Entries from March 1999

Our Fearless Press

David Frum March 15th, 1999 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Soon
after President Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to the
Supreme Court, Timothy Phelps of Newsday

and Nina Totenberg of National Public Radio heard rumors that a law professor
in Oklahoma had accused Thomas of making crude sexual remarks to her when they
worked together almost a decade before. Phelps and Totenberg called Anita Hill,
for that’s who it was, who refused to confirm the story. Then, with barely days
remaining before the Senate Judiciary Committee vote on the Thomas nomination,
somebody leaked to the reporters the statement Hill had given to the FBI. On
October 6, 1991, the story broke.

>

>At the time, Phelps and Totenberg had no witnesses who
could confirm Hill’s allegations, nothing except a complaint anonymously given
to the police. Their use of uncorroborated charges to damage a man’s reputation
horrified the journalistic establishment. Two eminent press watchers published
this stern condemnation in the Washington Post: >

>

font-family:"Times New Roman"'>The pressure of the new journalism of
assertion is to go with stories before they have gone through the discipline of
reporting — and that is what reporting is, a discipline. The foundation of
journalism’s role in society is its "ruthless respect for fact," as
Columbia Journalism School professor Jim Carey has said. . . . [Unfortunately]
journalism is becoming less a product than a process, witnessed in real time
and in public. First comes the allegation. Then the anchor vamps and speculates
until the counter-allegation is issued. The demand to keep up with and air this
to and for leaves journalists with less time to take stock and sort out what is
true and genuinely significant. The public gets the grist, the raw elements. .
. . [But] a journalism of unfiltered assertion makes separating fact and
fiction, argument from innuendo, more difficult and leaves the society
vulnerable to manipulation.

>

>Of course I’m kidding. Nobody except a few unhappy
conservatives said any such thing in 1991. The bit of censoriousness quoted
above, by Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism and Bill
Kovach of the Nieman Foundation, was published last weekend, and it concerned
not Hill’s allegation that Clarence Thomas talked dirty to her but Juanita
Broaddrick’s allegation that she was sexually assaulted by Bill Clinton. Back
in 1991, the scandal was the refusal of the old, white men in the Senate to believe
Hill’s anonymous, uncorroborated allegations, not the willingness of the press
to print them. Thomas’s alleged behavior was so shocking, so dismaying — he
had engaged in sexual banter in the presence of a woman! > — that the senators’ insistence that his accuser give her
name if she wanted to be heard and offer proof if she wanted to be believed
proved only how little men "got it."

>

>In the eight years since then, however, journalistic
standards seem to have become considerably more stringent. In 1999, Juanita
Broaddrick stepped forward to accuse the president publicly of rape. There were
five people willing to confirm that she had told them her story at the time it
happened; one of them said she had seen Broaddrick’s physical injuries. The
strongest counter-evidence against her story — that she had earlier signed an
affidavit denying the rape — actually tended to confirm it: As we now know,
Clinton’s protectors have made a habit of collecting false affidavits from
women linked to their man. But according to Rosenstiel and Kovach, none of this
was good enough to justify The Wall Street Journal’s > editorial page in publishing its interview with Juanita
Broaddrick. It should have checked the story more laboriously, more thoroughly,
rather than hurrying into print a mere four weeks after Broaddrick first
publicly stepped forward.

>

>Even after Dorothy Rabinowitz’s Journal > piece at last prodded NBC to broadcast its interview with
Broaddrick; and despite a suspiciously lame denial by the White House, the
national press appears to have decided that the story is not newsworthy. At
Clinton’s appearance with the Italian prime minister last Friday, no reporter
even broached the issue. The Big Three networks have all downplayed the
Broaddrick allegations, and NBC is now refusing to make the tape of the
interview available for rebroadcast, even to its own affiliates, the Media
Research Center reports. (Perhaps the network is waiting for a signed
confession.)

>

>As for the underlying behavior, here too press standards seem
to have evolved in a surprising new direction. Eight years ago, the press gaped
and gasped like Victorian maiden aunts in horror that a Supreme Court judge
might have used the word "breast" in office conversation. Now the
press shrugs off the very considerable likelihood that the president of the
United States is a rapist. No less an authority than the National Organization
for Women’s Patricia Ireland is urging the press to "stop wasting time on
unprovable charges." White House sources tell reporters on deep background
that, yes, the sex occurred, but Broaddrick really wanted it.

>

>"Watching Clinton walk away from this one is
especially frustrating, but what can be done?" asked Newsweek’s > Jonathan Alter. Well, here’s an out-of-left-field
suggestion: Why don’t we try to discover the truth? Bill Clinton refuses to say
where he was on the morning of April 25, 1978. It’s not beyond the resources of
Alter’s colleagues to sleuth out his whereabouts that day. Rosenstiel and
Kovach and our other high-minded press critics worry that the press has become
dangerously overeager. Of course damaging allegations against a president
should not be carelessly publicized. But when a woman with no obvious motive to
lie testifies under oath that the president sexually assaulted her, when her
story is an internally plausible account and conforms to the known facts, when
she can name corroborating witnesses . . . well, what we have here is called
news. And as Mark Steyn has quipped, anybody whose curiosity is not piqued by
this sort of news ought not to be a journalist at all.

>

>Journalists say they’re tired. If so, they should take a
vacation or retire. They say they dislike this kind of story. But it’s not
really up to them to decide which stories they like and which they don’t. They
say the American people don’t care. But wouldn’t that be a more meaningful
statement after the story was covered
rather than before? They insinuate that they are too high-minded to put this
story into circulation. And as for that — let them tell it to Clarence Thomas.