Fact: The man who wrote so eloquently about basic human liberty in the Declaration of Independence was himself a slave owner. Unproven theory: That man had a sexual relationship with one of those slaves and fathered at least one of her children.
If you're a liberal journalist, the fact makes you inclined to believe the theory, and ideology and political necessity take you the rest of the way. At least, that has been the case in reporting on the Jefferson-Hemings historical controversy over the last decade and more.
It will be interesting to see if a new book that goes a long way toward exonerating Thomas Jefferson receives the same kind of breathless coverage as evidence the media cited to condemn him. Or if CBS produces a miniseries to correct the one it made exploiting that evidence.
Back in 1998, DNA testing finally produced something conclusive about the centuries-old question of whether Thomas Jefferson had a sexual relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings. Liberal journalists, then desperate for ways to defend President Bill Clinton during his own sordid sex scandal, pounced on the news that a descendent of Hemings shared some of our third president's DNA.
But that's all it said about the rumors and legends that had circulated for nearly two centuries. The report stated only that a Jefferson fathered a child with Hemings. And in fact there was a more likely culprit - Thomas's younger brother Randolf, who did father children by his own slaves and was much closer to Hemings' age.
But the press had its story. In Nov. 1998, the Media Research Center quoted CNN anchor Marina Kolbe saying "new genetic work, coupled with old circumstantial evidence, proves Jefferson fathered at least one child by his slave, Sally Hemings. One of the study's authors says it suggests, according to history, presidential indiscretions are long-standing." NBC reporter Bob Faw was even more direct: "After all, if Bill Clinton's favorite President could end up on Mount Rushmore and the two-dollar bill, despite being sexually active with a subordinate, it might put Mr. Clinton's conduct with a certain intern in a different light."
But nobody took the story and rqan with it like the Washington Post. A Post story maintained that Jefferson "almost certainly fathered a child with one of his slaves." Columnist Bill Raspberry wrote, "After nearly two centuries, Thomas Jefferson's secret is out."
Story after story took Thomas' paternity as fact, some even speculating that Jefferson "maybe the father of the other four children as well." Post coverage was so bad that in July, 1999, new ombudsman E.R. Shipp called the paper to account, writing, "In reporting on the Jefferson-Hemings story these six months, the Post often has failed to make clear what is fact…what is speculation and what is convenient."
Predictably, The New York Times wasn't any better. A story by Neil A. Lewis was titled "Study Finds Strong Evidence Jefferson Fathered Slave Son." Don Terry repeated the erroneous conclusion, writing that, "the recent release of DNA evidence indicating that Jefferson had probably fathered at least one child with Hemings," and used it pick at the scab of black grievance.
According to Terry, blacks - even black school kids -possess either preternatural historical insight or clairvoyance, because they knew about Jefferson all along. "Why, he asked, did 'white society' need DNA evidence to accept what 'ordinary people with common sense like me' had recognized as fact long ago?"
Terry ascribed the reluctance of scholars and white Jefferson defendants to accept the Jefferson-Hemings legend as "trying to hide" something. In an editorial, Brent Staples castigated white Jefferson family members who were reluctant to accept inconclusive evidence as conclusive. "If white Jeffersons cannot reach out to the black people whose ancestors built Monticello - and especially to those who share the founder's blood - then the prospects for harmony in this Jeffersonian Republic seem dimmer for all of us." The truth and the great man's reputation be damned.
Thanks in no small part to the Times and the Post, assumptions of Jefferson's guilt aren't just for black high school students any more - they've become conventional wisdom. With the release of "The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission?" on Sept. 1, will The Times be as interested in toppling that conventional wisdom as it was in overturning scholarly tradition? The work of a panel of scholars, the book starts with the actual DNS results and rebuts point-by-point the case for Jefferson's paternity.
We'll wait for the New York Times to admonish Hemings' descendents to drop their ancestry claims for the sake of racial harmony …