In This Issue
Hard and Soft on Clarence Thomas; NewsBites: Please Tax Us; Revolving Door: Adding from Harvard Yard; Nightline and Frontline Caught in Hoax; The Court's Future; Reporter or Campaign Strategist?; Media Money Leans Left; Once in Love with Nina; Print Reporters Too; Janet Cooke Award: L.A. Times: Savage Attack on Rehnquist
Hard and Soft on Clarence Thomas
Just when Judge Clarence Thomas looked to be a shoo-in for Senate confirmation, someone with the Senate Judiciary Committee leaked an affidavit from Anita Hill charging Thomas with sexual harassment. If, as suspected, Democrats did the leaking, it could clearly be characterized as hardball politics or playing dirty.
But when network television covered the hearings live over the Columbus Day weekend, Democrats were not subjected to tough questioning about their possible role in the leak, or how committing this crime was a new low in playing dirty. Instead, reporters accused the Republican committee members of playing hardball politics, while criticizing the Democrats for not being tough enough on Thomas, a MediaWatch Study has documented. The study covered all ABC, CBS and NBC news broadcasts (both live coverage and normal shows) between the start of the hearings at 10 AM EDT on Friday, October 11 through the Wednesday, October 16 morning programs. The study also covered all CNN and PBS live coverage, plus CNN's World News. The amount of time devoted to live coverage varied: CNN and PBS showed it all while CBS, which cut out for baseball Friday night and for football on Saturday and Sunday, offered the least.
In total, the five networks' anchors, reporters and affiliated analysts singled out the Republicans for cynical or hardball tactics on 28 separate occasions. On another twelve occasions, the network personalities complained that committee Democrats went too easy on Thomas. (On two occasions, CBS vaguely blamed both parties, calling the hearings "smear and counter-smear," for example.) No anchor or reporter deplored the likelihood that the Democrats leaked in an effort to stop Thomas at all costs. In fact, they praised leaks (despite the damage they may cause) as an "all-American institution," in the words of PBS anchor Paul Duke.
During a break in the hearings on October 12, Dan Rather asked: "Would you agree, or would you not agree, that one person's leak is another person's public service?" On the same day, Nina Totenberg insisted that "the history books are full of important and historic events that were the result of news leaks.... [Watergate] would have just been a third-rate robbery if there hadn't been a lot of leaks disclosing what it had all been about. So, news leaks -- I don't want to be defensive about this -- but news leaks aren't always bad."
When Senator Paul Simon appeared on Meet the Press October 13, reporter Andrea Mitchell went on the attack, but not about the leak: "Now you just mentioned that Anita Hill was under attack for most of yesterday and you lamented that. But it was the Democrats who failed to question Judge Thomas very aggressively about some issues that might have been relevant. For instance, pornography. One of his friends from Yale, Lovida Coleman, a very close friend, has said that he liked to tell stories about pornographic films....Why was that question not asked?"
During an October 14 Today roundtable discussion, NBC News Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert exemplified the attack on Republicans: "You had Senators accusing people of perjury; Senator Simpson, `I have faxes, I have letters' -- the closest thing to McCarthy that we've seen. It was not a kinder, gentler Republican panel." On Today the next morning, Andrea Mitchell complained about Thomas: "The Democrats did not ask him tough questions about the facts of her charge and they did, the Republicans did a great job of hammering her. It's basically what happened in the '88 campaign. The Republicans know how to fight dirty."
With the exception of two occasions on Nightline, ABC refrained from making such judgments in all of its hearings coverage. Ted Koppel mouthed the media line on October 15: "The reality that Judge Thomas is tonight Justice Thomas can be attributed in large measure to the fact that his supporters used some hardball tactics of their own." In contrast, Koppel asserted the Democrats "were largely ineffectual counter-punchers."
