Media's New Fashions, Cut on Taylor's Bias

Journalism is a strange business. Often it assumes the aura of science, with its solemnly awarded prizes and eminent authorities and occasional great discoveries in the pursuit of truth. Its everyday reality, however, more closely resembles fashion--an industry in which "truth" changes from moment to moment, defined by arbitrary, self-serving and vague dictates about what's trendy. With the Supreme Court's unanimous decision to allow Paula Corbin Jones' sexual harassment suit against Bill Clinton to go forward, the style-setters of the national media seem to feel the need for a makeover. Having dismissed her claims, with a certain snobbish prejudice, when she first burst forth with them in 1994, the national press has reversed itself as easily as a designer taking up a hem. And as with the rag trade, fashions in reporting are more imitation than inspiration. This season's favorite is Stuart Taylor Jr., author of a lengthy rehash in The American Lawyer of charges Ms. Jones and her friends first made in The Washington Post in 1994. Mr. Taylor's article has been presented as the "definitive" account, anointed by Nightline, The New Republic and sundry talking heads and print pundits. To hear them describe it, one would think Mr. Taylor had dispassionately examined all the evidence and arrived at a scientific conclusion about Ms. Jones' likely veracity. But he doesn't quite pretend to do that, as anyone who actually reads his piece will see. Half of his effort is devoted to debunking Anita Hill and those who supported her harassment charges against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Ms. Jones serves as his foil in showing the hypocrisy of Ms. Hill's supporters--including, ironically, many of the same media outlets that praise him now. Mr. Taylor builds up Ms. Jones' credibility and tears down her critics, not always with perfect impartiality. He doesn't emphasize the early back-channel attempt by her attorney to elicit something--money? a job?--from the White House. He pays little attention to her contract with that attorney to share any profits from a TV, radio, movie or magazine interview. He blandly accepts her dubious claim that she went up to Mr. Clinton's hotel room thinking she had been invited to an impromptu job interview. For what he bills as "in-depth analysis," he produces little that's new. He interviews Ms. Jones' closest friends and family members on the phone, and pronounces them "impressive." Mr. Taylor's bias is most clear in his treatment of Danny Ferguson, the state trooper whose initial account of the alleged hotel room incident in The American Spectator led Ms. Jones to file her lawsuit. He selects the parts of Mr. Ferguson's account that buttress his theory of the President's behavior while downplaying those which most sharply contradict Ms. Jones. (And he leaves unexamined her decision not to sue The Spectator and the original article's author, David Brock, for libel, even though she says they got it all wrong and caused her intense suffering. To have sued them, of course, would have alienated her friends and supporters on the right.) Mr. Taylor portrays the Clinton defense as prevaricating and inconsistent. He complains, for instance, that the President has never "personally, publicly denied" Ms. Jones' allegations. He condemns Mr. Clinton for having "taken the moral equivalent of the Fifth Amendment" and compares him to Richard Nixon. What he doesn't observe is that Mr. Clinton might be struggling to preserve the dignity of his office, a duty the President has often been accused of neglecting. As Mr. Taylor candidly acknowledges, "we don't have all the evidence. But," he adds, "we have a lot of it." He then changes the label of his analysis slightly, from "in-depth" to "tentative," because in fact he knows that we have half of the evidence or less. Attorney Robert Bennett's entirely reasonable strategy in defending Mr. Clinton--as a legal expert such as Mr. Taylor no doubt understands--is to hold back any exculpatory evidence he has gathered until everyone is under oath, so the accusers cannot alter their version to fit the new facts. This may frustrate Mr. Taylor, but it doesn't imply guilt. In his conclusion, Mr. Taylor indicts the press for a liberal elitist mentality that supposedly protects Anita Hill and Bill Clinton while trashing Paula Jones. But he may have his own old ax to grind on this matter. At one point, he shopped a book proposal on the Hill-Thomas controversy, only to have it rejected by publishers as "overly agnostic," in his words. Of that sin he has now absolved himself, declaring repeatedly that Ms. Hill is not believable. He denounces Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson's best-selling Strange Justice as "palpably slanted" in favor of Ms. Hill and "smoothly tendentious," and sneers at the "uncritical hosannas" with which the national media greeted its publication in 1994. So, no more "overly agnostic" for Stuart Taylor Jr. He understands how fashion--I mean, journalism--works, too.


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