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.
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.
The Journal blames the entire situation on a "politically correct" press corps which took the position that Anita Hill's charges against Judge Thomas were true.
To the Journal, a "politically correct" newspaper of Republican stripe, this was enough to caution most members of the working press corps against harboring thoughts that did not find a sympathetic ear in mid-America.
The Journal was obviously smarting because the Washington Post media critic had ripped the Journal for underplaying the Anita Hill story when it broke.
The Journal limited the Anita Hill accusations to a brief mention in its "World-Wide" summary.
Both the New York Times and the Washington Post covered the Hill developments with six stories, and both newspapers carried two of the stories on page one.
Although I am not inclined to be sympathetic to the Journal's point of view, the newspaper does have a point here. I have been around long enough to know how a story can snowball when given the right coverage.
I remember the first thought that came to my mind when I heard Nina Totenberg reporting the first accusations on National Public Radio that Sunday morning.
I knew even then that the story would stand or fall on the extent to which it was reported in the next two days in such powerful newspapers as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. They all went for it in a big way, and Anita Hill became a media star overnight.
Totenberg rode the wave to prominence with the story. Totenberg now claims she got it through hard work. That same hard work also apparently paid off for New York newspaper Newsday, which also had the story.
Remember, the story broke on a Sunday morning, only two days before the Senate was to vote on Thomas' confirmation. It was a sensational story that captured the imagination. It grew throughout the day, creating such a furor that the Senate was forced to postpone its vote and hold a special session devoted only to Hill's charges of harassment.
When the hearings were held, Totenberg was also one of the commentators, along with Paul Duke, on public television. During one recess, Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming, another of the conservative hit men, was a guest.
Simpson, who played a fairly smarmy role throughout the hearings, attacked Totenberg. She fought him right back.
It has since been revealed by the Los Angeles Times that following an appearance with Simpson on TV's Nightline, the two had a confrontation in the parking lot. The Los Angeles Times called it "a shouting match." Reportedly, Simpson chased Totenberg, waving a journalistic ethics code.
Simpson's version is that Totenberg said that he was "evil"--a characterization I find difficult to disagree with--and that she used the "f word" toward him.
Totenberg's reply: "I am not saying I didn't curse, but I did not tell him he was an evil man hated by his colleagues." It remained for the Journal to cast the most vicious lance into Totenberg's reputation.
On the same day the newspaper ran its editorial defending Williams, who was "politically correct" on its side of the political fence, Albert R. Hunt, the Journal's Washington bureau chief, attacked Totenberg.
Hunt's piece dredged up a story that was 20 years old to accuse Totenberg of plagiarism while she worked as a reporter for the National Observer.
This tactic has a kind of delicious irony in light of the fact that the Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee took such great delight in pointing out that Hill's accusations came ten years after the fact.
But Hunt was serious in making his charge. He pointed out that Totenberg had said in an interview with the Post that she had left the National Observer because she herself was a victim of sexual harassment at that newspaper.
Hunt found an editor at the defunct newspaper who said that Totenberg had filched some lines for a profile she had done on Tip O'Neill from a story that had appeared a few days before in the Washington Post.
The evidence cited was that a story written for the Post by Myra MacPherson concluded with a paragraph in which O'Neill told how John F. Kennedy teased him about once getting four more votes in a precinct than O'Neill did--and knowing which family was responsible for the difference.
Totenberg reportedly used the same paragraph, "virtually verbatim," as her lead paragraph.
For this, Totenberg is tarred by Hunt. He concludes:
"Purposeful plagiarism is one of the cardinal sins of journalism from which reporters can never recover their credibility: There is no statute of limitations on that judgment." This is nothing but a pile of sanctimonious claptrap. Hunt has been around enough politicians like Tip O'Neill to know that they all have a certain fund of anecdotes which they shamelessly use over and over in every interview.
The odds are that if O'Neill told that anecdote to the Washington Post reporter on a Monday he told it again on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of the same week to every reporter he encountered.
Totenberg's answer was, "What I did or didn't do almost 20 years ago isn't the issue." It only became the issue to Hunt and others who were perhaps jealous of Totenberg's sudden ascent to celebrity.
One wonders if the fact that Totenberg was tapped by public television to cover the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas senatorial hearings had anything to do with Hunt's fit of pique at Totenberg.
Hunt himself is one of those Washington journalists who rushes forward to appear on news panel shows at every opportunity.
But there is one fascinating thing Hunt never mentioned while attacking Totenberg. The female reporter who normally gets such plum television assignments on public television is none other than Hunt's wife Judy Woodruff.
Should one detect a possible conflict of interest here?
Every time a hardworking reporter breaks a good story, someone else in the press corps will dig up something to discredit that reporter.
Alan Simpson's version is that Nina Totenberg said he was "evil" and that she used the "f word" toward him. How terrible.
Juan Williams, a black journalist, has been ordered to stop saying nice things about Clarence Thomas.
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