NewsBites: Please Tax Us
PLEASE TAX US. Citizens Against Government Waste declared October 19 "Taxpayer Action Day." NBC's reaction? Assert that taxes are just too low. As Nightly News drew to a close, anchor Garrick Utley announced: "American tax rates today are, relatively speaking, low. Repeat low. About half the top rate in the rest of the industrialized world. Our sales taxes are equally low. Fact: the United States is a tax bargain, believe it or not."
Utley urged Americans to follow Europe by becoming more reliant upon government: "The difference, of course, is that in other countries people see their tax money coming back to them to make life more agreeable and secure. In Western Europe, health care for everyone. In Scandinavia, day care centers for mothers and children." Too bad he didn't mention that Sweden just threw out its socialist government.
BEHIND THE TIMES AT TIME. Last year, MediaWatch pointed out that at Time, which talks a good game about women's rights and promoting working women, only 12 of the top 47 editorial jobs are held by women. In the midst of self-righteous indignation at sexual harassment in Time's pages, the New York Post reported that Time Deputy Chief of Correspondents Joelle Attinger collected stories from female Time staffers about sexual harassment.
But after receiving a number of reports about one high-ranking Time employee, the piece was spiked. One source told the Post "it was a silly idea to air our own dirty laundry." The source said sexual harassment may have been "rampant in the past. It's not so much a problem now." Rather, "The real problem we have here is sex discrimination. There's a pervasive atmosphere of discrimination here." Sounds like a topic for Time's feminist essayist, Barbara Ehrenreich of the Democratic Socialists of America.
DISTRIBUTING DUNCE CAPS. This should win an award for the dumbest story of the year. In an October 8 CBS Evening News story, reporter Bob McNamara used public confusion about abortion laws as an argument against overturning Roe v. Wade. "It could be the future in all fifty states if Roe v. Wade is overturned," he surmised, "abortion, legal in some places, illegal in others. A state of confusion that's already happening....[Doctor] Jackson says that confusion over the law has endangered patients."
Some women, he warned, take desperate measures to end pregnancies, like drinking cleaning fluids or quinine. "In rural Utah...questions over whether abortion is legal have led some women to try ending a pregnancy themselves," he claimed. McNamara ended his story by putting the blame on legislatures for even considering anti-abortion laws: "And if there are victims already in this battle for the future of abortion, they are casualties mostly of confusion."
FAYE'S FREE RIDE. ABC reporter Sylvia Chase offered the latest glorifying profile of Planned Parenthood President Faye Wattleton on Prime Time Live September 5. But unlike other media tributes, Chase brought up Margaret Sanger: "In 1916 when Planned Parenthood was established, founder Margaret Sanger was jailed for speaking about contraception. Today, Faye Wattleton is worried that history is repeating itself."
But Chase ignored a more substantial angle. Not once did Chase ask Wattleton how she, as a black woman, could preside over a group founded by a woman who said birth control was needed "to create a race of thoroughbreds." Sanger advised Planned Parenthood to "hire three or four colored ministers, preferably with social service backgrounds and engaging personalities....We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members."
DESPERATELY SNEAKING SUSAN. Susan Estrich popped up as an expert on sexual harassment in several stories during the Thomas hearings. On the October 8 NBC Nightly News, she was labeled a "law professor." In the October 28 Time, it was "University of Southern California law professor." Only ABC, in appearances on Nightline and Good Morning America, described her partisan credentials as 1988 Campaign Manager for Michael Dukakis.
TEAM TALBOTT. Time Editor-at-Large Strobe Talbott, who in January of 1990 claimed Gorbachev proved "the Soviet threat isn't what it used to be -- and what's more, that it never was," is at it again. In an October 14 essay on Robert Gates' CIA nomination, Talbott charged that in 1976, CIA Director George Bush requested an outside "Team B" report on the Soviets which was "a depiction of Soviet intentions and capabilities that seemed extreme at the time and looks ludicrous in retrospect."
Earlier in the essay, Talbott conclude that "Gates' supporters on the committee -- all Republicans -- tried with more ingenuity than success to discredit the most damaging testimony. Gates then put up a spirited, gutsy defense of his own, earning respect from several Senators -- all Democrats -- who will still probably vote against his confirmation." At the time Senator David Boren (D-OK), the Intelligence Committee chairman, had already announced his support for Gates, who ended winning the committee vote 11-4, with four Democrats voting in favor. Perhaps Time needs a Team B essayist for future predictions.
