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10 Years Later: My Part in the Lewinsky Cover-Up

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Matt Drudge broke the Monica Lewinsky story ten years ago this week. It was a epochal event -- the birth of internet journalism -- but it also proved a well-worn adage about technology and communication, from woodcuts to VHS: It will only take off when someone figures out how to use it for porn.

The Columbia Journalism Review called it one of the ten key dates in the media history of the 20th Century. (Along with the single-lens reflex camera, the Tet Offensive, and the birth of Lara Logan.) And I was there.

My end? Ten years ago, this week, I was part of the traditional (elitist, liberal, mainstream, Hollywood, drive-by) media conspiracy to ignore it.

And we would have gotten away with it, too! If not for that darn, meddling preponderance of evidence.

(Wait, I forgot "so-called." Whenever you're calling the media elitist, liberal, mainstream, etc you also have to say "so-called." The "so-called" radio. I don't know why it's a rule, but it is.)

Back in 1998, I was head writer of a "so-called" late night talk show. Being head writer entitled me to my own parking space, an office with a window -- well, a view of a window -- and permission to skip the daily 1:00 pm meeting where the executive producers and senior bookers held a conference call with the East Coast.

At this meeting, the show's connections in Washington and New York would treat everyone to the inside dope on what was really happening in politics. They knew their stuff because, well, it was at least three hours later there, so they were living in the future.

I was allowed to skip this meeting so that I could catch up on my other duties, after spending the morning writing monologue. I may have also been allowed to opt out after taping a picture to the speakerphone of a grinning zombie on a police radio with the voice balloon "Must... Eat... Brains!"

(Or maybe that was later. Either way.)

I usually finished my work in about five minutes, and then I'd get some chili from the commissary, walk to the used bookstore around the corner or take a nap.

On Monday, January 19th, 1998, the producers' meeting ended in a flurry of excitement. (Totally distracting me from a game of RISK.) In the hallway outside my office, one of the producers told the writer who'd been covering Paula Jones that he'd need to write an emergency update. This was big: An Internet newsletter claimed that Newsweek was sitting on a story about a new woman who'd been sexually harassed by President Clinton.

WRITER X
I know. Kathleen Willey.

PRODUCER
No, a new woman.

WRITER X
Kathleen Willey.

PRODUCER
No, in the White House.

WRITER X
Yes. That's Kathleen Willey.

PRODUCER
No, a new woman.

WRITER X
You're talking about Kathleen Willey. I wrote it already.

(An awkward beat. Another awkward beat. A silent, seething battle of wills.)

WRITER X (CONT'D)
Okay. Whatever.

Writer X came into my office and I agreed that the East Coast didn't know what they were talking about. It's Kathleen Willey again. And even if it isn't, there's nothing to discuss. What's the host supposed to ask?

"I know someone who knows someone who heard this Internet rumor about a story that's not going to appear in Newsweek. Jimmy "J.J." Walker -- your thoughts?"

WRITER X
What do I do?

HEAD WRITER
Bury it. Get (the host's assistant) to pull all the Whitewater issues, and Susan McDougal and Vince Foster and the Rose Law Firm and the travel agents and I dunno, the time Roger Clinton killed those witnesses with a train. If he still wants an update after the meeting, write it then. But this is nothing.

Yes, I was "wrong."

Here's the thing: Besides writing monologue jokes and sketches, writers were assigned issues every night. They had to outline the facts of a news story, and some sort of reasonable guesses at what the guests would think. There were also updates and "day of" issues. These were a pain, because they either didn't get used -- they'd turn out not to interest the host -- or they would be used, replacing other issues that had already been prepared. Either way it was extra work.

There was also a certain institutional resistance, from about half the writing staff, to turning the show into a clearinghouse for right-wing fantasies about Clinton the Overfiend. Let's say the president was a drug lord and Hillary was littering the national parks with the corpses of her paramours. It still wasn't what we wanted to do with our lives.

It was early afternoon, and I wasn't done being wrong yet.

When the host arrived for the writers' meeting we brought up the story, in an obligatory way, as penny ante bullshit based on nothing. It wasn't legitimate; it was the Internet. We also strongly suggested we were being played, and reminded the host that Drudge was a vole-faced skeeve who washed his shirts in the sink.

We taped the show. If the story came up, it didn't come up much.

We taped two shows the next night. The Second (or Third) Woman came up again, internally, and we argued it down again. This was the same stuff we were always being peddled by the hideous skeletal neo-con blonds (my least favorite Harry Potter villains, by the way) and we didn't want to carry their water or take their bait, or take their water and carry their bait, or any other combination of bait and water.

Besides, there weren't any new developments. It was still just the internet. And we had our standards. In 1998, a late night show couldn't just repeat anything some clod said on-line. It had to come from a legitimate news source. Like Page Six or the purple section of USA Today.

Late Tuesday night, January 20th, 1998, the Washington Post and ABC News reported that the mandate of Ken Starr's Whitewater investigation had been broadened to include former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, and whether the president had asked her to commit perjury.

It wasn't just an internet story anymore. The other late night shows were doing jokes about it. And there was something else, too.

The writers knew for a fact that Bill Clinton had been having sex with Monica Lewinsky.

WRITER A
Why is that name so familiar?

WRITER B
She's the one C was always talking about.

WRITER A
Oh, yeah. What was her deal?

WRITER B
She was blowing the President.

On Wednesday, January 21st, the story was everywhere, including the front page of the Los Angeles Times, which was a newspaper at the time. Bill Clinton invited Jim Lehrer to the White House and lied in his face. (Yeah, yeah, yeah, Clinton... in... face. You should be ashamed of yourself.)

JIM LEHRER
You had no sexual relationship with this young woman?

PRESIDENT CLINTON
There is not a sexual relationship.

And then the whole country was fucked up for two years. While bin Laden planned.

Anyway, I learned my lesson. Drudge was right. I was wrong. Since that day, just to be on the safe side, I've made it a point to believe everything I read on the Internet. And so should you.