NBC’s Vetting of Juanita Broaddrick: Clinton’s Accuser Discusses Agonizing Weeks as NBC Dragged It Out

Sitting in her bedroom before the Jan. 20 interview on NBC with Lisa Myers, Juanita Broaddrick could not believe that she was actually going to walk down the hallway into the living room and go through with it, that she, a very private and dignified woman, would say the word rape to a camera. “To this day, I don’t know how I did it,” she told me. In the living room, her son, Kevin Hickey, had a different concern.

“When they were setting up, I said, ‘What’s the process after this interview is finished? How will you go about getting it on the air?’

“Lisa said she would have to speak to her higher-ups. I said, ‘Wait a minute-what are the chances that this won’t run?’ My stepfather was standing there. And she said, ‘None.’ I said, ‘O.K.’” Mr. Hickey paused. “And, you know, it ran. But how could she sit there and tell us that?”

The accusation by a mature businesswoman that she had been raped by Bill Clinton in 1978, when he was Arkansas’ Attorney General, aired on NBC on Feb. 24, opposite the Grammy Awards. The 35-day interval between tape and air is now one of the legends of the impeachment process. Why didn’t the American public get to hear Mrs. Broaddrick before the Senate voted to acquit Mr. Clinton on Feb. 12?

“This came out at a time when it had the absolute smallest impact it could have,” said Steve Friedman, a lawyer friend (who favored censure) said to me at lunch. “The thing was finally over. Everybody was sick of it, and the Republicans looked like a bunch of scoundrels when they said, You have to understand what we’re seeing and can’t talk about. It was certainly relevant to the question, his fitness to be President.”

My friend’s suspicion that NBC protected Mr. Clinton is widely shared. Recently, the National Press Club held a panel on the Broaddrick story, “Too Hot for a ‘Scandal-Weary’ New Media to Handle?” where several speakers made that point. Conservative media watchdog Reed Irvine charged in the Washington Times that NBC delayed the story because executives are cozy with the President. And TV Guide has questioned why NBC’s “apparent hesitation” to run the interview cost it a scoop-to the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

Mrs. Broaddrick sat for an interview with The Journal because she believed NBC had killed a story it had promised to run. She had become “very good friends” with Ms. Myers, who kept her posted as one group of NBC higher-ups after another looked at the interview.

“I would hear, ‘These are the ones who are going to view it today.’ I can’t tell you how that felt,” she said to me. “There were all these people viewing this horrible incident of my life. Later she told me, ‘The good thing is, you’re credible. The bad thing is you’re very, very credible.’”

“Do you know whether anyone at the White House ‘got to’ NBC?” I asked Mrs. Broaddrick.

“No,” she said. “I think there are things we’ll never know. I do have an opinion.”

“What is that?”

“Yes.”

NBC denies this emphatically. “There was no pressure from the White House, period. Nor as some were claiming was there any pressure from NBC or G.E. corporate higher-ups to kill the story,” said NBC News vice president Bill Wheatley. He affirms the NBC line, that the 35-day interval reflected the traditional journalistic concern of nailing down a story. Many have bought that line. As TV Guide put it, “the story needed more facts.”

This strikes me as highly deceptive. The facts NBC offered viewers tending to corroborate the story were nailed down within 10 days or two weeks. The real process the interview underwent was vetting, scrutiny by executives, almost all male, to determine whether the accusation deserved to be aired at all. It did not matter that a seasoned reporter who had worked on the story for almost a year believed it to be true. It did not matter that the story was news. Vetting is a far cry from “Hey, sweetheart, get me rewrite” or Deep Throat. Vetting is a process by which executives not only ask “Is it responsible?” but also “Is it acceptable?” It’s not about news, it’s about whether it’s all right to say it. And accusing a President of rape may not pass that test. I don’t think the White House got to NBC. It didn’t have to.

Juanita Broaddrick and Lisa Myers met more than a year ago, when the 47-year-old reporter flew to Fort Smith, Ark., to dine with Kevin Hickey. The following morning, Mrs. Broaddrick came to her hotel.