COMPLIMENTING CLINTON. Is NBC reporter Lisa Myers objective? You make the call. In one of a series of Nightly News reports on Democratic candidates, Myers heralded Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton on October 3: "His prescription -- an ambitious agenda to make government work and help the forgotten middle class...A star since first elected Governor at age thirty-two, Clinton is less driven by ideology than by what works...Name a problem, Clinton probably has a solution."
Earlier, on the September 12 Today, Myers claimed: "Clinton has racked up a fairly strong record in eleven years as Governor. This year fellow Governors voted him the most effective Governor in the nation. His claim to fame, education...Clinton increased school attendance requirements, raised accreditation standards and required teachers to pass competency tests, over the vehement objections of the teacher's union. Then he raised taxes to pay for it all, including higher salaries for teachers. It worked."
SCORCHED TAXPAYERS. One reporter is actually blaming the Oakland fires on low taxes. In an October 27 Philadelphia Inquirer story, Knight-Ridder reporter David Johnston asked: "If $12,000 in overtime pay might have saved Oakland's hills, is it time to rethink the tax revolt?"
"The idea that paying too much in taxes can hurt, but that not paying enough can kill, has begun to seep into the political consciousness here," Johnston observed before charging the future fire "threat is magnified because many fire departments are underfunded and underequipped." Why? "The modern tax revolt began here in 1978, when Proposition 13 slashed property taxes. Since then there have been severe cuts in local government services."
The fact is California localities are hardly strapped for cash. The California Taxpayers Association reported last month that local discretionary levies, such as business license fees and utility and hotel taxes, have soared 298 percent since Prop. 13 and property tax collections have grown faster than inflation every year since 1982. The Los Angeles Times offered a better culprit: incompetence. On November 1 the Times reported "officials were slow in asking for aerial support" and "offers from state firefighters were ignored."
TAKING AIM AT GUNS. The Killeen, Texas mass murder tragedy prompted some opinionated assertions from CBS News. On the October 16 Evening News, Dan Rather asked reporter Richard Threlkeld, "Is Congress going to do anything to limit these assault weapons, and if so, what?" Threlkeld answered, "We hope so. Tomorrow, Congress will vote on the crime bill which includes a feature to limit the sale, or manufacture, or importation of some semi-automatic weapons." On October 23 Dan Rather led off a story on the aftermath of Killeen with this bit of blame transference: "The shootings in Killeen are the latest tragedy highlighting the success of the gun lobby at fighting gun control."
SCAMMING SAM. With sexual harassment the issue of the month, at least one male network reporter was clearly nervous that he might fall out of liberal favor. On This Week with David Brinkley October 13, ABC attack dog Sam Donaldson got this surprise from Barbara Walters: "Sam, if I wanted to, I could have such a list of sexual harassment against you." A sheepish Sam replied: "I can tell you I've never done anything that Judge Thomas is accused of, but have I walked through the news room kind of uh-huh uh-huh? Sure." He later repented: "I think from now on, though, I'm probably going to go uh-huh uh-huh [whispered]."
One who wasn't nervous, ironically, was NBC commentator John Chancellor. On the October 8 Nightly News he warned: "The biggest lesson of all is that these days women take it very seriously when they're not taken seriously." He should know. In her book Fighting For Air, former NBC reporter Liz Trotta wrote that Chancellor once signed a petition to keep women out of his social club because they would "break down the effortless, unconstrained companionship among men." Trotta, who described several run-ins with a chauvinistic Chancellor, was amused. "I still believe that men have a perfect right to their own clubs, but it was a tonic to watch Chancellor's liberal credentials up for grabs."
