapes of secretly recorded conversations. However, Tripp’s and Goldberg’s actions were motivated by their personal interests: specifically, animosity toward Clinton and financial windfall.”
I have little desire to paddle about in the muck of those days. At the time, there was much debate on whether reporters should pursue stories on the personal lives of officials and politicians. (And journalists working all sorts of stories–sex-related or not–often have to deal with sources with ulterior motives. I’ve exposed one or two conservatives via such sources.) I have always had mixed feelings about in-the-bedroom stories. I was the first reporter to confirm the allegation that Representative Henry Hyde, the Republican chairman of the House judiciary committee and a chief foe of Bill Clinton, had been in an extramarital affair decades earlier. But the editors at The Nation chose not to publish that story. Salon had no such reluctance and exposed Hyde’s affair without me. When Brock was a journalist of the right he skewered Anita Hill, who had accused Judge Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, as “a little nutty and a little slutty.” (No hard feelings. Brock has apologized and made amends for that.) In the 1990s, I also followed up tips that Newt Gingrich, then the House Speaker leading the pro-family values Republicans, was cheating on his wife with a congressional aide. I never was able to confirm the leads and published nothing. But, as we know now, the whispers were true. Would The Nation had published that story? I don’t know. But Gail Sheehy in Vanity Fair slyly wrote about the relationship without nailing down the story.