For reporters covering the Kavanaugh hearing, lessons from 1991

Anita Hill in 2018. Photo: Gage Skidmore, via flickr.

In November 1991, less than a month after Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill mesmerized the country with testimony concerning penis sizes, pubic hair, and someone named Long Dong Silver, the National Press Club brought together a group of journalists for a session titled “Did the Media Cover the Clarence Thomas Circus or Join It?”

One of the panelists was Tim Phelps, a Newsday reporter who, along with NPR’s Nina Totenberg, broke the story of Hill’s sexual harassment complaints against Thomas, turning the confirmation process for Thurgood Marshall’s seat on the Supreme Court into an epic spectacle not unlike the one unfolding now, 27 years later, for Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination to succeed Anthony Kennedy.

Phelps, speaking early on during a two-hour discussion that aired on C-SPAN, seemed perplexed by what his reporting had unspooled. “I certainly don’t like to be called one of the press’ sex sleuths,” he said. “This is not the story, in my opinion. This is a story, an allegation at any rate, about someone’s performance at work.”

That was not, however, the story the nation tuned in to. And it is certainly not the story told about Hill, who in television and print accounts was reduced, in often lurid prose, to a character from a soap opera—scorned, jealous, retaliatory. Lisbeth Lipari, now a communications scholar at Denison University, wrote in the  scholarly journal Political Communication in 1994, after examining hundreds of stories, that the proceedings were played “as a novel, TV show, melodrama, theater, fiction, grade B movie, X-rated film, saga, soap opera, or morality play.”

RELATED: Fast-moving stories on Rosenstein & Kavanaugh deliver a week of news in a day

She points to headlines from the San Francisco Chronicle (“This TV shocker no soap opera”” and the Chicago Tribune (“When Clarence met Anita; or, when truth is more fanciful than fiction”). Lipari noted that even The New York Times slipped easily into melodrama in its reporting on the proceedings:

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Act 3 promised to be anti-climatic, yet yesterday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing probably did not disappoint followers of the engrossing mini-series about sex, race and power. It began Friday with the stunning “Ordeal of Anita Hill” and returned every more powerfully on Friday evening and continued all day Saturday with “Martyrdom of Clarence Thomas.”

The stars were off. In their places were performers at the witness table who, in violation of the rules of courtroom drama, could not be expected to supply a climatic, absolutely definitive revelation of who was telling the truth and who was lying. But it was a surprisingly good try.

Jill Abramson, the former New York Times executive editor who wrote about the hearings for The Wall Street Journal and wrote a book about them with New Yorker writer Jane Mayer, said in a recent documentary about Hill that “the spectacle of those hearings” was created by the “all-white male judiciary committee clumsily” asking questions about sex. For instance, Joe Biden, then the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, made Hill repeat a story she told about a conversation over a pubic hair on a soda can. Biden was also curious about Thomas’ penis—or at least about how the nominee allegedly described it.

Biden: Now, again, for the record, did he just say I have great physical attributes or was he more graphic?
Hill: He was much more graphic.
Biden: Can you tell us what he said?
Hill: Well, I can tell you that he compared his penis size, he measured his penis in terms of length, those kinds of comments.

In 1991, workplace sexual harassment was not as widely discussed as it needed to be, nor had strict laws yet been passed protecting workers from suffering such abuse. There were no monetary awards for victims. In 1991, there was no #MeToo movement to help shape the coverage—or the questions by committee members—into anything more than storylines from a bad soap opera script or Perry Mason–like courtroom drama, with prosecutors and defense attorneys opining on the testimony.

Thomas had no shortage of defenders on the committee, and in the media. One of the most prominent was then–Washington Post columnist Juan Williams, who despite being under newsroom investigation for inappropriate conduct toward women, wrote a column declaring that Hill had no evidence to support her allegations and was essentially a stooge for Democratic activists. Williams was disciplined for his conduct, but only after his column received widespread attention and sparked uproar in the Post newsroom. He later left the paper.

Now, as Kavanaugh and his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, and possibly even others prepare to testify, the country will find out whether the media has learned anything from how it covered the Thomas-Hill hearings nearly three decades ago—not just the mistake of relying on easy storylines, but also errors in judgment that critics and scholars have identified in the years since the spectacle unfolded.

 

As Kavanaugh and Ford prepare to testify, the country will find out whether the media has learned anything from how it covered the Thomas-Hill hearings nearly three decades ago.

 

One major mistake was to rely on instant polling that painted Thomas as the victor, even though later polls and other research showed more favorable opinions of Hill. (Polling about sex is probably not a good idea anyhow.) Analyzing the participants and testimony through a political lens was also problematic—a mistake that is already unfolding in the current drama, with newspapers and cable news outlets linking the outcome of the Kavanaugh situation to the upcoming midterm elections.

The identity of the person doing the reporting is also crucial: Studies of the Hill-Thomas hearings showed that female reporters were more likely than male reporters to present a wider view of the story, placing the testimony in context with evolving workplace and societal norms.

As social movements go, Hill’s legacy is difficult to miss—especially when it comes to the treatment of women at work. The year after the hearings were turned into a soap opera, women swept through local, state and national elections, winning hundreds of seats from men. One of those winners, Senator Dianne Feinstein from California, will now get a chance to do what no woman was able to do for Hill: question a powerful man accused of doing untoward things to women. For better or worse, just like the Thomas-Hill hearings, it will be carried live on television.

ICYMI: Emptywheel’s Marcy Wheeler knows more than she tells, but she tells a lot

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Michael Rosenwald is a reporter at the Washington Post. He has also written for The New Yorker, Esquire, and The Economist. Follow him on Twitter @mikerosenwald.