FACTS ON BLACKS. Despite the polls showing strong black support for Clarence Thomas, NBC News portrayed the opposite. On October 10, the night before the special hearings, NBC reporter Deborah Roberts stated: "There is little sympathy for Clarence Thomas' trouble. After all, many black leaders here never embraced his nomination...Today, at all-black Morehouse College, they debated Thomas' stand against affirmative action. In this classroom, there will be no feeling of loss if he loses the nomination."
Really? What about the rest of the country? On October 14, USA Today's poll reported 63 percent of blacks supported confirmation for Thomas, while only 18 percent were opposed. In the same poll, 47 percent of blacks believed Thomas was telling the truth, compared to 20 percent who believed Anita Hill. Likewise, a Los Angeles Times poll found 61 percent supported Thomas and an ABC News-Washington Post poll found 70 percent wanted Thomas confirmed.
BALANCE IS BORING. Who says journalists should be balanced and fair in their reporting? Not Newsweek media critic Jonathan Alter, who apparently prefers editorializing over news reporting. In an October 28 column on the press coverage of the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill story, Alter wrote: "At The New York Times, Maureen Dowd, framing the story while the competition slept, scored a series of analytical scoops on the unfairness of the Senate to women and to Anita Hill...But inside the Times and out, just-the-facts-ma'am mossbacks grumbled that `editorials' were appearing on the front page. Their bumper sticker should be: KEEP THE TIMES BORING."
STILL WAITING. On Nightline's October 16 two-hour special on the Thomas hearings, MediaWatch Publisher L. Brent Bozell asked Ted Koppel if he would allocate the same zeal to investigating the Senate's leak of a confidential FBI report on Anita Hill as he has to "October Surprise" charges. Koppel responded: "I'll be happy to talk to you by phone tomorrow morning if you'd like to." Despite two phone calls and one faxed letter, Koppel has not responded.
Revolving Door: Adding from Harvard Yard
Adding from Harvard Yard. Last summer American University professor Lewis Wolfson completed a report titled Through the Revolving Door: Blurring the Line Between the Press and Government. During his research for Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Barone Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy, Wolfson uncovered five names previously unknown to MediaWatch:
Ed Goodpaster, Deputy Washington Bureau Chief for the Baltimore Sun from 1982 to 1987 and National Editor since then, held the title of Associate Director of the Office of Governmental and Public Affairs at the Agriculture Department from 1978-80. Before joining the Carter Administration, Goodpaster was Deputy National Editor at The Washington Post, a position he assumed in 1974 after nine years as Deputy Washington Bureau Chief for Time.
Lawrence O'Rourke has been White House correspondent for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch since leaving the Carter Administration in 1981. During Carter's last year in office, O'Rourke served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Education for Policy and Planning. Before jumping to the new agency, O'Rourke reported White House news for The Bulletin, a now defunct Philadelphia daily.
Veteran Time correspondent Jerrold Schecter was the magazine's diplomatic correspondent when tapped for the National Security Council's Press Secretary slot in 1977, a position he held through 1980. In 1989 he and his wife wrote An American Family Returns to Moscow, a book comparing life under Gorbachev to the late 1960s when he served as Time Moscow Bureau Chief. Earlier this year he translated Khrushchev Remembers: The Glasnost Tapes.
Walter Pincus, a defense reporter at The Washington Post, put in two 18-month stints as an investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under Democratic Chairman William Fulbright. Pincus told MediaWatch he first worked for the committee in 1962, returning in 1969 when Fulbright asked him to investigate the role of the military in foreign policy. After three years as Executive Editor of The New Republic, in 1975 he joined the Post. For several years he simultaneously worked for CBS News, serving as a producer/writer for CBS Reports: The Defense of the United States, a five-part 1981 series.
Wolfson's paper also identified a Reagan connection. In 1981 Dean Fischer left his position as Time Deputy Washington Bureau Chief to become Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs under Alexander Haig. Back at Time as its Cairo reporter since 1986, he joined a PR firm when Haig resigned in 1982.
