IN THE NEWSROOM, POTS AND KETTLES

Bad things often happen to good journalists.
Nina Totenberg of National Public Radio and Juan Williams of the Washington Post played key roles during the Senate confirmation hearings for Judge Clarence Thomas.

Both, however, have come away from the event with their reputations under fire. This doesn't really surprise me. Over the years, I have noticed this startling phenomenon take place almost on cue.

Every time a hardworking reporter breaks a story good enough to separate him or her from the pack, someone else in the press corps will find it necessary to dig up something to discredit that reporter within a very short time.

A reporter who gets a clean break on a story about the police will be accused of having too close a relationship with the police chief. One who breaks a story on a political figure will be accused of being "on the take." What makes it so fascinating is that there are actually times when the charges of collusion are well-founded. Unfortunately, there are just as many instances when the charges that bring a reporter down to Earth are motivated by simple jealousy.

As the Senate hearings progressed, both Williams and Totenberg received acclaim because the work they turned in clearly made a difference in the direction the hearings took.

Their work was so remarkable that it became something everyone was talking about. In the strange world that is competitive journalism, that's more than enough to cause a firestorm of envy.

Totenberg scored a memorable scoop, alerting the country to the original charges of sexual harassment against Judge Thomas by professor Anita Hill.

Williams wrote the most widely quoted column of the hearings, a spirited defense of Judge Thomas. It was also an attack on the liberals who were attempting to derail the nomination.

Williams had covered Judge Thomas for the Washington Post during the years of Ronald Reagan's presidency. Several years ago, he wrote a strong profile of Judge Thomas for the Atlantic Monthly that is still regarded as the basic primer on the judge.

Williams' column was widely syndicated and then brought to the attention of the huge television audience by Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah. (It appeared on the op-ed page of the Arizona Republic on Friday, October 11.)

Hatch praised Williams, pointing out how liberal elements had been working behind the scenes to dredge up dirt about Judge Thomas' past. Hatch was, of course, using Williams' column to make his own strong pitch about the evil intent of liberals in the Senate.

Williams wrote in his column:
"The phone calls came throughout September.
"Did Clarence Thomas ever take money from the South African government? Was he under orders from the Reagan White House when he criticized civil rights leaders? Did he beat his first wife?

"Did I know anything about expense account charges he filed for out-of-town speeches?"

Williams' conclusion was, "In pursuit of abuses by a conservative president, the liberals have become the abusive monsters." I don't agree with all of Williams' conclusions. But I'm sure he was right in much of what he wrote.

Not surprisingly, this message played well with Senator Hatch, one of the point men for the conservatives on the panel.

Hatch read generous portions from Williams' column for the national television audience while Judge Thomas sat in the witness chair, listening.

Newspapers around the country which hadn't already run the column made haste to do so.

Suddenly, Juan Williams of the Washington Post was a columnist whose name was on everyone's lips. This looked like one of those career breaks that can lead to wide syndication or increased appearances on television talk shows, which seem to be the goals of most Washington, D.C., journalists.

But before Williams was able to capitalize on his good fortune, the whole thing turned to ashes.

It was revealed by the New York Times that even before Williams' column ran in the Washington Post, he was being placed under suspension because of charges of sexual harassment of a female staff member at his own newspaper.

Williams was quoted by the Times as saying that he is sometimes "socially awkward" and that he had merely attempted to flatter or make what he called "sitcom jokes" which might have been misunderstood.

However, the success of his column defending Judge Thomas against charges of sexual harassment so infuriated women at the Washington Post that, according to Williams, "a flurry of other women" joined the complaint against him.

His column is now being withheld from publication by the Post until a hearing can be held.

Reaction to the charges against Williams seemed to follow party lines. The Times, which opposed Judge Thomas, was unflattering to Williams.

The Wall Street Journal took an entirely different view. It came out on Williams' side. The only thing you had to know was that the Journal was also a supporter of Judge Thomas' nomination.

Here is an excerpt from a Journal editorial on the matter:
"Juan Williams, a black journalist, has been taken hostage by the Washington Post. Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., that stalwart of free speech, has just ordered Mr. Williams to stop saying nice things about Clarence Thomas." The Journal goes on to pillory the Post for silencing Williams under the guise of a sexual harassment investigation against him.

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