It seemed like May madness had hit–at least as far as sexual harassment was concerned.
Hoards of previously unreconstructed misogynists supported a working-class female who charged a powerful man with grimy sexual misconduct. New Republic editor and PBS pundit Fred Barnes, who once derided Anita Hill as”delusional,” claimed that Arkansas state employee Paula Jones’ accusations against Bill Clinton were “credible.” (McLaughlin Group, 5/8/94) Rush Limbaugh, who’d previously boasted of a sign on his office door that read,”Sexual harassment at this work station will not be reported…. It will be graded,” evinced sympathy for a woman who said she’d been harassed.
At the same time, liberal pundits often trivialized the accusation against the president. In an offhand comment that conflated consensual sex and sex harassment, columnist Mary McGrory remarked (NBC‘s Meet the Press, 5/8/94),”This debate was held two years ago in New Hampshire, where people knewt his president was not a model husband.” Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune(5/8/84)called sexual harassment “a vehicle for witch hunts”–apparently forgetting who killed whom in Salem.
Newsweek‘s Joe Klein lamented on CBS‘s Face the Nation (5/8/94) that “we’re going to end up with government by goody-goodies.” He went on to claim that historically, presidents with “interesting sexual histories” have made better leaders. Klein also seems to have a problem distinguishing sex from assault–isn’t that what feminists are accused of?
One might have thought spring lunacy had taken over–especially when Rush Limbaugh started criticizing feminists for being too quiet about sexual harassment.
But in fact, plenty of conservatives stuck to their traditional, dismissive line. William Safire (5/9/94) called sex harassment statutes “loosey goosey”; the New York Post‘s Ray Kerrison (5/11/94) wrote a column headed”Anita and Paula: Sisters in Sleaze.”
Talk show host John McLaughlin (5/8/94) moaned about a “rush to judgment…against the male” in sex harassment cases, then rushed in with his own verdict: Paula Jones’ suit was “largely bogus.” “You can sue anybody for anything,” whined McLaughlin. He should know: He’s been accused of sexual harassment by several female employees, settling a suit out ofcourt with one in 1989.
And feminists, contrary to media assumption, were not so silent. On his TV show, Limbaugh (5/4/94) lined up Jones and Hill in mirror image, and claimed that NOW, which “organized marches for Anita Hill,” was “just yawning” about Paula Jones. Neither claim was true. NOW, which never held a demonstration for Hill, issued a statement on the day Jones’ suit wasfiled, stating, “Every Paula Jones deserves to be heard, no matter how oldshe is and how long ago the incident occurred.
Feminists, wrote USA Today columnist Joe Urschel (5/10/94), “have not rushed to [Jones’] defense in ideological lockstep as they did with Hill.”At least Urschel interviewed leaders of women’s organizations for his story. (One corrected the record in a letter the next day.) The New York Times‘ Maureen Dowd (5/8/94) cited no leaders of women’s groups as she asserted vaguely that “some women” who supported Hill “are wishing they could cut the ground from underneath Paula Jones.”
U.S. News & World Report provided phony fodder for the pundits when they printed a claim by Jones lawyer David Traylor that his client had been refused help by the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund. In fact, NLDEF hadn’t been approached on the case, and did send technical help once Jones’ team got around to asking–which is more assistance than NLDEF ever gave to Anita Hill. Traylor admits now he was referring to a call made to an Arkansas chapter of NOW, a separate organization, but no one at U.S. News had checked the facts.
In the absence of a hearing–or many facts at all–the Paula Jones debate took place almost entirely in the realm of politics and personalities. Participants were brought into TV studios to take sides on the basis of political loyalties.
The silenced reality is that sex harassment comes all too often as a surprise. Most perpetrators aren’t recognizable creeps, but men who women dared to think might interact with us as equals. According to the National Council for Research on Women, at least half of all women will experience sexual harassment at some point in their lives.
But prime time left it to the afternoon talk shows to ponder the real toll harassment takes in U.S. life. Partisan debates fit better into snappy soundbites. Maybe they sell more papers, too.