MediaWatch recently came across a Carter alumnus whom Wolfson overlooked: Arch Parsons, a Baltimore Sun Washington bureau reporter since 1987. Parsons held three positions during Carter's first two years: Director of Information for the Appalachian Mountain Commission; Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at HUD; and finally Director of Public Affairs for the Economic Development Administration at the Department of Commerce. Parsons left government in 1978 for an assistant editor slot at Newsday, followed by a stint at The Washington Star until it folded in 1981.
Nightline and Frontline Caught in Hoax
"OCTOBER SURPRISE" UNRAVELS
The credibility of investigative reports touting an "October Surprise" scandal -- that in 1980, Reagan campaign officials negotiated to delay the release of the Iranian hostages until after the election -- has been destroyed by the November 11 Newsweek and the November 18 New Republic.
The exposés, by Stephen Emerson and Jesse Furman in The New Republic and by a team led by John Barry in Newsweek, reviewed the charges made by primary sources of the "October Surprise" theory, including Richard Brenneke, Houshang Lavi, Barbara Honegger, Ari Ben-Menashe, and Jamshid Hashemi, and found them baseless.
Emerson and Furman reported that in the last four years, ABC "ran a series of 'investigative' stories based on new Brenneke accusations," citing a "confidential source" (Brenneke) making allegations such as "the United States, working with Israeli intelligence, secretly flew weapons to the contras and used the planes on their way back to transport drugs into the United States."
Despite stories like these, ABC issued no public retraction when Frank Snepp, who according to The New Republic, "reported Brenneke's allegations as truthful for ABC News for several years," wrote in the Village Voice that Brenneke's "October Surprise" claims were false. Yet knowing that Brenneke and Ari Ben-Menashe were untrustworthy (Newsweek reported that Ben-Menashe failed an ABC lie-detector test in November 1990), ABC left them out of the picture and based an entire one-hour June 20 Nightline this year on the testimony of Jamshid Hashemi. Emerson and Furman detailed how Hashemi's credibility problems were "even worse than those of Brenneke and Ben-Menashe."
ABC's unwillingness to show skepticism toward this conspiracy theory is also proven by the fact that Nightline chose not to air conservative journalists such as Herbert Romerstein, who correctly challenged the veracity of these sources earlier this year in debunking a PBS Frontline documentary for Human Events.
On the Fox Morning News November 5, Emerson, a former U.S. News & World Report writer and investigator for Sen. Frank Church, called the "October Surprise" theory "probably one of the largest hoaxes and fabrications in modern American journalism...I was amazed that in the last five years, no one bothered to look at the statements of the sources. I mean, each one totally contradicted the other. None of them had any documentation whatsoever. So I still question why major American institutions, journalistic institutions, accepted on face value the statements of these fabricated sources."
The Court's Future
THE COURT'S FUTURE. The addition of Clarence Thomas is making reporters glum about the Supreme Court's future. On the October 7 NBC Nightly News, reporter Lisa Myers sounded the alarm: "Given the Court's increasingly conservative makeup, it also could end the era in which the Court has led the fight against racial injustice in this country."
CBS reporter Rita Braver framed the issues from the liberal perspective on the October 15 Evening News: "Ultraconservatives William Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia usually draw enough of the Court's other conservatives to form a majority. But not always. The addition of Clarence Thomas, however, makes it even more likely that in the near future the Supreme Court will ease requirements for school desegregation, cut back on affirmative action programs and other protections for minorities and women, get tougher with reporters in freedom of speech cases, further crack down on the rights of accused in criminal cases, and overturn the basic right to abortion."
Reporter or Campaign Strategist?
BUSH BULL & HARKIN HYPE
It's not uncommon for reporters to become flacks or operatives for liberal candidates, but usually they wait until after they leave their network or paper. Not Boston Globe reporter John Powers. For the October 6 Globe Magazine, Powers wrote the cover story, "To: The Democratic Party, Re: Winning -- for a Change," a mean-spirited diatribe. He began with a series of cheap shots: "The Republicans will cheat to hang on to the White House, even if they think they have the election in the bag...The Republicans will distort, too. Remember Willie Horton, Bush's [Boston] harbor cruise?"
