History Stories

Remember when a little-known web blog helped blow up a presidency? And a music-streaming service called Napster wreaked havoc in the recording industry?

If you were to pick the one, singular, culture-defining moment from the ’90s—a decade that gave us so many—you’d be hard pressed to beat Bill ClintonMonica Lewinsky affair. Even now, in our current climate of oversharing and punch-drunk numbness to the spewing of digital media, the Lewinsky affair still seems incredible in the excruciating level of its detail. That that detail should eventually bring down a president was an unprecedented moment in American politics. There has been endless analysis of how it all happened, but essentially, you can blame it on technology.

The ’90s was a decade of enormous disruption, the axis on which the old world ended and a new one began. Often a vehicle for affectionate nostalgia among Generation Xers, this is a gross underestimation of the decade. The ’90s was not just a decade that gave us Kurt Cobain and “The Simpsons:” Its political events were deeply transformative, and the thread that ran through them all was technology.

Speaking to those who lived through some of its most compelling moments, “The Untold Story of the 90s” makes a compelling case for a decade that saw the changing of the Western order. As Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida tells it, “That period of the ’90s from the fall of the Berlin wall to 9/11 was one of extraordinary transformation societally, economically and in our politics. A lot of the roots of the things we are facing today came from that period.”

The growing power of the Internet, the scrutiny of an ever more powerful press, the rise of entertainment culture in politics and the advance of technology in collecting DNA evidence all came together in 1998. Clinton’s affair struck at just the moment when technology, science, the press and popular culture met. Rumors of the Lewinsky affair first surfaced on the Drudge Report, at that time an insignificant politics blog.

“Bloggers used to be ridiculed as guys working in their pajamas out their basements, but what really changed that perception was the Drudge Report,” says Dana Perino, who served as White House press secretary between 2007 and 2009. “It had an edginess to it, and a little bit of opinion. The Drudge Report absolutely changed things for news coverage and politics in particular.”

Traditional media relied on phalanxes of editors and lawyers, but bloggers—they could just post and be damned. Once the information was out, it was out, and there was—and still is—no comeback. Thinking he could face this one down, Clinton uttered those memorable words that would ultimately bring him down. The Internet hummed with rumor and speculation, the newly born cable channels were competing for ratings and coverage was 24/7.

By now even “Saturday Night Live” was running an investigation. The presidency was reduced to a conversation around blowjobs and cigar dildos.

And then investigators found DNA evidence on a blue dress. An independent investigator was appointed to ascertain whether the president had lied. Eleven months and acres of media coverage later, both parties were left shamed and broken.

January 1, 1990: A German citizen takes a hammer to the Berlin Wall, one of the most potent symbols of the Cold War. (Photo by Guy DURAND/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

January 1, 1990: A German citizen takes a hammer to the Berlin Wall, one of the most potent symbols of the Cold War. (Photo by Guy DURAND/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

To illustrate the series of events that signaled the power shift, the film begins with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The manner of its disintegration was an accident of human judgement, as Mary Sarotte, Kravis Distinguished Professor of Historical Studies at Johns Hopkins University, explains.

Events were spurred to unravel when a policy wonk droning on in a press conference misspeaks. Journalists reported the story on their cable channels within minutes, and by the time the hour was up, East and West Berliners were hammering on the gates—thanks to new media, the flow of information crossed borders, and both sides now understood the wall was open, even while the policy wonk was still droning on.

Next up came the world’s first televised war—one that was broadcast in real time, on a 24-hour news cycle. CNN reporters embedded in Baghdad and on the Kuwaiti border were providing the White House with more information than it was getting from its own generals.

Back in the U.S., the beating of Rodney King by white police officers, filmed on a video camera by a bystander, showed the world the reality of the treatment black people endured at the hands of a white police force. “The Rodney King tape was the beginning of what we see today—now that everyone has a cell phone,” says Julián Castro, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Residents of South Central Los Angeles walk through a neighborhood burned down during the 1992 riots that swept the area after police officers accused of beating motorist Rodney King were cleared of all charges.  (Photo by Ted Soqui/Corbis via Getty Images)

Residents of South Central Los Angeles walk through a neighborhood burned down during the 1992 riots that swept the area after police officers accused of beating motorist Rodney King were cleared of all charges.  (Photo by Ted Soqui/Corbis via Getty Images)

That tape, replayed on news media, triggered a social crisis where policing and justice no longer had legitimacy. When the fires of Los Angeles stopped burning, a new generation of voters needed change. They wanted a different kind of authority, a different kind of president. One who spoke their language and understood their culture.

Bill Clinton, who had run an unpromising campaign up to this point, changed tack, and met the people where the people were: on late-night TV. He appeared on “The Arsenio Hall Show,” and instead of speaking policy, he played his saxophone. Everything changed. Yeah, he smoked (but he didn’t inhale). MTV became a legitimate media outlet for his messages and Generation X and the Baby Boomers got it. The World War 2 generation didn’t—but they no longer mattered. The generation whose world view had been defined by the Cold War, an us-and-them protectionism and a conservative pride had had their day. President George Bush was out, Clinton was in and the ’90s were on their way.

The technological revolution—so far powered by satellite TV and 24-hour news reporting—was about to take a major injection from the Internet. Yes, it was to wreak havoc, but it was also to deliver real beneficial change. Netscape, the Mosaic consumer-facing Internet browser, opened up the web to the entire world. Everyone could access each other now, they could share information and collapse time and distance.

