Scandalmania: The press just can’t help itself

Monday, March 1, 1999

How did Juanita Broaddrick’s accusation that Bill Clinton sexually assaulted her in a Little Rock hotel in the spring of 1978 wind up on the front pages of mainstream newspapers 21 years later?

Without taking sides on the truth of the story, it is worth noting how this
sensational and damaging allegation made its way from whispers, winks and
nods in an Arkansas gubernatorial race two decades ago to Topic No. 1 on the
nation’s talk shows last week.

What is true is that Mrs. Broaddrick never filed charges against Clinton,
nor did she ever go public with her story until recently, although Clinton’s
political opponents had tried to get her to for years.

She did swear out an affidavit and testify in a deposition taken by lawyers
in the Paula Jones lawsuit that the assault never happened, then retracted
that denial after the Office of Independent Counsel contacted her.

The FBI investigated and found the account “inconclusive,” and Kenneth Starr
apparently found it neither reliable enough nor relevant enough to include
as part of the open record in the report he sent to Congress.

Even though Rep. Tom Delay and other Clinton prosecutors in the House pushed
and pleaded, members of the Senate were not persuaded to go in droves to
examine the sealed account during the impeachment proceedings.

And a number of mainstream media organizations had been working the story
for months, if not years, but none had published or broadcast the story.

But there it was on the front page of The Washington Post on Feb. 20.
The headline read: “‘Jane Doe No. 5′ Goes Public With Allegation, Clinton
Controversy Lingers Over Nursing Home Owner’s Disputed 1978 Story.” In the
third paragraph of the story, the Post described Mrs. Broaddrick’s
account as an “ancient and unproven allegation,” then went on to devote 118
column inches to the story, including photo and sidebar.

There had been a trickle of reporting on the existence of the story, mainly
by Internet gossip columnist Matt Drudge, the Fox News Channel and The
Washington Times
before this, but publication of the story by The
Washington Post
lifted the flood gates. Most mainstream papers soon
followed with similar accounts, and the talk-show frenzy was on.

What moved Post editors to publish an “ancient and unproven” story
that its own reporters working on it for months had not yet nailed down? Why
go into detail on an inconclusive account with potential damage for all
parties, including the newspaper? Why resurrect a story that had been
published in outline a full year before after Paula Jones’s lawyers had
inserted it in a court filing?

The proximate cause, Post media writer Howard Kurtz reported in an
accompanying story, was the fact that Wall Street Journal columnist
Dorothy Rabinowitz had written about the accusation on the Journal‘s
editorial pages the day before. (Interestingly, the Journal‘s news
department did not choose to write a news story until six days later.)

The Rabinowitz column was only the immediate stimulus for the Post
story. Another reason, no doubt, was that the Post didn’t want to be
caught sitting on a hot story the way its sister publication,
Newsweek, was when Drudge reported more than a year ago that the news
weekly had “spiked” the story of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Nor would the Post have wanted to suffer the indignities heaped upon
NBC News for holding onto an exclusive interview with Juanita Broaddrick for
several weeks. NBC correspondent Lisa Myers went to Van Buren, Ark., early
this year and interviewed Mrs. Broaddrick. The interview was scheduled to
air on Jan. 29, but Myers’ bosses decided that further reporting was needed
before such a volatile story aired.

Someone tipped Drudge, who “exposed” the hold-up and speculated that NBC
News President Andrew Lack’s job was on the line for delaying the story.
Similar reporting about the reporting appeared in The Washington
and on the Fox News Channel. Brit Hume, Washington managing editor
for Fox, even wore a “Free Lisa Myers” button on air. Various groups
charged that the White House was pressuring NBC News executives to kill the
story; both NBC and the White House said that never happened, but Jerry
Falwell did exhort his followers to “inundate” the network with complaint

It’s certainly understandable that Post editors would not want to
endure that sort of assault on their news judgment. So, they launched what
some would contend was a preemptive strike against that judgment themselves.
That contention would not be entirely fair, however. The Post and
every other mainstream news organization is operating in a very different
journalistic environment these days. In this Matt-Drudge-Made-Me-Do-It
environment, it was inevitable that the Broaddrick story would reach
mainstream media eventually.

Here are just a few of the explanations that news executives routinely
invoke these days to justify giving assertions, allegations and accusations
roughly equal status to facts in their reporting:

  • Everyone already knows about the story and is talking about it
    (translation: It is the current “buzz” inside the Beltway).
  • This particular charge, IF true, is so shocking and terrible that we
    must warn the public.
  • We’re only covering the coverage of the sleaze, not the sleaze itself.
  • Don’t blame us, it’s our readers and viewers who demand this stuff.
  • We provide a balanced account, giving the target of a sensational
    accusation an opportunity to say it’s not true.
  • We’re telling the people what they need to know about the “character”
    of the president — or whoever the target may be.
  • We are just passing on the fact that the story is “out there”; it’s the Sunday
    gasbags who fan it into a full-blown scandal or controversy.

What the news executives don’t mention is that an embarrassingly significant
number of these stories make their way into their newspapers or newscasts by
way of whispering campaigns, leaks from anonymous people and groups with an
agenda, from tabloid fare, or from Internet gossip mongers.

What they don’t say is that deep down some of them fear being second or last
more than they fear being wrong.

What they won’t admit is that instead of sorting out the facts from the
fictions themselves, they are depending more on the good sense and the good
will of their readers and viewers, who in turn depend on the press to sort those things out.

In the end we are treated to the sad spectacle of mainstream news
organizations squandering a precious commodity, their credibility. As people
look on in disgust and dismay, the mainstream press dispenses ever-larger
doses of sleaze and rumors in a desperate and ultimately futile bid to win
back the audience it lost by doling out too much of that stuff in the first

Paul McMasters may be contacted at