AUSTIN - Like everyone else left hanging a year and half ago by that incredible Washington soap opera starring Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, I've been dying to find out ever since who was really telling the truth. I thought one of my journalistic colleagues would have cracked the case months ago; The New York Times put a team on the story right after the hearings but disbanded it after a short time, for reasons I never understood.
OK, so no one outside Thomas and Hill will ever really know what happened between them, but wouldn't you think someone could sift through all the corroborating evidence and come to a definitive conclusion?
So in the store, when I saw a book called "The Real Anita Hill: The Untold Story," I raced over to buy it, without, unfortunately, knowing anything about the author. It was advertised as the real story by an impartial journalist. Consumer tip for the day: Save yourself $24.95.
This book is a wretched piece of journalism, which is not that surprising once you find out that David Brock, who wrote it, was a fellow at the right-wing Heritage Foundation, that his journalism credentials consist of writing for the American Spectator, a particularly mean-spirited magazine, and for The Washington Times, the right-wing Moonie publication. Furthermore, the book was funded by the Olin Foundation, a right-wing outfit headed by William Simon, who served as finance chair of the Citizens' Committee to Confirm Clarence Thomas.
Brock starts out by describing himself as perfectly open-minded with no prejudices, no preconceived notions - an objective reporter. You may be interested to know that before he started this book, he described Anita Hill in the American Spectator as "a little nutty and a little slutty." His thesis is that Hill concocted the entire story about Thomas, that it was another man and an earlier episode of harassment, and he bases this on a statement never made by Susan Hoerchner, Hill's friend, about when Hill first told her the story.
The book is riddled with factual errors, which seem to me inexcusable. No one can write a whole book without some errors, just because one person can't research everything. But we all use computer networks these days. For example, Brock says repeatedly in his book that Anita Hill was being advised by Catherine MacKinnon, a well-known feminist lawyer. Well, in fact, that does come right up in a computer source search on Hill; it was printed in The Wall Street Journal - and right next to it is the statement that the Journal had to run a correction the next day because it's just not true: MacKinnon never talked to Hill, never met Hill and never advised Hill.
One of the reasons I think this is worth writing about is because Brock's book, in addition to being touted by the usual suspects like Rush Limbaugh, has been respectfully reviewed in several mainstream publications; Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of The New York Times wrote about it as though he had not noticed the tissue of suppositions on which it is based.
And after I started work on this column, the May 24 edition of The New Yorker printed an excellent review by Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson, which details many factual errors in the book, including several I had not noticed. If you read the book at all, you really should not read it without reading their review as well, if only to understand how slender the grounds on which Brock bases his assumptions really are.
I called Tim Phelps of Newsday, one of the reporters who broke the story of Hill's allegations to begin with, and he said:
"I cannot tell you how disheartened I am, how discouraging I find this. If a book like this can be taken seriously by journalists, then I'm not sure there's much point in staying in this business and busting your butt every day to get the facts straight. I am not a radical feminist . . . but this experience makes me believe that what the feminists have been saying all along is true - what happens to you if you stand up and complain about sexual harassment - you get called a slut."
It seems to me that two factors are at work here. One is the unpleasant polarization of American political debate, the assumption that all's fair in love and politics, and you're entitled to seize on and twist any fact that will help your side (a mode of arguing by no means limited to conservatives). The other factor is that book publishers no longer seem to feel any responsibility for the veracity of what they print - hey, if it sells, whatthehell. And this book is already on the best-seller lists, promoted and pushed by Limbaugh, George Will, Cal Thomas and the whole right-wing opinion industry in this country.
It seems to me that it is one thing for those who spend their lives in partisan, ideological battle to seize on a bad piece of work and promote it, but that it is a more serious matter for those who try to practice journalism to approve of this degree of bias and error. The current libel trial between Jeffrey Masson and Janet Malcolm is precisely about just how far a journalist is entitled to stretch and synthesize and change quotes. And I think the answer is simple: We're not. And certainly we are not then entitled to have such work taken seriously and treated to respectful reviews.
Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Her column appears Monday on editorial pages of The Times.
(Copyright, 1993, Creators Syndicate, Inc.)