Powers urged Democrats to "shake the American people by the shoulders and tell them the truth. That life in the USA isn't getting better for most of them. It's getting worse -- and it's George Bush's fault." Later, he advised: "Whack away at Bush every day, and make it personal. You know what drives him crazy. The W word. As in wimp." More strategy from Powers:
"The country is going nowhere while George Bush's friends are living off their windfalls from the `greed is good' days. Make that your campaign centerpiece -- public distaste for the '80s is real. Bush spent those years in the White House, worshiping debt and calling it growth. Bush made Dukakis wear Willie Horton. You can hang Mike Milken around his neck. Both felons, right? And who did more harm to America?"
"You have to get people thinking that the '90s are the '30s revisited -- and blame it on Republican greed...You can make a strong case that the Republicans, who've been in power for 18 of the last 22 years, have knocked the working man and woman back into the 1950s."
"You don't have a Roosevelt or a John F. Kennedy out there, but you do have the makings of a Harry Truman in Tom Harkin, the Senator from Iowa....Harkin uttered the most memorable political lin of the year at Wisconsin's June Democratic convention, `George Bush and his fat-cat Republican friends say they are building a Conservative Opportunity Society. I've got a one word reply: Bullshit.' If Harkin will say that inside the sanitized fishbowl that American politics has become, he'll say a lot more. Plain talk for hard times."
Powers found nothing wrong with a reporter becoming a partisan advocate, telling MediaWatch that readers expect opinions in the magazine. As for why the Globe doesn't employ any conservatives who could offer a contrary view, he sarcastically claimed that executives can't locate any "literate" ones, suggesting that Globe Publisher Bill Taylor cannot "find a conservative who can put a complete sentence together."
Media Money Leans Left
$ Against Thomas
Where did the liberal interest groups besmirching Clarence Thomas get their money? Some of it came from media companies and foundations. Most of the top dogs have given money to NOW's Legal Defense and Education Fund: ABC, CBS, NBC, General Electric, Gannett Co., Hearst Corp., the New York Times Company and the Washington Post Company. (NBC donated to NOW's legal fund as NOW was suing them for discrimination.)
The Philip L. Graham Fund, operated mostly by heirs and employees of The Washington Post, gives yearly to the Women's Legal Defense Fund. The Capital Cities/ABC Foundation has given to a feminist group called the Women's Action Alliance. Planned Parenthood is funded by the Times Mirror Foundation (owners of the Los Angeles Times), the New York Times Company Foundation, the Gannett Foundation, the Cowles Media Foundation, the Cowles Media Foundation (owners of the Minneapolis Star Tribune), and the Knight (as in Knight-Ridder) Foundation.
The NAACP, which ended up opposing Thomas, has an impressive roster of media donors: the Times Mirror Foundation, the New York Times Company Foundation, the Boston Globe Foundation, Philip L. Graham Fund, General Electric Foundation, Gannett Foundation, Knight Foundation, and the Hearst Foundations.
The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which bragged of dragging down Robert Bork in its 1988 annual report, is funded by the Philip L. Graham Fund and the Boston Globe Foundation. People for the American Way is supported by CBS and the Washington Post Company.
Once in Love with Nina
ONCE IN LOVE WITH NINA. Nina Totenberg's media groupies continue to celebrate The Leak. On ABC's Prime Time Live November 7, Diane Sawyer jawed that Totenberg "inspire[s] respect." After reviewing Nina's feud with Alan Simpson, Sawyer ended with a flourish: "Senator Simpson sent word to us for this broadcast that he thinks Nina Totenberg is a fine journalist who was just doing her job." Sawyer didn't mention that Totenberg was charged with plagiarism by The Wall Street Journal.
