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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

VIEW FROM AMERICA: Media Queasy Over Claim of Clinton Rape




Now that Juanita Broaddrick has made her accusation against President Bill Clinton on national television, the question naturally arises: Where does the press go from here?


The conventions of journalism generally require a second-, third- or fourth-day lead, some legal or investigative machinery to propel the story line forward. But Clinton's already been impeached and acquitted, and the Paula Jones suit is settled. So Broaddrick's tearful account of a 21-year-old sexual assault, denied by Clinton's attorney, sort of hangs in the air.


Ordinarily, an allegation dating to 1978, with no police or medical records, would fall outside the journalistic statute of limitations. Many reporters, like much of the public, are suffering from scandal fatigue. But the seriousness of the charge made it difficult for the news outlets that interviewed Broaddrick to dismiss. And some commentators have questioned the lack of a detailed defense f even a personal denial f by the president.


The White House has refused to say whether Clinton acknowledges any relationship with the Arkansas woman, or even whether he was in the same Little Rock hotel on the day she says she was assaulted. And fairly or unfairly, Clinton's false, finger-wagging denial of a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky has boosted the normal level of media skepticism.


The Broaddrick allegation has followed a rocky path, causing considerable turmoil within NBC as network executives refused to run correspondent Lisa Myers' interview for more than a month. Angry viewers around the country accused NBC of "suppressing" or "censoring" her story; there were even unfounded suggestions of a cave-in to White House pressure.


Apparently these viewers fail to understand that journalists must try to corroborate charges before throwing them on the air. Still, cautious NBC executives waited until the coast was clear f after Broaddrick's allegation had already been reported by the Wall Street Journal editorial page and The Washington Post.


"There were honest differences of opinion as to whether NBC should run a story about a rape allegation about the president of the United States from 20 years ago when we simply cannot prove it," Myers said on MSNBC.


The media queasiness continues; ABC, while posting its own Broaddrick interview online, has not reported it as an on-air news story. But many editorial pages have been harsh. If the accusation is true, the Philadelphia Inquirer says, Clinton "is a sick man who needs psychiatric care." Says the Chicago Tribune: "Given Bill Clinton's known capacity for boorish and immoral sexual behavior, the charge does not seem incredible. And that is unnerving."


Should the story have been reported at all? In 1991 the press pounced on an allegation by a former aide to Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas that Thomas had sexually harassed her eight years earlier. Anita Hill had never complained before and had followed Thomas to a second job. If her story was news f and Hill never accused Thomas of laying a finger on her f how can Broaddrick's far more serious charge not be?


Howard Kurtz is staff writer for The Washington Post.