Aug 1 1992

Clarence the Credible

How Journalists Blew the Thomas Story

News media repeatedly told the U.S. public that Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas were two equally credible people with conflicting stories. And if we believe the polls, most of the country found his version more persuasive. But if the press had given the public more information, would they have doubted Thomas? Numerous stories that raised questions about Thomas’ credibility were known to the press during the hearings–many of which never saw the light of day until after his confirmation.

The other women

Anita Hill was not the only women to allege that she had been sexually harassed by Thomas. Angela Wright, who worked with Thomas at the EEOC, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Thomas had repeatedly made comments to her, much like those he allegedly made to Hill, pressuring her for dates, commenting on her body, etc. As chair of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Joseph Biden decided against publicly hearing Wright’s testimony. Transcripts were, however, released to the press.

Another former Thomas assistant, Sukari Hardnett, made further damaging charges against him. Although Hardnett made it clear she was not accusing Thomas of sexual harassment, she provided the Judiciary Committee with sworn testimony that “if you were young, black, female, reasonably attractive and worked directly for Clarence Thomas, you knew full well you were being inspected and auditioned as a female.”

When Hardnett’s statement was reported in major national papers, it was usually buried. And news reports continued to assert that the Hill/Thomas matter was a case of one person’s word against another’s.

At the EEOC

And what about Thomas’ role in the 1980 Reagan administration Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) transition team? He helped draft a memo that challenged sexual harassment regulations, stating that

the vagueness of the definition of discrimination has undoubtedly led to a barrage of trivial complaints against employers around the nation. The elimination of personal slights and sexual advances which contribute to “an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment” is impossible to reach.

The memo concluded that “expenditure of the EEOC’s limited resources in pursuit of this goal is unwise.”

It was certainly a newsworthy insight into his views just prior to the alleged sexual harassment of Hill, particularly since it dismisses exactly the kind of harassment that Thomas was charged with.

The memo, which was publicized on New York City’s WFUV, was only picked up by a few major media outlets. The Wall Street Journal did publish an opinion piece by Susan Faludi (10/18/92) that showed that Thomas was instrumental in dismantling the EEOCs last remaining class-action sex discrimination suit (against Sears Roebuck & Co.), but only after Thomas was confirmed.

Conflicts of interest

Another facet of Thomas’ career that was virtually ignored was the striking conflict-of-interest he faced in his short tenure on the appeals court (Nation, 9/23/91). Thomas ruled on a case involving Ralston Purina, helping to overturn a $10.4 million damage award against the company, even though the firm is largely owned by the family of Thomas’ close friend and patron, Sen. John Danforth. USA Today noted this conflict-of-interest, but the New York Times and Washington Post did not report the story.

Why didn’t these stories get more play? Nina Totenberg of NPR and Howell Raines, the New York Times national desk editor in Washington, both said that the most significant reason for not reporting these stories was the Democratic senators. Said Raines: “They didn’t ask the questions that would have elicited the kind of investigative reporting we wanted to do.” The Baltimore Sun‘s Lyle Denniston defended his colleagues’ failure to bring out information that the senators didn’t highlight: “There is a point beyond which the press won’t do the senators’ job for them.”

But if it’s up to the Democrats and Republicans to decide what’s news, then why not just let them write their own newspapers?

Laura Sydell is a regular contributor on WBAI. Her radio documentary work has won several awards, including the Clarion Award from Women in Communication.