Mrs. Broaddrick at first declined to be interviewed, but the two established a rapport. “She was the first person who called that I could confide in,” Mrs. Broaddrick said to me. “And the relationship just kind of evolved. Lisa tells me all the time, she believes me and understands what I went through.”

At that time, Mrs. Broaddrick was known to the public by her cognomen in the Paula Jones lawsuit, “Jane Doe No. 5.” Her name came to light on March 28, 1998, when Ms. Jones’ lawyers made a Saturday filing in Federal court that included a 1992 letter from Phillip Yoakum. The Fayetteville man had urged Mrs. Broaddrick to go public, during the Presidential campaign, with a story she had told him of a violent sexual assault. “What a shock now to realize that 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,” Mr. Yoakum wrote, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette .

The filing also contained a statement from Beverly Lambert, who with her husband, Rick, worked for the Jones legal team, conducting interviews about Bill Clinton’s sexual history. The Lamberts met with Mrs. Broaddrick on the porch of her house in Van Buren, Ark., in fall 1997. Mrs. Broaddrick acknowledged an encounter with Bill Clinton but refused to talk about it, saying it was too “horrible” to relive.

The Saturday drop outraged the Clinton legal team. Robert Bennett called it “reckless and irresponsible” and said the allegation was a “recycled rumor.” But Lisa Myers had reason to believe that it was more than rumor, and NBC was out front among the networks in reporting the story. On the Saturday NBC Nightly News , it named Mrs. Broaddrick and included a charge by Paula Jones’ lawyers that later proved false: that Mr. Clinton or his agents “bribed and/or intimidated her [Mrs. Broaddrick] and her family into remaining silent.”

At about the same time, independent counsel Kenneth Starr subpoenaed Ms. Jones’ lawyers for information about Mrs. Broaddrick. She had signed an affidavit in the case, denying any unwelcome advances from Mr. Clinton. Mr. Starr wanted to know whether her affidavit, like Monica Lewinsky’s, was false. He knew that Rick Lambert had taped the conversation on the porch with a recorder concealed in his coat. This was “very underhanded,” Mrs. Broaddrick told me, but she does not hold it against the Lamberts. “They were just doing their job.”

That tape was leaked to the press. “A select group of us were given an audiotape,” one reporter said. But those who wanted to report it “were thwarted by their editors.”

The mainstream press again ignored the story in the fall of 1998, when Mr. Starr’s referral to Congress reported that Jane Doe No. 5 had told an F.B.I. agent that her earlier affidavit was indeed false.

The press has never been comfortable with Mrs. Broaddrick’s story. “It smells because it comes out of the sewers in Arkansas,” one reporter said. Another said, “People hate rape stories.” Its means of exposure had an air of Clinton-hatred, or the culture war, or sexual McCarthyism-whatever paradigm you choose to taint those who see Mr. Clinton’s private life as having public relevance. And the story was associated with the venomous Clinton enemy Larry Nichols.

Even while the press ignored it, the curious name Juanita Broaddrick became a shibboleth on the Internet, talk radio and supermarket tabloids. That is why Mrs. Broaddrick, who owns nursing homes, said she changed her mind about talking to Ms. Myers. A tabloid said that her husband had been bribed, Lucianne Goldberg said that her lip had been bleeding. “My life is back to normal now,” Mrs. Broaddrick said. “I can go on line and see my name, hear my name on Rush Limbaugh or television. I’m still in disbelief that it’s my name, but the way I used to hear it is, ‘This woman can’t be believed.’”

I knew what she meant. I remember giving my assessment of the case to Representative Lindsey Graham, Newsweek ‘s Jonathan Alter and Lucianne Goldberg: A lot of us did weird stuff in bed in the 70′s, maybe Bill Clinton got a little rough, missed some signals. But the rules were different then. Suffice it to say that the Myers interview left me deeply ashamed.

