Mar 1 1995

The Real David Brock:

A Right-Wing Hatchet Man

In 1992, the American Spectator‘s circulation stood at 38,000; today, the right-wing magazine boasts 335,000 subscriptions. Two factors account for most of this growth: One is the continuous boosting by talkshow host Rush Limbaugh (the magazine is a sponsor of his show); the other is the sensationalistic reporting of David Brock.

Brock is responsible for the reporting on Clinton’s alleged extramarital affairs that became known as “Troopergate” (American Spectator, 1/94), he’s also the one who called Anita Hill “a bit nutty and a bit slutty” (American Spectator, 3/92), and later wrote a book called The Real Anita Hill. Brock’s mix of right-wing politics and sexual scandal-mongering have won considerable attention for his magazine–and influenced the debate in Washington.

But can Brock be trusted? The credibility of The Real Anita Hill was compellingly questioned in a New Yorker review (5/24/93) by two Wall Street Journal writers, Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson. And Paula Jones, who has accused Clinton of sexual harassment, has said that Brock’s account of her encounter with Clinton was totally wrong.

In order to test Brock’s reliability, we looked at his review of Mayer and Abramson’s own book, Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas, which he calls “one of the most outrageous journalistic hoaxes in recent memory” (American Spectator, 1/95).

Brock’s extraordinary 20,000-word review has already gained some notoriety, since he’s been accused of using methods more suitable to a blackmailer than a book critic. Jamin Raskin, a law professor at Washington, D.C.’s American University, told the New York Times‘ Frank Rich that he received a call from Kaye Savage, one of the sources for Strange Justice, who’s had an encounter with Brock. “She was distraught and said Brock was threatening to reveal damaging information about her from a divorce situation unless she agreed to retract everything she had said to the authors of Strange Justice,” Raskin told Rich (New York Times, 12/29/94). Interviewed by Extra!, Savage confirmed this account of Brock’s threat, and also reaffirmed the accuracy of her appearance in Strange Justice.

Extra! called another Strange Justice source, Bary Maddox, whom Brock quotes as saying, “I was misquoted in the book.” But when Rendall asked Maddox (a video store proprietor who says Thomas rented X-rated videos) if he had any problems with the way he was quoted in Strange Justice, he replied, “Absolutely not.” His account of Brock’s interview with him sheds light on the Brock method of journalism:

Mr. Brock, first of all, would not identify himself. He told me his name but he wouldn’t tell me who he was working for. When I pressed him, he told me he was a “freelancer.” Then he would ask me questions about areas that I would not comment on. When I said “no comment,” he would then say “I’ll take that as a ‘yes'” or “I’ll take that as a ‘no.'”I think he claimed that I was misquoted because when he asked me a question based on his interpretation of the book, I answered, “If the book says that, I was misquoted.” However, when I rechecked the book, I found his interpretation of the book was faulty; I was not misquoted. He had not been reading from the book. It bothers me, because it made it on to Rush Limbaugh and everyone’s claiming that I was misquoted when I wasn’t.

In an interview with Extra!, Brock denied that he had blackmailed or misquoted sources, or had misrepresented himself. Essentially, it’s his word against the sources. That’s why, below, we’ve reprinted a passage from his review where he describes what the book Strange Justice says–and contrasted it with what Strange Justice really says. Want proof that many of Brock’s facts are made up? You can look it up.

The following is an excerpt from “Strange Lies” by David Brock (American Spectator, 1/95). Words and phrases in bold are explained below.

Some of the details Mayer and Abramson add to this previous reporting actually weigh in Thomas’ favor. What, for example, did Thomas’ purported habit of engaging in “crude sexual banter” during his college days specifically consist of? Mayer and Abramson paraphrase a male friend of Thomas’ from Holy Cross College as saying, “He and [Gil] Hardy used to call each other ‘bitch’ routinely in a kind of rough, affectionate banter that would generateinto gross excess as they tried to one-up each other in their insults.””Bitch” is the most offensive word the authors are able to report Thomas as having uttered. Significantly, they present no evidence that Thomas ever used such language in the presence of women. The only woman quoted in this section of the book–an anonymous former graduate student–says that the young Thomas would “talk and laugh” about sex with his male friends, “then the men [not Thomas] would come and tell us about it.”

