Matt, Bill, and Monica

Dear Susan,

       Your last two dispatches, taken together, make fascinating reading. The first one suggests a crisis of conscience. When the Monica Lewinsky story first broke, you–along with many other Democrats and liberals–seem first to have decided, “That’s it! That’s one lie too many! I’m through with him.” Forty-eight hours later, you–again like many other Democrats–seem to have (for the umpteenth time since January 1992) somehow stilled that voice of conscience. If sexual predation, lying to the American people, lying under oath, and witness-tampering are the price to be paid for preserving Madeleine Albright’s job, then the price must be paid.
       In the 1910s Max Beerbohm drew a series of cartoons titled “The Young Self Meets the Old Self.” I think he’d be hugely amused to see how much deceit and corruption the onetime idealists of 1968 are prepared to swallow to achieve their political ends. But, of course, this has little to do with our debate over Matt Drudge. Let me say first that Drudge’s role in the latest Clinton scandal has not been quite as positive as you seem to think. His alert tipped the Clinton people off that Monica Lewinsky was talking and thus cut off whatever possibility there was of inducing her to record the president telling her to skip town. If Clinton wriggles out of this one, Drudge may deserve some of the credit. Drudge also seems to have had a bad effect on the media’s inclination to check things thoroughly before broadcasting them. I wonder whether, pre-Drudge, ABC would have run with that weakly sourced story about an eyewitness to the president’s tryst with Lewinsky–a story it later had to back away from.
       Even this, however, is not what this debate has really been about. The crux of the matter seems to me to be this: You may remember the great 18th-century French novel Dangerous Liaisons. In that novel, the wicked count Valmont is attempting to seduce an empty-headed 15-year-old girl. One of his methods is to tell her scandalous (and untrue) stories about her mother’s sexual adventures, because–as he observes–there is no better way to debauch a girl than to cause her to lose respect for her parents. Something analogous is going on in our public life. Since 1970, the press has credulously repeated all sorts of wild allegations about national leaders, many of them untrue or unproved. A new book edited by Joseph Nye of Harvard University argues–compellingly, it seems to me–that this barrage of media skepticism is one important cause of the steady deterioration of popular respect for political institutions and political leaders. Alas, when you convince the public, as we journalists have successfully done, that everyone in public life is crooked, you so diminish public expectations that people find it difficult to muster much outrage when a real crook comes along.
       As we enter Week 3 of this latest Clinton scandal, we are confronted by the following paradox: Every journalist in Washington, or nearly so, believes that Clinton at a minimum lied repeatedly and in ever more emphatic terms on national television about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. A substantial majority, I’d wager, now believe that he is involved in the orchestration of perjury, not just in the Lewinsky affair but in connection with the Whitewater scandal as well. We are all puzzled by the president’s stubbornly high poll ratings in the face of the mounting evidence of wrongdoing. But we shouldn’t be. By our own willingness to publish unsubstantiated allegations, we have helped to convince the public that wrongdoing is far more pervasive and commonplace in public life than it really is–a conviction immensely beneficial to wrongdoers.
       Libel laws are good for the press, for exactly the same reason that strict disclosure rules are good for the securities industry. By assuring the public that damaging allegations are printed only when they can be supported, they fortify public confidence in the news. That makes it harder, at a time like this, for the public to roll its eyes in pseudosophisticated but ultimately mistaken cynicism.
       Wife-beating by Sidney Blumenthal is one of the rare crimes this White House seems affirmatively innocent of. I believe the events of the past three weeks have demonstrated, once again, how essential a free press is to a democracy; how crucial its role in holding public figures accountable and exposing lies; and therefore how valuable and necessary the libel laws are to ensure that the immense power of the press is not abused and therefore squandered.