The taping lasted all day. Two days later, Mrs. Broaddrick met for several hours with an associate producer to go over possible skeletons in the closet, for instance her attending a Clinton fund-raiser just a few weeks after the alleged assault. NBC was fearful. “They didn’t want what happened to poor Kathleen Willey, all those letters released by the White House,” Mrs. Broaddrick said. Those letters had seemed to undermine 60 Minutes ‘ interview of Ms. Willey last year.

The big hole in Mrs. Broaddrick’s story was the date of the incident, and, subsequently, any evidence that Mr. Clinton was in Little Rock when she said the two met.

“All of us here felt that we had to go the extra mile in our checking, given the nature of the charge and the fact that it involved a President,” Bill Wheatley said. “Our organization’s credibility was at stake. Can you imagine the reaction had we broadcast the charge and the next day the White House produced a document showing that Bill Clinton was in Chicago on the day of the alleged incident? I was shocked that some other news organizations were willing to go with the story without doing the type of checking we were doing.”

That took time, Mr. Wheatley said. Alex Constantinople, a spokesman for NBC, said, “Lisa did her reporting up to Tuesday night [Feb. 23]. We were just doing what journalists do with such a serious charge. Everyone here regards it as quite bizarre that we are being questioned for doing that.”

But Juanita Broaddrick and another source said that the crucial facts were unearthed within seven to 10 days of the interview, and all tended to confirm her memory. NBC assistant producer Chris Giglio was able to find state records dating the nursing home conference at which Mrs. Broaddrick says she was assaulted, and by examining the records of many Arkansas newspapers found two containing statements made by Mr. Clinton on the day in question. Mr. Wheatley recounts, “We actually found the reporters, in both incidents, and they said, ‘He must have been in Little Rock because if he had been out of town we would have said so.’”

Mr. Giglio disputed Mrs. Broaddrick’s memory of the timing. He said that it may have taken him two weeks to determine the date and Mr. Clinton’s whereabouts. He stayed in Little Rock almost until the story aired, trying to nail other elusive points. “And every day was full.”

But Mr. Giglio could stay in Little Rock until next year and there would still be holes. My point is that NBC had nailed the key point long before Feb. 24, and indeed the ultimate report contained numerous holes that newsmen decided they could live with. What story doesn’t? Journalism is usually an urgent, and sometimes self-righteous, calling. Journalists often find themselves in the position of airing disputed charges whose truthfulness they can’t fully assess. In the Broaddrick case, the reporter had worked on the story for a year, believed her source, and researchers had turned up uncanny confirmations of the source’s memory. Executives stood in the way.

“I think they [two producers and Ms. Myers] tried desperately to get this on the air,” Mrs. Broaddrick said. “There was too much against them from higher-ups. I was privy to a few things that were said. I know these three people were very frustrated, and they were also frustrated in the end by what was left out. They thought it would be the whole Dateline , or 40 minutes. It was 23.” (Mrs. Broaddrick declined to tell me what was left out.) Some higher-ups’ attitude toward the story, Mrs. Broaddrick said, was: “Up until that time, I think they thought there was maybe some fabrication-so let’s do this and rule it out.”

One source outside NBC with knowledge of the process described it in this way: “They go down and do the interview. They come back. It sits there. You hear that [Jeff] Zucker, the Today czar, David Doss, the czar of Nightly News , and [Tom] Brokaw don’t like this. It’s not going to air on their program, nor did it. Within the first week, three problems developed that were being touted against the piece for reasons to be suspicious. One, she didn’t remember the date. Two, her first husband didn’t know anything about her lip being hurt. Three, the [Norma] Rogers woman, the principal corroborating witness, had a grievance against Clinton.” (No. 1 was resolved; doubts 2 and 3 were set forth in the piece.)

Some resistance gathered at the network around the feeling that they might be used in the impeachment context. Why was Mrs. Broaddrick going forward now? Some felt that the Jones lawyers had successfully manipulated Nightly News the previous March into going on air-off Mr. Brokaw’s watch-with irresponsible charges. More importantly, the House impeachment managers had never named Juanita Broaddrick publicly, even while they were using the confidential F.B.I. report of her assault to push impeachment.

