What It Takes:

If there are standards of truth or honesty in journalistic commentary, The Wall Street Journal's editorial page abandoned them long ago. Sadly, the board that administers the Pulitzer Prizes does not agree. Last year, a Pulitzer jury handed the prize for commentary to the Journal's Paul Gigot, a man who, in his columns on the Florida brouhaha this winter, emerged as the nation's leading apologist for mob rule. (It wasn't a gang of Republican Hill staffers who stormed the Miami-Dade canvassing board's office last November. It was a "burgher rebellion.") This year, the winner for commentary was Dorothy Rabinowitz -- a member of the Journal's editorial board and occasional columnist for the paper's op-ed page.

To be sure, those of Rabinowitz' columns listed on the Journal site show that she is far from the worst offender among Robert Bartley's menagerie of lunatics. (For one thing, the most absurd things the Journal's op-ed page prints -- Bill Clinton is a cocaine smuggler, Ronald Reagan gave birth to the 90s economic boom, etc. -- appear as unsigned editorials.) Nominally, Rabinowitz was honored for her much-praised series on phony child abuse charges. And for the most part these are good, solid (if short) investigative pieces that tackle a truly thorny problem: cases in which parents were prosecuted and imprisoned for child molestation on what was, Rabinowitz shows, startlingly thin evidence. The pieces that were nominated also include one about a doctor accused of sexually harassing a patient and another about a college student accused of date rape -- both with equally little proof.

It is Rabinowitz's role as a debunker of alleged sex crimes that is especially ironic, considering what is probably her most famous piece: a short, breathless, and amazingly credulous profile of Juanita Broaddrick that appeared on the Journal's op-ed page in February 1999, airing Broaddrick's claim that Bill Clinton raped her over 20 years ago. Broaddrick's story had been floating around Washington for several years, but no paper had ever found it credible enough to print -- including the Journal's own news pages. (Among other problems, Broaddrick had submitted an affidavit to Paula Jones' lawyers in 1994 stipulating that the story, which Clinton-haters had been peddling to Jones' camp, was untrue. See this piece by The Nation's Eric Alterman, and this one by Salon's Joan Walsh.) But it came up again during the impeachment saga, when Tom DeLay invited wavering House members to view "evidence" of several "Jane Does" -- women with whom Clinton had supposedly had affairs, and at least one of which he was rumored to have assaulted.

The woman in question turned out to be Broaddrick, who granted her first-ever newspaper interview to Rabinowitz. Rabinowitz relates Broaddrick's tale with great sympathy, portraying her as a woman victimized first by the monster Clinton ("The sexual entry itself was not without some pain, she recalls, because of her stiffness and resistance") and then by NBC's Dateline, which had recorded an interview with Broaddrick and then sat on it, apparently due to some niggling concern over the story's veracity. It's clear from reading the piece that Rabinowitz threw her vaunted tough-mindedness out the window when she interviewed Broaddrick. "To encounter this woman, to hear the details of her story and the statements of the corroborating witnesses, was to understand that this was an event that took place." And the "corroborating witnesses"? Friends to whom Broaddrick told her story after the fact. Take that, Woodward!

The problem is not that Broaddrick might be lying, but that newspapers don't (or shouldn't) have any business publishing serious accusations that are, by their nature, unverifiable (that's what tabloids do). What Rabinowitz did was somewhat worse than that. Accusing Clinton of rape in a forum notoriously hostile to him, without subjecting the claim to any kind of skepticism, is not "commentary" -- at least not as usually defined by the Pulitzer folks. It's not even a hatchet job. It's character assassination.