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.