“The fact that neither Ken Starr nor the House managers had done much with the Broaddrick allegation was pointed to by some as a cautionary tale,” Mr. Wheatley said, speaking carefully about in-house discussions. “It was argued if these blood enemies of the President didn’t act on her story, perhaps there was a problem with it.”

And to be fair to NBC, one crucial piece of the story eluded them: a White House response. Mrs. Broaddrick said that Dateline had given a list of questions to the White House, and the White House did not respond. “In the end, the President’s lawyers refused to answer any of our questions. and they refused to give us access to Clinton’s records for the dates in question,” Mr. Wheatley said.

Of course, a response was essential. But the White House is notorious for stonewalling, and the issue, again, is whether NBC invoked absurdly lofty journalistic standards because it was dealing with the President. While NBC Washington bureau chief Tim Russert is said to have fought like a tiger for Ms. Myers, others were apparently prepared to kill a year of her work.

“It had to be one of the bluer moments in her career,” Mr. Hickey said. “She didn’t want to talk to me. It hurt her that my mother went through that whole ordeal and there was a chance that it wouldn’t be aired. She was afraid the story was going to get killed. I think she was embarrassed.”

Other mainstream reporters who come back from Arkansas will tell you that their East Coast editors sometimes find their stories too outlandish to be credited. In a sense, two information realities are in conflict, and one makes the decisions (and all teetering above the madmen of the Internet).

“We’re considered the crazy people,” one of these reporters said. “Or, ‘We’re in the Ken Starr cult.’ Sidney Blumenthal even went around saying we are ‘assets to the enemy.’” (Mr. Blumenthal did not return a call seeking his comment.) Lucianne Goldberg pointed out to me that reporters publicly denied that she had been the source of the stained-dress story, though she was happy to admit it. It used to be the sources who wanted anonymity, Mrs. Goldberg said; now you find reporters fighting to enforce anonymity on non-establishment sources, because they worry that their own credibility would fall if it was known they talk to such people.

The most critical factor working against Lisa Myers, though, was that NBC was alone on the story. Mrs. Broaddrick was talking to no one else.

Indeed, the most crucial development in the matter came on Day 23 after the interview, when Dorothy Rabinowitz of The Wall Street Journal took a chauffeured car to Mrs. Broaddrick’s gate and chatted with her husband for 45 minutes before he agreed to introduce her to his wife. Ms. Rabinowitz had the grace to ask Mrs. Broaddrick only about the status of the interview, not to ask any sexual questions. The next day, she watched Mrs. Broaddrick and her tennis team in action, which flattered Mrs. Broaddrick, before flying back to New York.

Mrs. Broaddrick was by then deeply angry at NBC. She told her son that the network’s treatment felt in ways like being raped again.

“I felt that way because they had been after me and after me for a year. And I finally give in and go through this, a day of baring my soul. A bunch of people are standing around in my house as I tell the most private things of my life. Then it was like what I told them wasn’t really worthy,” she said. How many rape victims go public? “It was very hard for me to say the word rape. It’s a difficult word to say.”

When Lisa Myers named higher-ups, it struck Mrs. Broaddrick that almost all the NBC executives were men (the only woman’s name among eight listed to me was Cheryl Gould).

Then Ms. Rabinowitz phoned Mrs. Broaddrick on Valentine’s Day, and Mrs. Broaddrick poured out her story. “I don’t like beating on people’s doors. But there are certain advantages to not being 20,” Ms. Rabinowitz said dryly. “The other rule of journalism is, The less you ask for, the more you get.”

Her stunning story Feb. 19 in The Journal drew the only comment the White House has offered in the matter: David Kendall’s statement that the assault allegation was “absolutely false.” (“He didn’t even say, ‘The President told me this,’” Mr. Hickey observed. “How do we know it’s not David Kendall’s opinion of what happened?”).

More important, her story provided NBC what it needed, company. The next day, The Washington Post ran an interview with Mrs. Broaddrick off the bottom of its front page. Finally, someone else had stuck their neck out. When TV Guide later asked, “Did NBC snooze and lose?” it got it backward. Being scooped allowed the network to feel comfortable about its reporter’s belief. It’s the herd, stupid.