Communities and causes had a channel. When a young gay man named Matthew Shepard was brutally beaten, burned and strung up on a fence left for dead, the Internet surfaced the story. The gay community finally had a way to talk.

As Jon Barrett, former editor-in-chief of The Advocate says, “Up until the internet we often didn’t hear what was going on in the gay community. You had a sense that there were people out there like you, but you may not be able to find them. I didn’t come out until I had access to AOL.” Gay hate crimes were at peak levels back then—in 1998, 1000 were reported, and many more went unreported.

“In times of struggle there are often defining moments that help the broader community see how wrong their actions have been,” says Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware. Matthew Shepard’s death was one of those moments. John Aravosis, a journalist, activist and politician, posted news of the murder on his blog at the time.

“It was amazing how much the crime touched people, but also the sense of community this website gave people,” he says. “People found other people they could commune with. We came up with these ideas of candlelit vigils, 77 happened simultaneously. Having these vigils in each town created local news too. It raised awareness to a new level that empowered and encouraged people to come out and fight.”

The great social liberalization of the ’90s is no better expressed than in the change that was wrought around gay rights. As Matthew’s mother, Judy Shepard, says: “A whole generation of advocates and activists were born in that moment.” The emergence of gay marriage and gay rights as a mainstream idea was one of the ’90s finest moments. “And it happened with lightning speed,” says professor of history Gil Troy of McGill University. “It was about culture and much more about technology.”

“You felt in the ’90s you were in the midst of this tech explosion. There was a lot that was good about that, but we also lost something,” says Castro.

Shawn Fanning, co-founder of the online music service Napster, leaving the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on October 2, 2000 in San Francisco, during a battle that pitted the upstart web company against the mainstream music industry.  (Photo by Alan Dejecacion/Newsmakers)

Shawn Fanning, co-founder of the online music service Napster, leaving the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on October 2, 2000 in San Francisco, during a battle that pitted the upstart web company against the mainstream music industry.  (Photo by Alan Dejecacion/Newsmakers)

Few felt this more painfully—or still feels this—as much as business. Shawn Fanning, the college student who founded Napster, set it in motion. Fanning’s breakthrough idea signaled the end of the analog world. Inventing a way for users to download music files for free, Napster was responsible for the greatest transfer of intellectual property in history. It was the beginning of free. The music industry didn’t like it one little bit, but once the genie was out, it could not be returned.

“Napster felt like this magical amazing thing—like why doesn’t music work like this? It was like the Internet should enable things like this,” says Jonah Peretti, the digital founder behind HuffPost and BuzzFeed.

Not realizing this was a terminal situation, the industry fought back—namely in the shape of the band Metallica, which filed a lawsuit and triggered a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. The testimony of a young Gene Kan, an anonymous developer at Gnutella (a platform offering a similar service to Napster), proved very prescient that day in June 2001. “The benefits of digital downloadable media are infinite,” he told the committee. “20m Napster users can’t be wrong. 20m today—100m tomorrow. Technology moves forward and leaves the stragglers behind. The adopters always win, and the stalwarts always lose. Mechanized farming is a good example. You don’t see anyone out there with a horse and plow these days. The Internet touches everyone and everything. Everyone must adapt, business and intellectual property owners are not excluded.”

In the end Napster was ahead of its time, and the Senate ruled that it be shut down. But Napster was the canary in the coal mine for all media, and a new paradigm had been set.

“It was incredible how many years it took after Napster was shut down to get back to something that was even half as good as Napster,” says Peretti. “We’ve got closer to it now with paid models like Spotify. Napster pointed to the way the world could work, the Internet could work.”

Politics was also experiencing its own disruption: The Florida recount in the 2000 Bush–Gore presidential deadlock defined how divided a nation America had become. But it also had an even more pernicious effect. Days of uncertainty revolving around the unlikely “hanging chads” stalled a resolution. The election mechanisms—yet another institution—had failed.

The Supreme Court was called in to decide, divisively overruling the recount. This threw into doubt any idea that the system was one of fairness and justice, forcing both sides to entrench themselves further.

The fallout of that is a matter of deep discussion today, but this was the moment it all began.

“In the 1990s, with all the cynicism in the media, with all the individuation in the Internet, [something happens],” says Troy, the history professor. “When I go to the Internet I go deeper and deeper into my right-wing rabbit hole, I go deeper and deeper in my left-wing rabbit hole. And so the Internet—which becomes the world’s greatest organizing tool, and the world’s greatest community-building tool—could also be the world’s, and America’s, most polarizing tool.”

Technology had one more killer blow to deliver. The Internet also helped usher in the unseen ascent of a global terror network that was to scorch itself onto the world’s conscience on the morning of September 11, 2001. The ’90s were over and a new decade—with a new set of problems—was beginning.

Hear from the people quoted in this story by watching “The Untold Story of the 90s.”

Tiffanie Darke is the Editor in Chief of History and author of Now we Are 40, Whatever Happened to Generation X?(HarperCollins). Follow her on Twitter @tiffaniedarke.

History Reads is a weekly series featuring work from Team History, a group of experts and influencers, exploring history’s most fascinating questions.

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