Paula Jones, From Farce to Tragedy
by L. Brent Bozell III
January 16, 1997
The Paula Jones sexual harassment suit has received another 15 minutes of fame, but what a different 15 minutes. If history appears as tragedy and then as farce, the Jones case appeared first as farce and now as tragedy - if not for Jones, for the office of the presidency.
Two men who have reversed the 1994 dynamic of Paula Jones as trailer trash are former New York Times reporter Stuart Taylor and Newsweek Washington Bureau Chief Evan Thomas. Taylor, a Clinton voter at odds with Clarence Thomas's "archconservative jurisprudence," wrote a cover story in October for The American Lawyer magazine asserting his investigation of the Jones case found her charges were "far stronger" than Anita Hill's claims against Clarence Thomas.
Evan Thomas is the more interesting figure. He proclaimed on the talk show "Inside Washington" in 1994 that "Yes, the case is being fomented by right-wing nuts, and yes, she is not a very credible witness, and it's really not a law case at all...some sleazy woman with big hair coming out of the trailer parks." With that statement in mind, his cover story in last week's Newsweek was remarkable: "Arguably, the main reason more people don't take her story seriously is that the mainstream media have been skillfully spun by the White House and Clinton's lawyers. By playing on the class and partisan prejudices of reporters, as well as their squeamishness and ambivalence about printing stories about the sex lives of politicians, Clinton's operatives have done a brilliant job of discrediting Paula Jones and her case."
Full disclosure would have demanded one more sentence there. And Newsweek was among the worst offenders. They portrayed Jones as a "Dogpatch Madonna" who pinched male behinds at the Red Lobster and rubbed her crotch on men at duck hunts. (By contrast, Newsweek reported Anita Hill was a "straight arrow" who was an "unusually bright and determined child.") Thomas did not apologize for his magazine's role in publicizing these "tangy tales," told by Jones brother-in-law Mark Brown, who now tells Newsweek he believes Jones "absolutely."
Yet when confronted by Tim Russert on the January 12 "Meet the Press," Thomas said something refreshing: "I made a stupid remark about her having big hair, and to write about the cultural biases we had to acknowledge our own, my own biases."
The Taylor and Thomas cover stories attracted little coverage until the Supreme Court reviewed the case on January 13. On "Meet the Press," Thomas suggested: "There was actually a lot of coverage when it first came out." Wrong. In the first five days of the Anita Hill story in 1991, the networks aired 67 network stories. When she held a press conference in February 1994, Jones received one 16-second brief on ABC. That's 67 stories to one. Even in the first five days of the actual lawsuit story that May, the networks aired only 15 stories.
On January 12, CBS's Rita Braver suggested with Clinton's re-election insured by women, the Jones case "goes straight to the heart of who Bill Clinton is." So how would she explain that, throughout all of 1996, the networks aired only eight evening news stories on Jones? (Three came after a Republican ad, five after court actions). After reading Taylor's article, New Republic media columnist William Powers asked: "If Clinton may well have to stand trial for sexual harassment during his second term, and if the case against him is strong...isn't that relevant information the voters should have had as they cast their votes?" The media answer: No.
What's most striking about the Paula Jones story is how uncomplicated it is for a reporter. On "Meet the Press," Taylor laid out the case: "She told at least six people within the next two days, including her co-worker at the conference, who got a detailed account within ten minutes, another close friend who got a detailed account within 90 minutes, and two sisters who got detailed accounts later that day and the next day." So it's one of two things: either Jones and her six confederates hatched a massive conspiracy designed to get Clinton to apologize (and nothing else), or she's telling the truth. That the media would not explore and report this simple reality shows they were active participants in Clinton damage control.
On "Meet the Press," Tim Russert asked: "What's the most important thing the media can learn from this case?" Thomas replied: "We hate these cases. Well, we like to write about them, but we also hate them, because they're hard to prove. I don't think we ever learn our lesson on these stories." Taylor gave a much better answer: "Look past your first impression and ideological orientation. Look hard at the evidence, and take it where it leads. No double standards." That ought to be posted on the bulletin board in every newsroom.