The Magazine

OUR FEARLESS PRESS

Mar 15, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 25 • By DAVID FRUM
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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:


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.




David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.