What We Got Wrong When Covering the Bill Clinton Sexual Abuse Allegations

In this #MeToo moment, looking back at our coverage.

Jessica Stites

The Feb. 7, 1999, issue of In These Times was devoted to Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial, then in its fifth week, on February 12, he was acquitted.

The Har­vey Wein­stein rev­e­la­tions have stirred up uncom­fort­able ques­tions about the past. On Nov. 10, 2017, MSNBC host Chris Hayes (senior edi­tor at In These Times from 2005 to 2006) tweet­ed:

We were right to question Kenneth Starr’s integrity; as independent progressive media, we have a mandate to correct right-wing distortions. But in the 1990s, we let the political battles blinker our ability to see what was unfolding on the national stage.
As gross and cyn­i­cal and hyp­o­crit­i­cal as the right’s what about Bill Clin­ton” stuff is, it’s also true that Democ­rats and the cen­ter left are over­due for a real reck­on­ing with the alle­ga­tions against him.

In that spir­it, we look back at In These Times’ cov­er­age of the events. From 1998 through 1999, In These Times pub­lished 22 arti­cles dis­cussing the Mon­i­ca Lewin­sky scan­dal. One recur­ring theme was the nefar­i­ous­ness of Inde­pen­dent Coun­sel Ken­neth Starr, who, after spend­ing $40 mil­lion on fruit­less inves­ti­ga­tions into File­gate, Trav­el­gate and White­wa­ter, start­ed look­ing at any­thing that might bring down the Clin­ton administration.

In the issue dat­ed Oct. 14, 1998, Robert Par­ry wrote:

We are wit­ness­ing a kind of post­mod­ern polit­i­cal coup against the pres­i­dent, over charges that are essen­tial­ly triv­ial: a pathet­ic attempt to con­ceal a tawdry extra­mar­i­tal affair. Cer­tain­ly, the offense pales in seri­ous­ness when com­pared to the con­sti­tu­tion­al vio­la­tions com­mit­ted by Richard Nixon in Water­gate and by Ronald Rea­gan and George Bush in the Iran-Con­tra and relat­ed scandals.

The pre­vi­ous March, in his col­umn, School for Scan­dal: Ken­neth Starr Grad­u­ates Vale­dic­to­ri­an,” Joel Blei­fuss wrote:

Mon­i­ca Lewin­sky, the 24-year-old for­mer intern who alleged­ly had sex­u­al rela­tions with the pres­i­dent, is not par­ty to a con­spir­a­cy. Clin­ton may have had an affair with the young woman, but that has no bear­ing on the fact that, in a larg­er sense, Hillary Clin­ton is right: A strong case can be made that the Repub­li­can right orches­trat­ed this scan­dal in an ongo­ing attempt to destroy the Clin­ton pres­i­den­cy. Like pre­vi­ous Clin­ton scan­dals, this sto­ry fol­lows a famil­iar tra­jec­to­ry, pass­ing from par­ti­san insid­ers to the right-wing media to Inde­pen­dent Coun­sel Ken­neth Starr’s end­less inves­ti­ga­tion — and from there into the nation­al news. If this lat­est scan­dal is like the oth­ers, it will even­tu­al­ly all come to naught.

Today, Joel, now edi­tor and pub­lish­er, says that, rather than describe Bill Clin­ton and Mon­i­ca Lewinsky’s 17-month-long sex­u­al rela­tion­ship as an affair,’ I could have asked: Is con­sen­su­al sex pos­si­ble between a 22-year-old White House intern and the pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States?”

Econ­o­mist Julianne Malveaux was one of the few In These Times con­trib­u­tors to point out the pow­er imbal­ance between Lewin­sky and Clin­ton. Her Oct. 14, 1998, arti­cle, The White House Play­ers Club,” reads:

While par­ti­san Repub­li­cans say the Starr report is not just about sex,” it men­tions sex more than 500 times, lying a cou­ple hun­dred times, a cig­ar about 40 times and White­wa­ter only twice. It is impos­si­ble for this pro­gres­sive Demo­c­ra­t­ic fem­i­nist to argue in sup­port of Pres­i­dent Clinton’s behav­ior, but it is equal­ly impos­si­ble to argue that Starr’s report is about any­thing but polit­i­cal entrap­ment. … Hav­ing said all that, where does that leave women in the work­place? Mon­i­ca Lewin­sky is no dif­fer­ent from mil­lions of sub­or­di­nate women who have had to use what they got to get what they want.’ Some have done it con­sen­su­al­ly and eager­ly, oth­ers halt­ing­ly and under duress. In the lat­ter case, we call it sex­u­al harass­ment and pros­e­cute boss­es who coerce sex from their work­ers. Con­sen­su­al sex in the work­place, though, is not a vic­tim­less event. It boils up, spills over and poi­sons work­place inter­ac­tions. That’s why the law and the pub­lic frown on author­i­ty fig­ures who use their pow­er to facil­i­tate rela­tion­ships with subordinates. 
These are not always exploita­tive rela­tion­ships, but they have an exploita­tive appear­ance because of the imbal­ance of pow­er. Those who under­stand the inequal­i­ty of pow­er between men and women have con­sis­tent­ly been con­cerned with the inher­ent pos­si­bil­i­ty for coer­cion in Clin­ton-Lewin­sky type relationships.

In a fol­low-up tweet, Hayes post­ed a link to a sto­ry about Juani­ta Broaddrick’s alle­ga­tion that in April 1978, then-Arkansas Attor­ney Gen­er­al Bill Clin­ton raped her in a Lit­tle Rock hotel room. In the wake of Wein­stein, Hayes asked, Does this sound familiar?”

In Feb­ru­ary 1999, the New York Times, fol­low­ing an inter­view with Broad­drick, reported:

Short­ly after he arrived [at a pre­arranged busi­ness meet­ing in her hotel room], she said, Mr. Clin­ton moved close to her and tried to kiss her, suc­ceed­ing only in bit­ing her upper lip, hard. Then, she said, he forced her down on to the bed and had inter­course with her.
I was so total­ly sur­prised, total­ly shocked,’’ she said.
After­ward, she said, he got up from the bed, put on his sun­glass­es, and while walk­ing to the door, said, You’d bet­ter put some ice on that,’’ refer­ring to her bruised and bit­ten lip. Then he left.

The name Juani­ta Broad­drick has nev­er pre­vi­ous­ly appeared in the pages of In These Times.

We were right to ques­tion Ken­neth Starr’s integri­ty; as inde­pen­dent pro­gres­sive media, we have a man­date to cor­rect right-wing dis­tor­tions. But in the 1990s, we let the polit­i­cal bat­tles blink­er our abil­i­ty to see what was unfold­ing on the nation­al stage. 

We became com­plic­it in sidelin­ing and silenc­ing women’s reports of sex­u­al abuse. In the months ahead, with more rev­e­la­tions to come, we have a chance to do better.

Jes­si­ca Stites is Exec­u­tive Edi­tor of In These Times, where she runs the Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing and edits sto­ries on labor, neolib­er­al­ism, Wall Street, immi­gra­tion, mass incar­cer­a­tion and racial jus­tice, among oth­er top­ics. Before join­ing ITT, she worked at Ms. mag­a­zine and George Lakof­f’s Rock­ridge Insti­tute. Her writ­ing has been pub­lished in the Los Ange­les Review of Books, Ms., Bitch, Jezebel, The Advo­cate and Alter­Net. She is board sec­re­tary of the Chica­go Read­er and a for­mer Chica­go Sun-Times board member.

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