What would major events of the ‘90s have been like if they took place today, in the age of social media and overcooked thinkpieces and #hottakes as far as the eye can read? If every minor event goes viral, how would the already viral stories of the Clinton era have played out? Would the blatant misogyny toward Monica Lewinsky have been called out?
The 1998 Lewinsky scandal was responsible for a number of national “firsts”: the story made Matt Drudge famous and popularized online news, it came the closest to taking the Clintons down, and made Lewinsky the first victim of Internet shaming. It was one of the first stories of the 24-hour news cycle we’re so used to today.
While many Americans then relied on television for their news, the X-rated nature of the scandal sent many to the Internet, where journalistic standards were lower and tolerance for salacious intrigue higher. Lewinsky wasn’t just humiliated on the nightly news, but also every time someone sent an email about her or pulled up the Starr report on their computers.
Jon Ronson of The Guardian literally wrote the book on the Internet public shaming epidemic, aptly titled “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.” Last week, Ronson finally landed an interview with the woman who unfortunately blazed the shame trail for many, and who weathered the worst abuse by far, even considering the absence of social media at the time.
Aren’t We Beyond Public Shaming?
Ronson asked Lewinsky if she would have been spared today, considering the hypersensitivity of many in the media to misogyny. Although Lewinsky uses leftist terminology (“when something hits a core trauma – I actually got really retriggered”), she doesn’t seem to think this supposed sensitivity would protect her. Ronson references notable feminists lining up to take pot shots at Lewinsky, “slut-shaming” her. He writes:
I hope those mainstream voices wouldn’t treat Lewinsky quite this badly if the scandal broke today. Nowadays most people understand those jokes to be slut-shaming, punching down, don’t they?
‘I hope so,’ Lewinsky says. ‘I don’t know.’
Because of the work of anti-bullying advocates, including Ronson and Lewinsky herself, we are far more attuned to what bullying looks like, and how to respond to it. While we obviously can’t recreate the biggest new story of the ’90s as a case study, nor have there been sex scandals even close to that of Lewinsky’s, a year and a half ago a viral public shaming destroyed the life, and career, of a young woman working in politics.
It wasn’t a sex scandal, though. That, paradoxically, probably worked against her.
Our Double Standard Hasn’t Ended
Thanksgiving weekend 2014 was the worst of Elizabeth Lauten’s life. The headlines screamed “GOP Staffer Opens Fire on Obama Girls.” The reality was much more benign. In an off-hand and barely deliberated Facebook post, Lauten criticized the demeanor of President Obama’s daughters at the traditional White House turkey pardoning ceremony.
A Facebook friend took a screenshot, which was sent to the media, and soon Lauten’s boss was accepting her resignation, news trucks were parked outside her parents’ home, and Lauten greeted dozens of death threats every time she opened Twitter, Facebook, or her email. She became a household name for all of the wrong reasons. Blonde and beautiful, Lauten became the target of Obama fans, many of whom likely fancy themselves feminists, obsessing over her physical appearance.
The attention was unrelenting, and soon reporters were digging into her past, including an arrest for shoplifting in her teens. For one Facebook post, visible to friends-only on her personal account, the media and the public zeroed in on the staffer of a little-known congressman. Those who fancied themselves the defenders of the Obama girls against bullying bullied a young woman for a Facebook post until her entire life was destroyed. Lauten lost her job and had her resignation letter published in every major newspaper while living in a town where one’s career is one’s entire identity.
As Mollie Hemingway pointed out at the time, the guns of the progressive Left and its media allies were aimed on Lauten the same week a Democratic staffer was sentenced for rape. Rape seems a tad more newsworthy than a mean Facebook post, but I suppose if you’re a leftist social-justice warrior in the mood to ruin someone’s life, the weaker the victim the better.
Monica Lewinsky Was a Trial Run
Why was the pressure on Lauten instead of Donny Ray Williams Jr. (the aforementioned rapist)? Here the Lewinsky interview is illustrative: “whatever mistakes I made, I was hung out to dry by a lot of people – by a lot of the feminists who had loud voices. I wish it had been handled differently. It was very scary and very confusing to be a young woman thrust on to the world stage and not belonging to any group. I didn’t belong to anybody.”
Mollie’s piece in defense of Lauten was the exception, not the rule. Few, even in the conservative media, took the time to point out the insanity of the feeding frenzy surrounding the staffer. Like Lewinsky, Lauten didn’t belong to anyone willing to defend her against the mob. The media took aim and unrelentingly sought (and achieved) Lauten’s total destruction. Upon another Lewinsky-like event, if the victim is inconvenient to feminists, they’ll be joining the piranhas instead of playing defense, just as they did to the White House intern.
In other words, the socio-cultural gatekeepers in the press did learn a lesson from l’affaire Lewinsky: How to effectively destroy the life of anyone who gets in the way.