Journal Washington Bureau Chief Al Hunt responded to a loving October 10 profile by Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz. Instead of investigating her story, Kurtz simply forwarded Totenberg's tale of leaving the National Observer in the 1970s because of sexual harassment. A week later, Hunt claimed that Totenberg did not leave, but was fired for plagiarizing the Post in 1972. Totenberg's response: "What I did or didn't do almost 20 years ago isn't the issue." Kurtz has yet to report these charges, despite his regular reporting on other incidents of plagiarism.
For those who wonder how Totenberg's prodding of Anita Hill affected her PBS commentary during the hearings, we present the Totenberg Tote Board. Number of times Nina defended herself over the leak: four. Number of times Nina wondered whether liberal interest groups would get a fair hearing from Thomas: three. Number of times Nina downplayed or audibly giggled at John Doggett's testimony: three. Number of times Nina promoted Hill's panel of witnesses as important or damaging to Thomas: eight. Totenberg ended her Sunday hearing analysis by saying: "By and large, I'd say the big news of today was the very first panel of the day, those who were corroborative witnesses for Anita Hill."
Print Reporters Too
Just like their electronic colleagues, many newspaper and magazine reporters accused Republicans of playing dirty and the Democrats of being too nice:
"Just as they did in the 1988 campaign, the Republicans
battered the other side by going ugly early with nasty, personal
attacks, by successfully linking the Democrats with liberal
advocacy groups and by using volatile images of race."
-- New York Times reporter Maureen Dowd in a page 1 news story, October 15.
"The White House went into those hearings with a clear
strategy: they were going to get Clarence Thomas confirmed. And
the Democrats came in, having been under a lot of heavy
criticism for trying to cover up this whole story or whitewash it, and
they said `we're going to be the seekers of the truth.' And so,
Clarence Thomas has lawyers sitting on that committee who were
working for him, and Anita Hill didn't have any, and in the end,
the strategy worked for the Republicans."
-- U.S. News & World Report Asst. Managing Ed. Gloria Borger, Oct. 18 Washington Week in Review on PBS.
"The lowest point on the first day of the hearing came when
Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter implied that Hill had
simply fantasized Thomas' asking for dates and his lurid remarks
about pornography. It is all but inconceivable that a similarly
qualified man, black or white, would be accused not merely of lying but
of imagining things."
-- Time Senior Editor Jack E. White, October 21 issue.
"The days of Simpson Chic are over. Now he is more often
compared to Red-baiter Joe McCarthy. The image of Simpson
flinging open his jacket and declaring he had lots of `stuff'
against Anita Hill -- while revealing nothing -- was the lowest of many
low points in the Clarence Thomas hearings. Any Senator with a
sense of history should have said, as attorney Joseph Welch
eventually did to McCarthy, `Senator, have you no shame?'
....[Simpson] is writing a book about the media -- a little like
Stalin discussing intergovernmental relations."
-- Newsweek Washington reporter Eleanor Clift, October 28 news story.
Janet Cooke Award: L.A. Times: Savage Attack on Rehnquist
The furor over the Thomas nomination may subside, but many legal reporters will probably continue to paint the conservative Court with broad brush strokes of disdain. On September 29, before the Thomas hearings ended, the Los Angeles Times Magazine published a cover story on Chief Justice William Rehnquist by Times Supreme Court reporter David Savage. For oversimplifying Rehnquist's opinions into a frightening platform against civil rights and the interests of minorities, Savage earned the November Janet Cooke Award.
The Times led off their scare with the subheadline: "Bill Rehnquist was once considered an extremist. Now his views almost always become the law of the land." This didn't describe Rehnquist's views -- it just makes them sound scary.
Like too many of the major media's Supreme Court reporters, Savage wrote his story in a simplistic shorthand that assigns liberals the white hats and conservatives the black hats: liberals as the defenders of individual rights, conservatives as the defenders of government power. Some examples:
"...vintage Rehnquist. He upheld the powers of the government and dismissed any claims that it has special responsibilities toward the poor."
"No other member of the court in recent decades had been as faithful in backing the government. No other justice so regularly turned thumbs down when individuals contended their constitutional rights had been violated."
"Throughout its history, the justices had erred, [Rehnquist] said, when they sought to protect individual rights."
