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American Journalism Review
Anita Hill Explosion Also Hit The Press  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    THE BUSINESS OF JOURNALISM    
From AJR,   December 1991

Anita Hill Explosion Also Hit The Press   

Three powerful papers came to three different editorial conclusions.

By Bill Monroe
Bill Monroe is a former editor of AJR.     


What caused all the disarray in the confrontation between Professor Anita Hill and Judge Clarence Thomas was not so much the Senate confirmation process as the sheer explosiveness of the sexual harassment issue. And journalists, like politicians, had trouble sorting things out.

A look at the editorials of three powerful newspapers – the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times – shows them struggling to bring the gritty matter into focus. And coming to three entirely different conclusions.

On the morning of October 8, Anita Hill's accusations had just broken into public view and some senators were calling for a delay in the vote in order to examine them. But the Washington Post, which had already endorsed Thomas (unenthusiastically), suggested that, if the judge simply provided a strong statement of denial, the vote could proceed.

The Post devoted exactly half of its lengthy editorial to challenging "Miss Hill's" credibility – in later editorials she became "Professor Hill" – based on such factors as "the last-minute nature of the charges" and conflicting statements about her job security had she not followed Thomas from one agency to another.

"To us," the editorial concluded, "the situation cries out for Judge Thomas to speak – to accept responsibility himself for answering the charges about him. Until that happens there will be dispute, but there cannot be clarity." The Post was pretty clearly saying it was ready to believe him but not her.

When the Senate decided to put off the confirmation vote, the Post grumped next day that the senators had taken "the easy road." It again listed "apparent inconsistencies" in the Hill charges and declared that, with the sudden release of them, "the judge has not been treated fairly."

On October l5 the Senate was again poised to vote. Reaffirming its support for Thomas, the Post yet again examined the reasons not to believe Anita Hill and said the Senate should not reject Thomas "on the unproven word of a single accuser."

Before Hill's charges became known, the Los Angeles Times had accepted the fact that the Senate was headed for confirmation of the nominee but had stopped short of endorsing him. "Let's hope for the best," said the voice of sunny California.

But on October 8 the Times said that "suggestions of sexual harassment are serious" and called for a delay in the vote.

On October 12 the Los Angeles Times commented, "It is hard to believe that Professor Anita Hill made up all those vivid details; it was hard not to be impressed by the vigor and passion of Thomas's denials." The Times seemed to be applying the word "impressive" to him and the word "believable" to her.

On October 15, however, the Times said that senators previously supporting Thomas would not now be justified in voting against him – Hill had not managed to prove him guilty. But, its editorial said, there was now a long shadow over Thomas's judicial detachment on women's issues. So President Bush "would serve the country well by withdrawing the nomination."

The New York Times on October 8 said that Anita Hill and "all women in the workplace" deserved a hearing on her charges. The Times emphasized various reasons to take the accusations seriously, including this: "Senators who find her behavior discrediting have something to learn about the realities of sexual harassment."

On October 15 the New York Times came out flatly against confirmation of Thomas. It found his credibility in doubt.

Among its reasons: Thomas "strained both credulity and judicial temperament" when he testified he had not watched Anita Hill's testimony. "To confirm him," the Times concluded, "would risk casting a shadow on the Supreme Court for years...A judicial giant might survive serious doubts about such a flaw. Clarence Thomas is no such giant."

After it was all over, both the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times were speaking tolerantly of proposals to handle such accusations in executive session in the future.

Altogether, among these three, the New York Times came out ahead in editorial cool. The Washington Post's first instinct, like that of the Biden committee itself, was to sweep "Miss Hill" under the rug. Then the Post followed its pro-Thomas mindset into an editorial prosecution of his

accuser reminiscent, though in a lower key, of the one-sidedness of Sens. Specter, Simpson and Hatch. The Los Angeles Times took the charges seriously. It decided, in fact, that President Bush should change his mind and withdraw the Thomas nomination. But pro-Thomas senators, it waffled, should not change their minds and vote him down.

The New York Times not only took the harassment charge seriously, it also pursued its own analysis to a logical conclusion: that Thomas should not be confirmed. And the New York Times was not so unsettled by democracy in the raw as to abandon its faith in open hearings. l

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