Ten years ago today, a news aggregator and part-time journalist named Matt Drudge broke the story of President Bill Clinton's liaison with intern Monica Lewinsky -- or, more precisely, he published on his website the fact the story had been spiked by Newsweek (the Times of London has a good synopsis of the event, with a useful rundown of the dramatis personae, here). Once out, there was no putting the toothpaste back in that tube.
Bill Clinton, as we know, coasted downhill to the end of his second term and became the itinerant lecturer in moral philosophy he is today. But Monica-gate (better, perhaps, "Monica-quiddick") has had enduring consequences beyond the Clinton household.
Post-Monica, the organized feminist movement ceased to carry any moral authority. Its original clout, like Martin Luther King's, was based on appeal to moral intuitions: first, a liberal appeal to equality of opportunity and of compensation; later, an appeal to sympathy for the underdog, based on a post-Marxist analysis of the imbalance of power relations. At the zenith of its prestige, feminism could topple or damage almost any male executive by charging him with creating a "hostile work environment" -- a fact determined wholly by the subjective reactions of his female subordinates. Faced with the possible downfall of Bill Clinton, however, feminists sacrificed moral clout for political expedience and threw their support behind the predator di tutti predatori, whence their vaunted "sisterhood" was revealed for what it was: just another grubby special interest group. Organized feminism still provides a voting and funding bloc to be reckoned with, but the disparity in its treatment of Anita Hill and Juanita Broaddrick has made it a moral laughingstock. Not even Democrats care what Susan Hoerchner thinks.
Post-Monica, the prestige media suffered a loss of face from which they never recovered. Partly this was because the networks and broadsheet newspapers were usually a couple days behind the Internet in delivering the goods; partly because the prestige media insinuated the Drudge stories were unreliable -- an insinuation that proved to be false; partly because people resented the claim of the prestige media that their reluctance and tardiness was professional rather than ideological in origin. In fact, Clinton's impeachment made the political stakes so high that the mainstream media abandoned any attempt to hide partisan bias. Time magazine White House correspondent Nina Burleigh admitted she was thrilled when Clinton once ogled her legs in the front cabin on Air Force One, and told an interviewer, "I'd be happy to give him (oral sex) just to thank him for keeping abortion legal." Surprised? If so, you haven't been paying attention.
Yet another casualty of the Bill & Monica saga was the conservative momentum that had taken off in 1994, during the mid-term elections. This was a paradox, since it was disgust for both Clintons that was the unifying factor of the '94 shake-up, and the Oval Office capers ought to have crystallized this detestation. Yet the compromises made (chiefly by Republican senators) during Clinton's impeachment trial revealed that conservatives did not enjoy a coherent moral unity, and that opposition to government funded health care did not always coexist with disapproval of adultery or perjury.
In important respects, the Drudge Report of January 17, 1998 played a role analogous to Judge Constance Sweeney's 2002 decision to make public the Boston Archdiocesan files on child abuse. The ground rules had changed and there was no going back. In both cases, it became impractical for the malefactors to cover lies with more lies. In both cases, the liars were slow to realize their their customary accomplices were no longer in a position to effect a rescue. In both cases, in making the choice for mendacity, a once-prestigious institution lost the benefit of the doubt regarding disclosure of its own operations. But let's not overstate the impact of Drudge or of Sweeney: in both cases, the chief malefactors in the drama are still at liberty. And prospering.
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Posted by: -
Jan. 21, 2008 9:55 AM ET USA
Other great myths killed in the 90's was that of "objectivity" on the part of the mainstream media, that they could be "gatekeepers" for important news, and anyone speaking in the name of the Church would never lie. In the case of Drudge, they really never forgave him. He insisted on showing the hand of an living unborn child grasping the finger of a surgeon against the wishes of Fox News mgmt. and has never been on television since then.
Posted by: -
Jan. 17, 2008 2:20 PM ET USA
Very crisp synopsis of those events which have led right into today's eerie political and social climate, however, with at least the Internet as a balance against the deceptions, omissions and outright fraud still being perpetrated by so much of the mainstream media. Radical feminism, at least, as you point out, has been knocked off its pedestal and now is just one more importuning victims' group among the dozen or out there.