The Second Time as Farce
Blasts from the past from Dan Rather and Anita Hill.

The American Spectator, December 2007/January 2008

History repeats itself, Hegel noted, prompting Marx to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. As this summer turned to fall, two onetime media notables, Daniel Irvin Rather Jr. and Professor Anita Hill, re-emerged from obscurity to relive their dramas of yesteryear, this time as farce. Rather, who hosts a show on the cable channel HDNet, was once a real star--no less than Walter Cronkite's successor as anchorman of the CBS Evening News. He left CBS last year in the wake of the notorious 60 Minutes report in 2004 that alleged, based on documents that were obviously counterfeit, that young George W. Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard had been less than honorable.

This September, Rather filed a lawsuit alleging that CBS had forced him to apologize for the phony report, about which he now claims to have been unrepentant. The complaint alleges that CBS subsequently fired Rather in order to "pacify the White House." Rather demanded $70 million in damages from the network. He was widely mocked by former colleagues in the mainstream media, and it didn't help his credibility when the producer of the phony report, Mary Mapes--who herself had been fired in its immediate aftermath--took to the HuffingtonPost blog in an effort to defend Rather:

In September 2004, anyone who had the audacity to even ask impertinent questions about the president was certain to be figuratively kicked in the head by the usual suspects.

What was different in our case was the brand new and bruising power of the conservative blogosphere, particularly the extremists among them. They formed a tightly knit community of keyboard assault artists who saw themselves as avenging angels of the right, determined to root out and decimate anything they believed to be disruptive to their worldview.

To them, the fact that the president wimped out on his National Guard duty during the Vietnam War--and then covered it up--was no big deal. Our having the temerity to say it on national TV was unforgivable and we had to be destroyed. They organized, with the help of longtime well-connected Republican activists, and began their assault.

Of course Rather and Mapes got in trouble not for "having the temerity to say it on national TV"--lots of commentators were saying far worse things about the President--but because they purported to prove it by representing phony documents as real. A partisan attack is perfectly acceptable in American politics, but if you're going to dress it up as journalism, you have a special duty to make sure the facts are on your side.

Just how partisan Rather and Mapes were is illustrated by another allegation in his lawsuit:

In late April 2004, Mr. Rather, as Correspondent, and Mary Mapes, a veteran producer, broke a news story of national urgency on 60 Minutes II--the abuse by American military personnel of Iraqi prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison. The story, which included photographs of the abusive treatment of prisoners, consumed American news media for many months.

Despite the story's importance, and because of the obvious negative impact the story would have on the Bush administration with which Viacom and CBS wished to curry favor, CBS management attempted to bury it.

For the sake of argument, let us assume that Rather's factual claim is true--i.e., that the CBS suits attempted to bury the Abu Ghraib story. Let's also stipulate that as a purely journalistic question, Rather had the better of the argument: The story was a sensational scoop, and unlike the National Guard tale, it does appear to have been accurate.

His speculation about the network executives' motives, however, reflects the same sort of blinkered partisanship that Mapes evinces in her HuffingtonPost rant. A much more plausible explanation for the CBS executives' hesitance is that government officials importuned them to withhold the Abu Ghraib revelations because they would be bad for the country.

In fact, Abu Ghraib had very little domestic political impact, but, as critics of the administration love to remind us, it was disastrous for America's image in the world. Yet, even now, it doesn't seem to occur to Rather that his bosses (or officials in a Republican administration) might have been motivated by patriotism rather than political self-interest.

Cynicism has its place in journalism, but this partisan cynicism masquerading as objectivity is a disgrace.

Anita Hill is a professor of social policy, law, and "women's studies" at Brandeis University. She had her 15 minutes of fame 16 years ago, when she accused Judge Clarence Thomas of having made ribald remarks in the early 1980s, when she worked for him at the Education Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. On October 1, Justice Thomas published his memoir, My Grandfather's Son. The next day Hill took to the op-ed page of the New York Times to accuse him of dishonesty:

Justice Thomas's characterization of me is also hobbled by blatant inconsistencies. He claims, for instance, that I was a mediocre employee who had a job in the federal government only because he had "given it" to me. He ignores the reality: I was fully qualified to work in the government, having graduated from Yale Law School (his alma mater, which he calls one of the finest in the country), and passed the District of Columbia Bar exam, one of the toughest in the nation.
Hill's answer to Thomas's assertion that she was a mediocre employee is to cite her law degree from Yale, which does not exactly speak to the subject at hand. What's more, Hill's tendency to mistake credentials for competence is consistent with the portrait Thomas paints of her in his book. He describes what happened in 1983, when his chief of staff at the EEOC was moving to a different job:

