The ugliest story yet

Why the Wall Street Journal ran the Clinton rape story that no other reputable news organization would touch.


Joan Walsh
February 20, 1999 11:45PM (UTC)

When the story of Juanita Broaddrick, the Arkansas nursing home owner who claims President Clinton raped her in 1978, quietly appeared on the Wall Street Journal's editorial page Friday, its placid tone of worried sympathy did not betray the rough, partisan road the tale had traveled before seeing print.

Of all the allegations against Clinton, it is by far the ugliest. Broaddrick claims Clinton sexually assaulted her in her Little Rock hotel room, and roughed her up in the process, when she was a volunteer in his first campaign for governor.

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But the story is not new. The Broaddrick allegation has been traveling in right-wing circles at least since Clinton ran for president in 1992. In 1994, attorneys for Paula Jones tried to confirm it, but Broaddrick denied it, submitting an affidavit swearing that the allegation was untrue.

Then, 11 months ago, Broaddrick's name surfaced nationally, when independent counsel Kenneth Starr subpoenaed the Jones lawyers to get information on Broaddrick and three other women believed to have had sexual relationships with Clinton. These "Jane Does" and their stories became a particularly lurid but short-lived sideshow in the impeachment trial, when sealed materials from Starr's investigation of those allegations were shown to selected House members on the eve of the impeachment trial.

Reporters have circled around the Broaddrick story for more than six years now, trying to confirm it, treating its radioactive allegations against the president with understandable caution. Now, with impeachment over, the Wall Street Journal chose to run an interview with Broaddrick on its editorial page, penned by Dorothy Rabinowitz, a journalist best known, ironically, for her work debunking false claims of sexual abuse.

Rabinowitz did not try to debunk Broaddrick's claims. She depicts her sympathetically, as a woman twice victimized: once by Clinton, and then again by NBC News, which Rabinowitz says interviewed Broaddrick and at least four corroborating witnesses, but then sat on the story, presumably out of political cowardice.

The Wall Street Journal's editorialists go further than Rabinowitz in accusing NBC News of playing politics with the truth. "With the revelations about the Juanita Broaddrick story by Dorothy Rabinowitz," a Friday Journal Review and Outlook speculated huffily, "perhaps NBC President Andy Lack will stop censoring his news division."

But significantly, the Journal's own news
division didn't produce the Broaddrick story. It was the work of an editorial board member, not a reporter, and it ran on the paper's notoriously anti-Clinton editorial page. The Broaddrick story is indeed a window onto the world of journalistic decision-making, but the view isn't exactly what the Journal's editorialists would have you see.

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As told to Rabinowitz, Broaddrick's story is this: She was a 35-year-old Clinton campaign volunteer who met the Arkansas attorney general when he visited the nursing home she owned during his initial run for governor. Clinton invited her to visit him any time she traveled to Little Rock, and she did, calling his campaign office when she attended a conference there the very next week. Clinton proposed meeting for coffee, Broaddrick told Rabinowitz, and then, when the restaurant proved to be crowded, suggested they have coffee in her hotel room.

Once there, Clinton embraced Broaddrick, and when she resisted, according to Rabinowitz, "He got her down onto the bed, held her down forcibly, and bit her lips." Rabinowitz goes on: "The sexual entry itself was not without pain, because of her stiffness and resistance." Afterwards, Clinton allegedly told Broaddrick not to worry about pregnancy, because mumps had left him sterile, and suggested she put ice on her swollen lips.

According to Rabinowitz, Broaddrick's story was corroborated by a "friend," Norma Rogers, who found Broaddrick in her room "in a state of shock -- lips swollen to double their size, mouth discolored from the biting, her pantyhose torn in the crotch."

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"To encounter this woman, to hear the details of her story and the statements of the corroborating witnesses, was to understand that this was an event that took place," Rabinowitz concludes -- an astonishingly uncritical acceptance of the most heinous charge ever leveled against the president. Rabinowitz criticizes NBC for sitting on the story for nearly a month even though it had been "exhaustively investigated" and "NBC researchers had combed through the Broaddricks' entire lives, through dusty basement files and court records." The interview took place on Jan. 20, the weeks passed and the NBC feature never ran. Why? Rabinowitz sarcastically quotes NBC News president Lack's "simple, uplifting message": the story needed to be fact-checked to ensure it was "rock-solid" journalism.

In fact, many news organizations have tried to confirm Broaddrick's story and failed. It was first revealed by Phillip Yoakum, a gadfly Republican businessman who says the nursing home owner told him about it in 1981. In 1992, he urged Broaddrick to come forward in a letter he later gave to the Paula Jones lawyers.

"I was particularly distraught when you told me of your brutal rape by Bill Clinton," he wrote. "What a shock to now realize he will possibly be the president of a free democratic country while carrying the guilt of such an assault on someone as undeserving as you ... I believe that you will continue to be irreparably psychologically damaged by your decision to continue to hold this brutal rape inside."