"Souter was a conservative picked for the Court because the Bush Administration believed he could be trusted to uphold the government most of the time."
Savage put the opposite spin on the liberal justices:
"Somehow, year after year, despite a procession of new Republican appointees, Brennan managed to piece together five- vote majorities to rule in favor of civil right and civil liberties."
"A champion of individual rights, Brennan led the court's liberal wing..."
Thurgood Marshall was described as "the retiring giant of civil-rights law."
Lewis Powell would "vote with the liberals on civil rights and civil liberties."
Savage summarized: "Under Rehnquist, the Supreme Court no longer sees itself as the defender of civil rights and civil liberties, the champion of the individual. Gone is the court majority that breathed new life into the Bill of Rights, dismantled Southern segregation, disciplined police who violated the rights of citizens, removed religion from the public schools, pushed a President into resignation and swept aside the laws forbidding women to end their pregnancies."
But if Savage had quoted any conservatives in his article (he did not), they could have composed an opposing list of liberal infringements on individual rights. Savage might have at least presented the issue with more subtlety: that often, the Court must decide between a conflict of declared rights between individuals, like the rights of criminals vs. the rights of crime victims; the rights of employers vs. the rights of job applicants; or the rights of homeowners vs. the rights of environmentalists to declare other people's property wetlands.
But in describing the Supreme Court that found parts of the New Deal unconstitutional, Savage downplayed the importance of economic liberties: "For liberals such as Brennan and the late William O. Douglas, the lesson to be drawn from the era of the discredited nine old men was that the court must protect civil rights and individual liberties, not economic and property rights." Savage admitted in the next sentence: "Nothing in the Constitution or its history necessarily endorses such a distinction, but that has been the prevailing consensus since the 1940s."
In a lengthy and courteous interview with MediaWatch, Savage agreed that constitutional rights are not to be selectively enforce, and that economic rights are civil rights: "I agree with that. That's a good point. You ought to argue that with Rehnquist, though. I don't see much sign that this Court cares about economic rights or economic liberties."
Former Justice Department spokesman Terry Eastland told MediaWatch the problem isn't just "result-oriented" judging, but result-oriented reporting of judges. Rather than explain the many details of the precedents and technicalities on which justices base their decisions, reporters simplistically suggest evil intent, such as the court ruled "against" minorities, or as Savage wrote, that Rehnquist "fought against equal rights for women but for the rights of white males who claimed to be victims of affirmative action."
Savage devoted 11 paragraphs to the thesis of liberal law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, who has fiercely criticized the Bork and Thomas nominations in the press. Savage cited Chemerinsky's 1989 Harvard Law Review article that "showed that the chief justice almost never votes to strike down laws -- unless the laws happen to benefit minorities or women."
One case in which Rehnquist and the Court overturned precedent was the 1989 Wards Cove decision on unintentional discrimination. Conservatives ruled in favor of the original text of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which explicitly prohibits racial preferences like quotas. To be consistent, Savage would have to argue that the original Civil Rights Act is harmful to blacks' individual rights. But Savage conceded to MediaWatch that in cases like Wards Cove, the conservatives are ruling for individual rights, not the liberals: "I don't have any disagreement with that. I think that's probably correct."
Savage's story also simplified the Court's treatment of religion: "With an unquestioned majority, Rehnquist may move aggressively to throw out established doctrines of constitutional law. For example, Rehnquist has long disputed Thomas Jefferson's view that the Constitution demands a `separation of church and state.'" Savage didn't explain that the phrase "separation of church and state" appears nowhere in the Constitution, but comes from an 1802 letter that has been transposed into constitutional law by liberal justices.
No matter how much legal reporters decry the "dumbing down" of the Supreme Court, the President has a long way to go to match the dumbing down of Supreme Court reporting. Boiling down incredibly complex interpretations of the law into understandable news copy is a tremendous challenge. But stories like Savage's aren't balanced depictions of the Supreme Court's deliberations; they're politically motivated caricature.