MediaWatch: May 17, 1999

Vol. Thirteen No. 10

Starr an Abuser, But Clinton No Harasser?

Incurious Media Spin Julie Steele Trial as Starr's Last Gasp

Kathleen Willey may have been sexually groped by Bill Clinton in the White House, but she became another strange footnote in history when a jury deadlocked May 7 on whether Julie Hiatt Steele was guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice for recanting her support of Willey’s story.

Willey will never be as famous as Anita Hill, the media’s patron saint of sexual harassment, just named one of the top women of the century on ABC. In fact, a week after Willey told her story on 60 Minutes in March 1998, Hill sandbagged her on Meet the Press and claimed that even if Willey’s story was true, it wasn’t sexual harassment since it didn’t result in employment discrimination.

While the networks always allowed Saint Anita some interview time to discuss sexual harassment or promote her book deals, the Steele trial was no cause celebre for enemies of sexual harassment. The trial re-examined Willey’s claims of being groped, and whether Steele was intimidated out of supporting Willey by the White House. Steele signed an affidavit drafted by Clinton’s attorneys, and her former best friend said at the trial "she was afraid it was to her detriment if she took a position against the President."

The media’s double standard didn’t just emerge on sexual harassment by powerful men, but on independent counsels. Lawrence Walsh probed Iran-Contra for seven years without media catcalls, but the Steele trial was spun as Captain Ahab’s last gasp. Dan Rather began the only broadcast network story on the CBS Evening News: "The one and only criminal trial to result from Ken Starr’s year-long, four and a half million dollar investigation of the President and Monica Lewinsky, went to the jury today and Monica Lewinsky has virtually nothing to do with it." On CNBC, Geraldo Rivera again led the charge against Starr, this time touting a Willey expose by leftists at The Nation magazine.

At the Time Daily Web site, reporter Frank Pellegrini sounded like Rivera: "After losing the McDougal case with Steele herself testifying against him, and then telling Congress to scrap the law that pays his salary, Starr has taken on the air of an old crank screaming obscenities on a street corner. Starr, Steele has said, ‘is willing to use or abuse any man, woman or child who gets in the way of his prosecution of Clinton.’ That’s just what Susan McDougal said before a jury acquitted her, and just about what Clinton said before public opinion acquitted him."