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 Editorial Director 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.

Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.