Long-Simmering Story Goes Mainstream
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 20, 1999; Page A9
Under pressure from angry viewers, NBC News has wrestled for weeks with whether to air an exclusive interview with an Arkansas woman who has accused President Clinton of sexually assaulting her 21 years ago.
NBC correspondent Lisa Myers got the first on-the-record interview with the woman last month, but NBC News President Andrew Lack and his top deputies have yet to run the story, maintaining that the network lacks sufficient corroboration of the woman's allegations.
Yesterday, the accusations exploded into public view when Dorothy Rabinowitz, a Wall Street Journal editorial board member, published her own account of a lengthy interview she had with the woman, Juanita Broaddrick. But NBC is still holding back its taped interview.
"There are moments in your life when you know . . . you know this is not a story that should be suppressed," Rabinowitz said yesterday. Broaddrick, she said, "is wealthy. There's no motive to lie. She's done nothing but hide from the press."
The differing approaches reflect the struggle of a number of news organizations, including The Washington Post, to deal with a delicate, long-ago allegation that could have affected the president's impeachment trial had it been carried in the mainstream press. What made this period extraordinary was that millions of people knew, largely through the Internet, the general outlines of Broaddrick's allegation.
Several NBC sources said Myers and her Washington bureau chief, Tim Russert, were frustrated by their inability to get the story on the air. They and other advocates believe that each time they came up with further corroboration, NBC management raises the evidentiary bar a little higher. They also feel badly about winning Broaddrick's trust, combing through her records and disrupting her life, only to keep holding the story, these sources said.
Myers, who has pursued Broaddrick for a year, would say only that the story "remains a work in progress. We learn something new every day." An NBC executive said that "there are some serious aspects of it that are still unable to be confirmed."
But Broaddrick eventually grew frustrated and agreed to talk to the Journal.
"I feel so betrayed by NBC," Broaddrick said yesterday. Her son, Kevin Hickey, said Myers had assured them after the taping that there was no chance the interview would not run as scheduled on Jan. 29. NBC also interviewed a friend of Broaddrick's who saw Broaddrick after the alleged assault and confirmed her account.
One question giving NBC pause is its failure to obtain a record placing Clinton at a Little Rock hotel where Broaddrick says the assault occurred on that day in 1978.
Several major news organizations, including The Post, reported the outline of the charge by "Jane Doe No. 5," as Broaddrick was called, when Paula Jones's attorneys included it in a court filing last March. Myers was one of the few journalists to identify Broaddrick by name. But the story was clouded because Broaddrick had denied the assault in an affidavit, which she would later retract after being contacted by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's office.
NBC has been deluged with telephone calls and e-mail since last month, when Internet columnist Matt Drudge reported that the network was holding Myers's interview. Jerry Falwell asked his followers to "inundate" the producer of "NBC Nightly News" with calls of complaint. Many people accused the network of bowing to White House pressure, though NBC officials say there was no such pressure.
Fox News Channel soon reported the Broaddrick allegations and NBC's role, with long-distance footage of her leaving a tennis club. "I didn't think it was a particularly hard call," said Brit Hume, Fox's Washington managing editor. "It was one of those cases where everyone knows the deal but readers and viewers. . . . She is telling a story that is relevant to what sort of man this is . . . which is what the Monica Lewinsky story is about." Hume once wore a "Free Lisa Myers" button on the air.
Washington Post reporter Lois Romano interviewed Broaddrick numerous times, but "the interviews we had conducted were off the record and we were not released from that pledge" until she went public elsewhere, Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. said. "We began working on corroboration, and that process was still ongoing." Downie noted that The Post reported in December that House Judiciary Committee Republicans were urging fellow GOP lawmakers to read the sealed evidence involving Jane Doe No. 5 – but that FBI interviewers had found her account "inconclusive."
The allegations spread further as they were cited in further Drudge reports, on other Web sites and on talk radio, as well as in the current issue of Newsweek. On MSNBC, Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah) told an anchor: "Everybody knows in Washington, D.C., that your colleague Lisa Myers has Jane Doe No. 5 on videotape and you haven't broken the story."
Despite the Journal report yesterday, NBC sources say, network executives feel they must stick by their earlier position, even if the story is breaking elsewhere.
Rabinowitz said she showed up in a limousine at Broaddrick's ranch in Van Buren, Ark., for a story on the media's handling of the matter and wound up talking to Broaddrick for two days. "I am not a hard-news reporter," Rabinowitz said. "I really don't like banging on people's doors. ... We were just hanging out. Then I got the rest of the story. ... I said, 'Do you mind if I quote that?' She said, 'No, go ahead.'"
The Journal maintains an unusually steep wall between its newsroom and its conservative editorial page, which has denounced Clinton for six years and published books about Whitewater. Editorial Page Editor Robert Bartley said he did not tell any news editor he was publishing Broaddrick's charges.
"To be sure, you want something that seems reasonable and credible," Bartley said. "But you don't hold a trial before you publish a news story."
Gerald Seib, deputy chief of the Journal's Washington bureau, said last night that he was not alarmed by the editorial page's decision not to alert the newsroom to the story. "They do what they do and we do what we do. It always surprises people, but that's the way it's always been. We wouldn't expect to know about it."
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