Blinded by the Right

Blinded by the Right


I didn't disappoint. My Spectator article was published in March 1992 under the headline "The Real Anita Hill." It ran with a full-page cover caricature of Hill, her African American features exaggerated, that was so over the top even Ricky said it was racist. She overcame her reservations as soon as she flipped open the cover.

In the style of right-wing conspiracist tracts, complete with extensive citations, quotations, and footnotes, "The Real Anita Hill" recast the accepted narrative of the hearing as a liberal conspiracy to frame Thomas on false charges. The first section of the twenty-two-thousand-word takeout was a lawyerly dissection of the testimony of Hill's main corroborating witness, Susan Hoerchner, exploiting inconsistencies in her previously unreleased Senate deposition leaked to me by GOP staff to advance a theory that Hill had complained to Hoerchner of sexual harassment months before Hill had gone to work for Thomas. I had been told of this theory by Nelson Lund, a Federalist Society academic on the Bush White House staff, who had devised it with Quayle aide William Kristol during the hearings, and I studied the hearing record intensely to make it work. In the second section, I sought to expose what I claimed was Hill's political agenda in opposing Thomas. Though it had no bearing on the veracity of her testimony, I voraciously pored over every word written about Hill in the weeks before and since the hearing. When I found one article in which she expressed vaguely feminist leanings—no surprise, especially after the hearing—I presented the quote as treasonous. Finally, I hit pay dirt in one obscure interview where Hill indicated she disagreed with Thomas's views on abortion and affirmative action. I turned this truth against her, assailing her as a vicious leftist who perjured herself to advance her own political agenda.

While these two sections were skewed, they were plausible interpretations of the written record. As is always the case with sexual harassment, there were weak spots in the story told by Hill and her witnesses, and I portrayed them as intentional lies. But I still had a problem that caused me to overreach. If Thomas was completely innocent, Anita Hill would have had to be insane to go on national television and tell a lie under oath. Grasping for an explanation of the inexplicable, doing everything I could to ruin Hill's credibility, I took a scattershot approach, dumping virtually every derogatory—and often contradictory—allegation I had collected on Hill from the Thomas camp into the mix. Hill was an ambitious incompetent passed over by Thomas for a promotion. She was "kooky." She was a man-hater. She had a "perverse desire for male attention." She had a "love-hate" complex with Thomas. She made "bizarre" sexual comments to students and coworkers. She sprinkled pubic hairs in her law students' term papers. She was, in my words, "a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty."

For what was then a lighthearted magazine, the full-throated tenor of the attack, and especially its tabloid bent, was a major departure. Surely, this was an impossible story to tell without explicit references to sex; but no respectable publication, not even the Spectator, had ever seen the likes of the sexist imagery and sexual innuendo I confected to discredit Anita Hill. These were but two ingredients in a witches' brew of fact, allegation, hearsay, speculation, opinion, and invective labeled by my editors as "investigative journalism." And, well, it did look like journalism. By taking portions of the record and quoting previously unreleased Senate material, I was able to create the illusion that the article was based on established fact, solid evidence, and extensive documentation. The editors weren't careful with the magazine's reputation, much less mine. Wlady, the managing editor, hardly questioned a word I filed. All women were "emotional" and thus prone to fabrication, Wlady said.

Yet there is a critical distinction between what I thought I was doing—my intentions—and the sloppy, skewed, slanderous material that spilled off my keyboard. I was able to go at the other side like a bloodhound because I believed every word of my reporting was solid and true. For many readers, my inability to take in other points of view was, perversely, the source of my strength as a political writer. I was possessed of "the moral certainty of a young warrior," as Howard Kurtz would write in a Washington Post profile. I sincerely believed my own propaganda.

The truth is that with my woefully inadequate training at the Washington Times and the American Spectator, I didn't know what good reporting was. Like a kid playing with a loaded gun, I didn't appreciate the difference between a substantiated charge and an unsubstantiated one. The cardinal rule of the journalism profession, that every allegation must have at least two sources before it may be printed, was not enforced at the Times, and it was unheard of at the Spectator. My sources did tell me all the things I quoted them as telling me. I didn't have the judgment to know that people will say anything, particularly in an incendiary conflict such as this one. Every source I relied on either thought Thomas walked on water or had a virulent animus toward Hill. Already conditioned to think the best of Thomas and the worst of Hill, I did nothing to test these sources or question their motives. That almost all of the "kooky" quotes were voiced from behind a shield of anonymity gave me no pause. My incompetence was compounded by an uninformed bias, by the grip of a partisan tunnel vision that was by now such a part of my nature that it distorted my work, disabling me from finding the truth, without my even knowing it.

Of course, to most readers outside the conservative world my reportage was self-discrediting. But my piece had a certain power in its presentation. Despite my roiling emotions, the cognitive part of my brain was built like a steel trap. Though I was really nothing more than a promising Republican operative in training, what made me unique was that I was in a position to put their legalistic, highly analytical theories, defensive hair-splitting, derogatory gossip, and political spin into print, where I presented it all as fact. Alone among them, I considered myself a reporter. I was a clear writer, so many people read the piece and believed it.

Soon after the article appeared, Rush Limbaugh began reading entire sections of it for several days running on his nationally syndicated broadcast, complete with a squeaky-voiced impression of Susan Hoerchner. With his audience of over 2 million listeners, the largest audience of any radio show then on the air, Limbaugh put the Spectator—and me—on the map. Overnight, every right-winger in America knew my name, or so it seemed. Limbaugh, whom Justice Thomas would later befriend to the point of officiating at Limbaugh's wedding, was the perfect audience for my attack on Anita Hill. Above his workstation, he had posted the following admonition: "Sexual Harassment at This Work-Station Will Not Be Reported, However, It Will Be Graded." Limbaugh was making me famous for calling Anita Hill a slut.

Some conservative friends outside the Spectator did warn me quietly that the "little bit nutty and a little bit slutty" line, a reference to the classic nuts-and-sluts defense in sexual harassment cases, was in poor taste, or at least politically foolish, in that it handed my critics a club with which to beat me. The phrase certainly stuck, and it would be unearthed and brandished in my face in all future controversies over my work. Clearly, the ugliness that the Dartmouth Review had introduced to conservatism, and that I had once rejected back in Berkeley as irresponsible, now came easily to me. I did give it a second thought, but when I suggested to Wlady that maybe the line was too much, we agreed to keep it in. I had fallen in with radicals of the Gingrich-Limbaugh stripe. After all, how far was the "nutty/slutty" line from Newt's rants about the "grotesque" and "sick" Democrats, or Limbaugh's slurs on blacks and women? Then, too, the "nutty/slutty" line was not completely out of character with the Spectator's gonzo house style. Conceivably, Bob Tyrrell could have written the line in a satirical column. But in a piece that was otherwise presented as serious reporting, the line was not amusing; it was degraded sarcasm—inexcusable, disgusting.

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Excerpted from Blinded by the Right by David Brock. Copyright © 2003 by David Brock. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.