NBC’s wrenching interview has had a quiet impact. It disturbed several columnists who have tended to see Ken Starr as the problem, including Richard Cohen of The Washington Post , The Nation ‘s Katha Pollitt, and San Francisco Examiner columnist Stephanie Salter. The National Organization for Women (finally) urged the President to end his “nuts and sluts” defense, and leading newspapers have called on Mr. Clinton to respond substantively to the charges.

Those appeals have gone unheeded, and meantime news people who find Mrs. Broaddrick credible ask why the story doesn’t have “legs.” There is still great hostility to the story among reporters. It is so old and so unprovable that it only counts as gossip, some say. Or, like other staggering revelations that emerged from Mr. Starr’s politicized and intrusive investigation, it is fruit from a poisoned tree. Mr. Brokaw hasn’t touched the story on Nightly News .

When I asked Sam Donaldson whether there had been rancorous arguments at ABC over coverage of Mrs. Broaddrick, he stammered. “I am dodging your question,” he said. “I can tell you that people in charge of our coverage, at managing editor status, have not seen this as a story they wanted to spend a lot of time on. But I have not seen a memo, nor have I been given any orders not to do this story, and when I have, there have been no problems from above.” He went on: “The thing that astounded me from the get-go, and some day I may write about this, is that important aspects of the news business argued that we shouldn’t follow the [Lewinsky] story. I don’t mean just Mr. [Steve] Brill, Mr. [Anthony] Lewis, Mr. [Frank] Rich. But lots of people argued that it was unseemly.”

Julia Malone, a national correspondent for the Cox newspapers, grew so upset by the neglect of Mrs. Broaddrick’s story that she organized the March 30 panel at the National Press Club.

“It’s like we’re in Lotus Land,” she said. “It seems like everybody has been smoking something and the economy has been so good that this man has bamboozled the country. I mean, the irony of this man who’s very likely a rapist talking about human rights!”

Seventy-five people attended the panel. Ms. Myers declined to appear (as she declined to comment to me on the matter). Ms. Rabinowitz said that NBC had treated the story like a “dead fish.” Fox News anchor Brit Hume argued that neglect of the story reflected a deep bias in the media against material that might hurt someone they had voted for. Ms. Malone echoed that point. “My impression of Tom Brokaw is that he was not a newsman on this decision, he’s a Democrat.” (I sent Mr. Brokaw a letter, and he left me a message. “I have just a little bit for you, not much, because we have felt strongly from the beginning that our decisions in the Juanita Broaddrick story or any news decisions we make have to be kept within these walls, otherwise we’ll spend too much time explaining and too little time reporting.” He told me to call him back, then didn’t return my call.)

Ms. Malone said she hopes that reporters will get together before Mr. Clinton’s next press conference and try to force an answer about Mrs. Broaddrick. “But in this city that’s considered some kind of conspiracy.” Mr. Donaldson said he can remember occasions when reporters barraged a President, forcing a more forthright answer. “But that certainly wasn’t the case in the Broaddrick matter.”

No, Mr. Donaldson was alone when he boldly asked the President about the rape allegation at the President’s March 19 press conference. Mr. Clinton said he would have no more to say than his lawyer’s statement, and that was that.

Soon after that, Juanita Broaddrick’s cell phone rang. She was with her husband in Breckenridge, Colo., looking to rent a condo for “snow skiing” next winter. She got the phone from her pocket. It was her friend, Lisa Myers.

“She was really in shock that he would not answer it in a fair way,” Mrs. Broaddrick said. “And she said everyone was surprised.”

“Were you?” I asked.

“I’m sort of numb. What can he say? He’s going to have to lie. He knows it’s true. What’s really amazing to me is, Where do you go from here? I know where I go. I feel like a weight’s been lifted. I’m back where I want to be. I’m in my community, with the tremendous support of my friends, people who love me and have let me go on with my life.

“But what does the country do? That is the question. And I don’t know. I guess they just go on.”