Twenty years ago today, a news site run by Matt Drudge published a story about a salacious scoop that a mainstream news outlet had killed.
“BLOCKBUSTER REPORT,” the Drudge Report bellowed. “23-YEAR OLD, FORMER WHITE HOUSE INTERN, SEX RELATIONSHIP WITH PRESIDENT.”
The intern, we’d find out later, was of course Monica Lewinsky, and the scandal that unfolded was weaponized against Bill Clinton’s presidency.
For Fox News ― something of an upstart cable news operation at the time ― the story would prove to be a godsend. The network covered the Lewinsky affair relentlessly, setting itself on the path to becoming the most dominant and powerful cable news network in the country.
Those at the top of the network have been open about how important the scandal was to its early growth. “The Lewinsky saga put us on the news map,” John Moody, the executive vice president and executive editor at Fox News, said in 2006. “Monica was a news channel’s dream come true,” he said at another point.
Frank Houston, who worked at Fox News’ website at the time, was frank in assessing the effect the Lewinsky story had on the network. “[W]e too were all over the scandal; we had no choice. Our pageviews ballooned from 600,000 to 2.2 million per month by the time of the impeachment hearings,” he said.
“Their dream was my nightmare,” Lewinsky wrote last year in The New York Times. “On Fox, it seemed, no rumor was too unsubstantiated, no innuendo too vile and no accusation too abhorrent.”
Two decades later, another presidential sex scandal is unfolding, this one involving Donald Trump and a porn star working under the name Stormy Daniels. On Friday, The Wall Street Journal reported that a Trump lawyer had helped arrange a $130,000 hush payment to her in October 2016. Other salacious revelations followed.
What does Fox News have to say about the story? Very little. But on Tuesday, the network announced that it will debut a seven-part series on Clinton’s sex scandals this coming Sunday.
The payment to Stormy Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, was in exchange for her silence about a sexual encounter she’d had with Trump more than a decade ago, according to the Journal.
Later on Friday, The New York Times reported that Slate’s Jacob Weisberg had been reporting out the story last year. Weisberg said Clifford, before she stopped communicating, had told him that Trump’s lawyer had agreed to get her money if she promised to keep the alleged affair secret. The Daily Beast had also been in the process of trying to arrange an interview with Clifford before she “backed out,” the outlet said.
Michael Cohen, a lawyer for Trump, released a statement last week — attributed to Clifford — that denied the affair. “Rumors that I have received hush money from Donald Trump are completely false,” the statement said in part.
Even so, multiple reports that Trump’s lawyer had arranged a $130,000 payment to a porn star the month before the presidential election seemed like news to CNN and MSNBC, both of which have covered the story repeatedly since Friday.
But the same can’t be said of Fox News, despite its well-documented fascination with political sex scandals. When I searched for mentions on Fox News of terms like “Clifford,” “Stormy Daniels,” “affair,” “porn star,” “Michael Cohen,” “Wall Street Journal” and “$130,000,” using the media monitoring website TVEyes, I came up with almost nothing.
In fact, I found only one actual segment on the topic. Over the weekend, Fox News’ Howard Kurtz talked about the story on his show “MediaBuzz.” Joined by The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway, the Washington Examiner’s Susan Ferrechio and Fox News contributor Marie Harf, Kurtz introduced the segment noting that there had been a “spate of denials.”
Hemingway argued that The Wall Street Journal had “provided zero evidence” in its story. “Why are they so certain given that both parties deny and everybody who’s quoted on the record denies it?” she asked.
Harf, who once worked under John Kerry at the State Department, later noted that Clifford couldn’t admit to the affair even if she wanted to. “As part of her settlement, she has to deny it,” she said.
Nevertheless, Ferrechio and Hemingway both agreed that even if the stories were true, Trump had been elected with this sort of behavior “baked in.” “Everybody knew what he was about,” Ferrechio said. “He wasn’t Harry Truman. He was a thrice-married Queens businessman who had long been in the tabloids. So I think the news value here really isn’t that important.”
The only other mention I could find was a one-off remark from contributor Judith Miller on Monday, when she said on-air that the president would prefer to discuss whether he said “I or I’d” when talking about his relationship with Kim Jong Un than to discuss Stormy Daniels.
And that was it. That was all I could find. I reached out to Fox News to ask if I had missed any additional mentions of the story when using the television-scraping service ― or if they had future plans to cover the story. A rep never responded.
But there’s no need to wonder why Fox News might devote untold hours to a 20-year-old presidential sex scandal and hardly a one to an ongoing presidential sex scandal; it’s no more complicated than that the latter is a bad story for our Republican president.
In the past two days, more about Clifford’s alleged relationship with Trump has leaked out. Weisberg detailed his attempt to lock down the story last year in Slate. InTouch published parts of a 2011 on-the-record interview with Daniels about her relationship with Trump, and will reportedly publish a 5,000-word version of the interview later this week.
And CNN unveiled another news organization that, like Slate and The Daily Beast, had done a good bit of reporting on the Clifford story in 2016: Fox News. A reporter named Diana Falzone had filed a story in October 2016 about the alleged affair. She had reportedly obtained a statement from Clifford’s then-manager confirming the affair and emails related to the alleged settlement. “She had the story,” a source told CNN, “and Fox killed it.”
Noah Kotch, editor-in-chief and vice president of Fox News digital, said there just wasn’t enough solid information to publish. “In doing our due diligence, we were unable to verify all of the facts and publish a story,” he said.
Twenty years ago, the headline on the Drudge Report read, “NEWSWEEK KILLS STORY ON WHITE HOUSE INTERN,” helping to give birth to Fox News as we know it.
On Tuesday, the headline on the CNN story about Fox News was similar: “Fox News shelved story on Trump and porn actress Stormy Daniels before election,” it proclaimed.