I knew I needed to replace him with someone who had a strong background in equal-employment opportunity policy, and I thought at once of Allyson Duncan and Bill Ng. Neither one had asked to be promoted, though it was obvious that they were the most qualified candidates on my personal staff. Instead it was Anita who approached me about the job, telling me that she deserved it because she'd gone to Yale Law School. (Allyson had gone to Duke University, Bill to Boston College.) It would have been hard for her to come up with an argument less likely to sway me, and it confirmed my feeling that she wasn't cut out to be a supervisor.
In her op-ed, Hill also writes that "perhaps [Justice Thomas] conveniently forgot that he wrote a letter of recommendation for me to work at the law school at Oral Roberts University, in Tulsa." In fact, he discusses that letter at length, on pages 171-73. Plainly Professor Hill did not trouble herself to read the book, but relied only on media interviews. As a result, she presented a "defense" that reinforced Thomas's portrayal of her and further undermined her own credibility.

One common theme in the coverage of Thomas's book was that he is "bitter" and "angry" and has no right to be. As USA Today put it in an editorial:

Thomas carries a huge chip on his shoulder. In his book, he comes off as a strikingly angry man, and not just about Hill. . . . Are we meant to feel sympathy for the plight of a Yale-educated Supreme Court justice with enormous power, long summer holidays and seven-figure book contracts? Are we meant to gravitate to Thomas' conservative judicial philosophy, which includes a revulsion for affirmative action?
Or, as Janet Puente of Newtown, Pennsylvania, put it in a letter to the New York Times, "If Justice Clarence Thomas had lost his bid in 1991 to be appointed to the Supreme Court as a result of Anita Hill's testimony . . . it might be understandable that he remembers that testimony with anger and bitterness. However, he was appointed in spite of Professor Hill's allegations."

These commentators obviously don't know Justice Thomas, an uncommonly warm and gracious man. But if he harbors some resentment over the events of 1991, how can anyone blame him? The attack on him was a bitter experience not because it was an effort to thwart his ambitions, but because it was an attempt to destroy him personally. As he testified at the time, "The Supreme Court is not worth it. No job is worth it. I am not here for that. I am here for my name, my family, my life, and my integrity."

Even by the low standards of fairness attendant to a political proceeding, Thomas was treated unjustly--and the media played a key role in the injustice. Thomas notes in his book that when Hill approached the Judiciary Committee with her accusations, "she initially requested that her name be withheld from the members." Anonymous character assassination was too low a tactic even for Joe Biden, who said no.

Hill gave a confidential statement to the FBI, which conducted an investigation and presented the results to the committee. The charges became public not because senators, after due deliberation, decided they were worth airing, but because some rogue senator or staffer decided to leak them to reporters.

Just days before--and hardly anyone remembers this, as it was overshadowed by the Hill circus--someone at the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, where Thomas then served, leaked a copy of a draft opinion Thomas had written. As he explains in My Grandfather's Son:

This breach of confidentiality was unprecedented. One of the hallmarks of the federal judiciary had always been the absolute secrecy in which it worked. Leaks were unthinkable--until now. The case in question involved preferences given to women by the Federal Communications Commission in awarding radio-station licenses, and it was clear that my opinion had been leaked by a person or persons who wanted to portray me as unsympathetic to women's causes.
With this pair of leaks, Thomas's political foes managed to violate the integrity of the FBI, the Senate, and the D.C. Circuit--that is, of all three branches of government. This behavior was unethical, unconscionable, and possibly criminal, and no one has ever been held to account for it.

To this day, the media largely depict the Thomas-Hill confrontation the way they did in 1991, as a he said-she-said dispute in which it is impossible to know whether anyone did anything wrong. But this is misleading. We know there were acts of serious misconduct here, and we know they were committed by people opposed to Thomas's appointment. The media look the other way because reporters--although themselves guilty only of committing journalism--were the beneficiaries.

Yet anyone who thinks this is merely an institutional imperative without political content should recall the Valerie Plame kerfuffle and the way Robert Novak's fellow journalists declined to rally behind him when he came under attack for reporting leaked information that was thought to benefit a Republican administration.

Or consider the reaction to the 60 Minutes fiasco. No one but the most fervid Bush-hater defends Rather and Mapes's risible assertion that documents produced with Microsoft Word date to 1973. But neither do many mainstream journalists criticize them for their partisanship--the tragic flaw that caused their downfall and made them the farcical figures they are today.

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