9. NPR reporter Nina Totenberg tries to destroy the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas by breaking the story of Anita Hill’s unproven sexual-harassment claims (1991).
In September of 1991, the confirmation of conservative Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas was approaching. Liberals were looking for smoking guns and silver bullets to kill the nomination. One of those liberals was Nina Totenberg, the Supreme Court reporter for National Public Radio. She broke the story of Anita Hill’s never-proven claims of sexual harassment, that Thomas has supposedly asked her on dates, boasted of his sexual prowess, and told lurid tales about the pornography he’d seen.
Hill wanted to destroy the Thomas nomination anonymously. Totenberg ended that strategy. Hill said she would not talk to Totenberg until NPR received a copy of her affidavit to the Senate Judiciary Commitee. Totenberg complained to Ricki Seidman, a Ted Kennedy aide, that she could not secure Hill’s affidavit. Seidman called James Brudney, an aide to liberal Democrat Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, and Totenberg received a copy by fax.
Totenberg went right from the activist breaking the story to co-anchoring three days of Hill-Thomas hearings on PBS. Totenberg repeatedly used breaks in the hearings to defend herself and her liberal sources. On four different occasions, she praised the positive role of leaks. “The history books are full of important and historic events that were the result of news leaks... [Watergate] would have just been a third-rate robbery if there hadn’t been a lot of leaks disclosing what it had all been about.” On eight occasions, Totenberg emphasized the credibility of Hill’s “corroborating” witnesses.
When special counsel Peter Fleming was appointed by the Senate to investigate who leaked the Hill affidavit in violation of Senate rules, Totenberg defended herself by shredding all the incriminating documents. So much for the “public” in National Public Radio. However, Totenberg later downplayed the sexual-assault claims by Paula Jones against Bill Clinton, insisting Jones “was interested in money” and made her charges first at a conference of “Clinton’s sworn political enemies, whereas “Anita Hill never asked for money” and “went directly to the Senate Judiciary Committee” – as if there weren’t any enemies of Thomas there.
NPR’s single report on Juanita Broaddrick, who accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault, aired on February 25, 1999, and reporter Brooke Gladstone underlined the unproven: “The hotel where the alleged crime took place no longer exists. There are no witnesses, no police records, no medical records....In her interview last night, Broaddrick’s demeanor was somber and credible, but the incident she purports to recount occurred too long ago to prosecute and cannot be proven.” She wasn’t automatically accepted and honored like Anita Hill.
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