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As part of his campaign to get Broaddrick to tell her story, Yoakum admitted in the letter, he had taped her version of it and given the tapes to Sheffield Nelson, a Republican who ran against Clinton for governor in 1990. Yoakum said he told the story to the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press just after Clinton's presidential nomination. But he refused to release the tapes, and both news organizations dropped the matter.

It remained dropped until Broaddrick's name appeared in Starr's subpoena of Jones lawsuit materials last March. At that time, Yoakum's letter was released, and the Washington Post ran it, omitting Broaddrick's name. On March 28, Lisa Myers broadcast an interview with Yoakum in which he made his allegations about the rape. She also quoted an unnamed friend of
Broaddrick, whom she did not name, who confirmed that Broaddrick had told
her the same story.

The rape allegation became news again in December when House Republicans began showing sealed materials on Broaddrick, then still known as Jane Doe No. 5, to House members wavering on impeachment. House Whip Tom DeLay was also urging senators to view the files full of unconfirmed allegations against the president, which were stored in the Ford Office Building, prompting Democrats and even some Republicans to object. At the time, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., told Salon the Broaddrick allegations were "unconfirmed hearsay," and called DeLay "totally irresponsible" for urging senators to look at the sealed materials as they prepared for the impeachment trial.

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Over the past year many reporters have looked into Broaddrick's allegation and come away unconvinced.

"This is a story that's been knocked down and discredited so many times, I was shocked to see it in the Journal today," says Jack Nelson, Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times. "Well, not shocked, since it ran on the editorial page. Everyone's taken a slice of it, and after looking at it, everyone's knocked it down. The woman has changed her story about whether it happened. It just wasn't credible. I don't know if NBC will run it, but if they do, they'll do it knowing there are real problems with it."

Significantly, the Wall Street Journal's own news department has declined to run the Broaddrick story in its pages. When asked if Journal reporters had pursued it, the paper's Washington bureau chief, Alan Murray, replied, "I'm not going to comment on how we devote our resources. But you're right to observe this has not appeared in our news pages, except in brief references." The Journal was the first to report that House managers were showing Starr's sealed "Jane Doe" material, Murray says. Later, in its Washington Wire column, the paper revealed that House Judiciary Committee counsel David Schippers had decided not to include the Broaddrick materials in the impeachment trial, since she had given different versions of the story and there was no evidence of obstruction of justice by the Clinton administration in the changed tales.

But Journal editor Robert Bartley told Salon in an e-mail: "We would not have been comfortable with the Broaddrick story if we hadn't had first-hand interviews with her and others. Except for NBC, no one else had the interview. It ran on the editorial page because it was an editorial page project. We often do our own reporting, as in the previous Dorothy Rabinowitz stories on the child-abuse scare, which over the years freed four people from prison."

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Clearly, Rabinowitz's coup was getting an interview with Broaddrick, who has refused to talk with any other reporters besides Myers. But her concept of corroboration is a little weak, relying solely on friends and family members to whom Broaddrick told the story. Rabinowitz makes much of the fact that Broaddrick recalls looking out her hotel room window with Clinton at an old jail house and hearing him say that when he became governor he was going to renovate the place (an ironic memory, given the prison scandals that rocked Clinton's term as governor). "The building was later torn down," Rabinowitz reports breathlessly, "but in the course of their searches, NBC's investigators found proof that, as Mrs. Broaddrick said, there had been such a jail at the time."

NBC officials declined to comment on the story, except to say it was "still alive," in the words of Lisa Myers. But a network source told Salon that while Broaddrick seems "credible," NBC is still trying to get "independent" corroborating evidence.

"I have a hard time being critical of a news
organization if their rationale for holding an interview is to be sure that
it reflects an accurate story," says Sandra Baron, executive director of the Libel Defense Resource Center and a former attorney
for NBC News.

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Other news organizations don't adhere to NBC's newsgathering standards. Matt Drudge began airing the Broaddrick charges after NBC stalled the story, accusing the network of political cowardice. Six days after Myers' interview with Broaddrick, Drudge charged, "White House pressure has network brass on pause," alleging that a "civil war" had broken out within NBC over whether to run the story, with Tom Brokaw allegedly threatening to quit if Myers' interview ran.

Fox News then aired Broaddrick's allegations Feb. 3, complete with her friend's tale of swollen lips and torn pantyhose, dispensing with the formality of interviewing Broaddrick herself. Rounding out the conservative pressure campaign, the Moonie-owned Washington Times then reported on alleged White House attempts to block the Fox story.

Will the Wall Street Journal story liberate other media organizations to pursue the Broaddrick allegations? Not so far. The story was briefly mentioned Friday morning on ABC's "Good Morning America," when Charles Gibson commented that it was "strange" and "curious" that the well-worn tale had appeared on the paper's editorial page instead of its news pages.


Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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