No, Newsweek was not in the tank for Bill Clinton

The most hilarious right-wing claim of liberal media bias to surface this week has to be Rush Limbaugh-biographer Zev Chafets' suggestion that Newsweek was in the tank for Bill Clinton in the 1990s and tried to bury the Lewinsky story:

The mainstream media was with the Clintons; Newsweek had refrained from even publishing the Lewinsky story, which it had before Drudge, evidently out of a misguided belief that it could keep the story from going public.

As Media Matters has explained, that isn't why Newsweek held the story -- it held the story because it hadn't nailed it down yet.

But even absent that explanation, no fair-minded person who was paying attention at the time could possibly believe Newsweek was “with the Clintons” or that it wanted to downplay Clinton controversies.

A quick search of the Nexis database of Newsweek archives finds 304 articles that mentioned Lewinsky in 1998 alone. 304. That's not exactly a sign of a news organization that was trying to suppress the story.

Then there's the fact that when Washington Post reporter Michael Isikoff's overzealous obsession with the Paula Jones “story” led to the Post (which was eagerly pushing more than its share of trumped up non-scandals) tiring of his act, Newsweek snatched him right up. Michael Duffy, who was Time's Washington bureau chief at the time, said in 1998 that “Paula Jones was practically a subsidiary of Newsweek's.” Hiring Mike Isikoff is certainly not something a magazine would do if it was in the tank for Bill Clinton.

Nor would a magazine that was in the tank for Bill Clinton do the bidding of Ken Starr's office, as Newsweek acknowledged it did. Newsweek assistant managing editor Ann McDaniel said in 1998 that “The independent counsel's office pleaded with us not to make calls that would interfere with the investigation … In an effort to find out more about the story, we complied.” American Journalism Review added some detail:

January 17: Four p.m. came and went, but Starr's people weren't ready. They still wanted more time, Isikoff says, because they hoped to “flip” Lewinsky, to get her to cooperate with the investigation. Starr had tapes of conversations in which Lewinsky intimated that the president and Jordan encouraged her to lie in her sworn affidavit in the Jones case, as well as other evidence. But he wanted more.

“At that point the prosecutors had said to Mike: 'If you call anybody for a comment, it's going to blow our case. We haven't had a chance to interrogate Monica,' ” says Mark Whitaker, Newsweek's managing editor.

In other words, Ken Starr's office asked Newsweek not to make phone calls that could tip Clinton off to the investigation -- and Newsweek agreed, in effect becoming an ally of Starr's investigation rather than an observer of it. Had Newsweek been in the tank for Clinton, as Chafets absurdly claims, it would certainly have behaved differently.

And, of course, a magazine eager to cover for the Clintons probably wouldn't have published the (Isikoff-penned) 1997 article detailing allegations against Clinton by the breathtakingly unreliable Kathleen Willey.

You get the point: Newsweek's coverage of Bill Clinton was downright nasty; the magazine hyped Paula Jones' lawsuit though it was obvious she simply didn't have a case; it peddled Kathleen Willey's claims dispute her absolutely astounding lack of credibility; and it ran enough Lewinsky articles to fill a book. And yet Zev Chafets insists Newsweek was in the tank for Clinton. That belongs in the “nutty right-wing media criticism” hall of fame, alongside Brent Bozell's complaint that the media, at 500 news reports a day, wasn't paying enough attention to the Lewinsky story in 1998.