Supremely Slanted

How the New York Times Pounds Conservatives and Coddles Liberals When Nominated for the Supreme Court

Clarence Thomas

ClarenceThomasThe nomination by President George H.W. Bush of black conservative Clarence Thomas flummoxed the Democratic Party (and the media). Civil rights groups, after initial puzzlement, lined up almost unanimously against the Thomas nomination, and liberal interest groups soon followed. Still, Thomas seemed to be on his way to confirmation at the conclusion of his hearings.

Then came the allegations of sexual harassment. from law professor and former Thomas colleague Anita Hill. Supporters of Thomas considered the leaking of last-minute charges by Thomas opponents the sleaziest kind of gutter politics, and the logical outcome of a 100-day search for any "dirt" that would deny him the nomination. Hill's accusations first appeared in the October 7, 1991 Times, after which the Times ran many more stories of a more political tone. Maureen Dowd, then a reporter and now a “witty” liberal columnist for the Times, provided particularly partisan coverage of the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas fight on Capitol Hill.

In those 81 stories that ran between July 1, 1991 and the day Anita Hill's charges reached the Times, reporters used the terms “conservative” or “conservatism” to refer specifically to Clarence Thomas, his ideology or stand on issues (as opposed to that of individuals or groups backing him) on 44 occasions. That number in fact understates the case, as the Times was more willing to talk to people, pro and con, who would characterize Thomas in ideological terms, so the coverage is crammed with “conservative” labels, whether in quoted material or in summarizing what other people were saying about Thomas.

Reporter Neil Lewis, in his July 2, 1991 profile “From Poverty to the Bench,” provided the paper's initial profile of Thomas after his selection by Bush. Lewis limited Thomas's inspiring personal history to six paragraphs, far from the wall-to-wall treatment that would be afforded to a later nominee who also overcame a challenging childhood, Democrat Sonia Sotomayor. Lewis's lead even suggested Thomas was pushing his past hardships for political gain: “Judge Clarence Thomas, President Bush's choice to succeed Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court, has always been quick to tell his friends and colleagues about the grinding poverty into which he was born in coastal Georgia.”

Veteran Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse hinted Thomas was hypocritical on affirmative action on July 8 when she pondered “the apparent contradiction between his life story and his life's work.”

One of the few high point of the Thomas coverage was Peter Applebome's July 13 story “Black 'Conservatives' United Only by Frustration,” which took a respectful look at that phenomenon so puzzling to liberals: “But polls consistently show that on numerous social issues like crime, abortion and prayer in schools, blacks hold largely conservative views.”

A patronizing anti-Thomas story by David Margolick appeared August 12 under the headline: “Less Pride Than Pain by Black Lawyers on Thomas.” “[Several black lawyers] expressed fears that Judge Thomas is so malleable and estranged from his roots that he could be manipulated by right-wing Justices eager to make their own anti-civil rights, anti-affirmative action agendas more respectable.”

The hostility toward Thomas continued as Senate hearings began September 10. Setting the scene that day, Neil Lewis called Thomas “an unabashed, even angry conservative.” That same day Adam Clymer summarized the results of a question in a Times poll that asked respondents to agree or disagree with this charming assertion: “By being more conservative than most blacks, Mr. Thomas 'was turning his back on his own people.'”

Television critic Walter Goodman commented on the grilling Thomas faced in his hearings and had backhanded praise September 11 for Thomas's mild television demeanor: “Gone were the angry language and tough attitudes that had given him a reputation as a conservative hardliner.”

David Margolick on September 15 described Thomas's views as “fervently conservative,” while Neil Lewis on September 21 complained that Thomas, in his testimony, had “disavowed his many speeches and writings that had taken a hard-edged conservative approach.”

Nonetheless, Thomas's nomination looked like it would squeak through despite Democratic grumbling. “Support for Thomas Inches Toward Approval in Senate” was the headline on Friday, October 4, before a partisan smear unleashed by Democrats changed the nature of American politics permanently.

Law professor and former Thomas colleague Anita Hill's charges of sexual harassment surfaced on October 7, abruptly shifting the scene from ideology to politics. Then-White House correspondent Maureen Dowd clearly took Hill's side in the controversy, faulting Republican meanness and mudslinging and Democratic timidity, as hinted in the headline over her October 10 story: “Facing Issue of Harassment, Washington Slings the Mud.” Dowd wrote: “The White House, for its part, is hunkered down, preparing to make a heavy assault against Professor Hill. It has been noted with some surprise by political operatives watching the White House and Congress that no one in the Republican camp seems to take the anger among women in Washington this week as a warning that its party's candidates, including President Bush, might suffer in 1992.”

On October 13 Dowd accused the G.O.P. of abandoning the quest for truth: “It was a day when several Republican Senators seemed to give up any pretense of digging out the truth in the two starkly opposite stories, and began aggressively attacking Professor Hill.”

Dowd's anti-Thomas digs culminated in a ferocious front-page account on October 15, after Thomas appeared to have survived the assault, accompanied by a headline that left no room for argument: “Republicans Gain in Battle By Getting Nasty Quickly.” Ignoring the possibility that Hill had a weak case and Thomas a convincing defense, Dowd lamented the timid tactics of the Democrats, as opposed to the nasty Republicans who just wanted to win: “The Democrats made a pass at figuring out what had happened in the case. The Republicans tried to win. While the Democrats were pronouncing themselves flummoxed by two diametrically opposed stories, the Republicans had already launched a scorched-earth strategy against Professor Hill....Just as they did in the 1988 campaign, the Republicans battered the other side by going ugly early with nasty, personal attacks, by successfully linking the Democrats with liberal advocacy groups and by using volatile images of race." Dowd loaded her story with outraged feminists -- Ann Lewis, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Pat Schroeder, reporter Susan Milligan, Rep. Barbara Boxer, Judith Lichtman, law professors Katherine Bartlett and Susan Deller Ross.