Here is an early example of the way Mayer and Abramson put the worst interpretation possible on every aspect of Thomas’ behavior. The fact that he excluded women from this sexual talk is “a sign that he couldn’t relate to women,” they write. They fail to note that at this very time at Holy Cross Thomas was steadily dating his college sweetheart, Kathy Ambush, whom he would marry on the day after graduation in 1971.

As for X-rated movies, the reports referenced above have established that Thomas, like many of his fellow students, attended such films as Deep Throat, shown on the Yale campus by the law school film society in the early 1970s. Yet the authors allege an “avid interest in pornographic materials” that went well beyond the law school films. The only evidence that Thomas ventured off-campus to a harder-core X-rated movie house in downtown New Haven comes from a single source–one Henry Terry, a Yale law school classmate of Thomas’–who also peddled this story in Capitol Games more than two years ago.

According to Terry, Thomas regularly attended pornographic movies–not with him, but with another student named Frank Washington. When Washington was contacted by Mayer and Abramson, he wouldn’t talk to them, according to the notes. Nonetheless, the authors chose to publish Terry’s second-hand allegation as if it were substantiated; Strange Justice is riddled with this sort of journalistic sleight-of-hand. When I contacted Washington and read him Terry’s account, he denied it.

a male friend of Thomas’s: Strange Justice quotes three of Thomas’ classmates by name on the subject of Thomas’ foul language, including Henry Terry (p. 58): “When you get him with friends, he’s crude — I mean really crude — profane, scatological and graphic.” Return to the article.

generate: The word is “degenerate,” not “generate.” The passage continues: “While some might see such joking as typical of college students, in Thomas’ case, according to [Edward] Jones, it reached unusual proportions. ‘It got so vicious, it would have reduced other people to tears,’ he said.” (p. 57) Brock later refers to this as “the harmless ‘bitch’ banter.” Return to the article.

the most offensive word: Another classmate (Gordon Davis) is quoted by Mayer and Abramson (p. 57): “He’d say stuff I can’t possibly repeat, stuff that would turn your ears red, things having to do with a person’s anatomy. He’d say things like ‘Suck out of my ass with a straw’ all the time, but this was different–it was a lot worse, and I don’t feel comfortable talking about it.” Return to the article.

“talk and laugh”: What the grad student actually said was (p. 56): “He would carry this pornographic tabloid-type publication, some magazine with sexually explicit color photographs, around in the back pocket of the overalls he always wore, talking and laughing about the pictures. Then the men would come and tell us about it.” Return to the article.

“a sign that he couldn’t relate to women”: This quote is garbled and taken completely out of context. The passage in Strange Justice reads (p. 56): “Perhaps, Jones speculated, Thomas’ extreme language reflected the sexual preoccupations and awkwardness of ‘a man who was used to all-male institutions and didn’t really know how to relate to women, and maybe didn’t know how to show affection.'” Return to the article.

They fail to note: Strange Justice discusses Thomas’ relationship with Ambush on the two pages preceding this quote (p. 54-55), and mentions it again on the page following (p. 57). Return to the article.

“avid interest in pornographic materials”: This is a paraphrase, not a quote (p. 55). Return to the article.

single source: Brock ignores another source–the female grad student–who says (p. 56-57): “All of us knew that Clarence was into these real kinky movies, not just regular pornography…. Everybody who knew Clarence knew he was into pornography.” Return to the article.

he wouldn’t talk to them: What the notes actually say is (p. 366): “In an interview, Washington explained his refusal to comment by noting that Thomas’ friendship continued to be important to him, but he also was not going to lie about it.” Return to the article.

Terry’s second-hand allegation: According to Strange Justice (p. 57), Terry says he knew of the pornographic movie-going because “Thomas would come in the next day ‘roaring with laughter and having animated discussions’ about what he’d seen.” Return to the article.