How Monica Lewinsky Changed the Media

Monica Lewinsky’s ‘Vanity Fair’ article reluctantly plunges us straight back into the frothing world of ‘90s gossip. It may be painful but it answers so many questions about today’s media.

The Monica Lewinsky confessional in Vanity Fair brings back a torrent of unfond memories of the appalling cast of tabloid gargoyles who drove the scandal. Remember them? Treacherous thatched-roof-haired drag-queen Linda Tripp, with those dress-for-success shoulder pads? Cackling, fact-lacking hack Lucianne Goldberg, mealy-mouthed Pharisee Kenneth Starr—the whole buzzing swarm of legal, congressional and gossip industry flesh flies, feasting on the entrails. And, of course, hitting “send” on each new revelation that no one else would publish, the solitary, perfectly named Matt Drudge, operating in pallid obsession out of his sock-like apartment in Miami.

A once-in-a-lifetime cast! Or so we all thought. But what we didn’t know at the time is that they were not some passing cultural excrescence. They were the face of the future. The things that shocked us then—the illicitly taped conversations, the wholesale violations of elementary privacy, the globally broadcast sexual embarrassments, all the low-life disseminated malice—is now the communications industry as it operates every minute of every day.

Monica is right when she writes that “only a few years later, with the advent of social media, the humiliation would have been even more devastating.” Or maybe not: When the feds pressured her to talk that fateful night in the Ritz Carlton bar in Pentagon City, she’d have pulled out her iPhone and called her mom, who’d have told her to say nothing without a lawyer present. She just might have walked away from the hell that followed.

Monica is actually right about a lot of things in this piece, even as her vision is fogged by habituation to a culture she helped midwife. She is right that, for some, the stain of humiliation can indeed be irrevocable. Not everyone has the survival skills of William Jefferson Clinton. Scandal on the web leaves the shame a click away, forever. True, when you’ve been burned by the press it’s strange to keep applying for (as she writes) “jobs that fell under the umbrella of ‘creative communications’ and ‘branding.’”

As the years passed Monica seems to have wavered between capitalizing on her notoriety, with projects like a handbag line and a 2002 HBO documentary, or going far enough away to escape it. (She went to England, where, she mentions proudly, she earned a master’s degree in social psychology.) Her ambivalence persists in her come-hither Vanity Fair photo, a seductive sofa pose rather than the kind of straightforward, unretouched portrait of a real 40-year-old woman that might have better suited her “new me” message.

Monica is right about the lack of empathy shown by the feminist lobby, who joined the hyena pack casting judgment on her youthful conduct. Other women can often be the worst at cutting any slack towards the love interest in a sex scandal. But she herself is a little short of empathy towards the woman whose husband she was romping with. She uses the loftily patronizing word “troubling” to describe Hillary’s confiding to her late best friend Diana Blair that she blamed herself somewhat for Bill’s straying and calling Monica “a narcissistic loony toon.”

“Yes, I get it,” writes Monica. “Hillary Clinton wanted it on record that she was lashing out at her husband’s mistress.” But frankly, what did Monica expect for flashing that thong at another woman’s husband? Being described by his wife as a warm, intelligent young woman who had inadvertently caught the president’s eye? Nor does she acknowledge that Hillary had no idea that Diana Blair’s notes would be made public, if ever, until much further in the future.

Now everyone leaking and tweeting and posting on everyone else is the acknowledged way to get ahead in the 21st century. The digitally native generation has no idea what has been lost to the freedom of intimacy that has no fear of being recorded. Monica’s new musings just remind us of how the death of privacy started. The press was at the height of its power when the Monica story began and Drudge was its underbelly.

The ascendant media that looked down on him has been pretty much destroyed. No one would have believed that that only 13 years later the Graham family would no longer own The Washington Post, that the two mighty news magazines would become a shadow and a corpse, and that the juggernaut CNN would be chasing the spoils won by cable TV’s counterpart to the Drudge Report, the Fox News Network. That too, is a story of humiliation. And not just hers.