Negative Media Portrait of Justice Thomas Out of Step with Reality, Former Senator Says

November 5th, 2007 12:04 PM

"Thank God for CSPAN," Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas declares in his recently released memoirs entitled: "My Grandfather's Son."

Without the "gavel to gavel" coverage made available through an alternative media source Thomas tells readers he may not have had the opportunity to present himself to the American people in a compelling and straightforward manner.

Press coverage of his highly charged confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate 16 years ago was very weighted in favor of his critics, especially Anita Hill, the Supreme Court Justice recalls in his book.

Thomas contends Hill was in fact a "left-winger" who was permitted to serve up a false image of herself in testimony, thanks in no small part to a compliant media.

Hill had worked as an employee to Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in the 1980s. She accused him of sexual harassment while testifying before the U.S. Senate on Oct. 11 1991. Most recently, Hill published an editorial in the New York Times responding to some of the key points Thomas made in his book. (

Although Hill "stands by her testimony," that testimony has been called into question by other female employees who worked with her and with Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). ( Their testimony on behalf of Thomas is also a matter of record but their stories have not been widely told in media. It was much the same 16 years ago, Thomas points out in his memoirs.

"I was struck by the glaring difference in the way the media treated Anita and me," he wrote. "Whereas it was taken for granted that whatever she said had to be true, it was no less automatically assumed that anything I might say in my defense would be untrue. The same kind of reflexive groupthink had been at work when my leadership of the EEOC was portrayed as `controversial' before I'd had a chance to do anything there. What made it controversial, of course, was that I refused to bow to the superior wisdom of the white liberals who thought they knew what was better for blacks; since I didn't know my place, I had to be put down."

This dynamic was largely responsible for hostile press coverage at the time, Thomas suggests. When he finally had the opportunity to challenge his critics and to assume an offensive posture, the nominee called out the U.S. Senate for its complicity in a "high-tech lynching." This testimony galvanized public sentiment in favor of confirmation, "in a single stroke" according to a White House official quoted in the book.

Now that Thomas has been reintroduced to the public by way of his new memoirs it is evident the media remain highly antagonistic to him, former Senator John Danforth has observed. The Missouri Republican is a long-time friend and mentor to Thomas. He played an instrumental role in securing confirmation 16 years ago.

"His media detractors portray him as some angry person, brooding quietly in the Supreme Court," Danforth said in an interview. "Well if you go to the Supreme Court building and talk to the people who work there you will find he's the most popular person in the building."

A Nexis search for news articles describing Thomas as being either "angry" or "bitter" in the monthly period immediately following the release of his book pulled up over 200 results.

This media portrait is out of step with reality Danforth argued.

"His detractors are going to savage him regardless of what he does," he said. "For years they savaged him for being silent, now that he's written a book and been on TV they savage him for being outspoken."

Those who know Thomas well are immune to the media distortion, Danforth said. This is true of friends and even colleagues who do not share his ideology, the former senator explained.

"I was at a White House dinner going back about four or five years and one of the most liberal justices on the Supreme Court was sitting at the same table where I was and this justice came up to me and said `thank you for giving us Clarence Thomas.' Now that was a liberal justice, it shows the degree of respect for him and affection, even from people who don't share his particular jurisprudence."

The angry, bitter, brooding person identified in the news media also went missing October when Thomas delivered a luncheon address at an event co-sponsored by the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society.

"It is my sincere hope this book will show just how much we are all alike ... In addition, it is my enduring hope that someday, someone who is still struggling and uncertain about the future, will find reason for hope in the words I've written and the life I've tried to live," Thomas said while addressing an audience of over 800 well wishers and supporters.

Natural theory and its relationship with the American founding figured prominently in dialogue between Thomas and the audience members. To better understand and appreciate the constitutional order sustaining American liberty told listeners that he would engage EEOC staffers familiar with the philosophical foundation of the Declaration of Independence.

Thomas would spend hours at a time with political theorists exploring and probing the writings of Thomas Jefferson. The revolutionary notion outlined in the Declaration of Independence that states "All men are created equal" and "are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights" has timeless implications, Thomas explained.

"We debated at length the implications of natural law thinking, and speculated on how it might apply to contemporary political discussion," he wrote in his memoirs. "These arguments stimulated my mind in a way that no discussion of current events could possibly hope to equal."

U.S. Senators who were opposed to Thomas's confirmation sought to connect his interest in the natural law with an anti-abortion stance during the 1991 hearings. But this approach missed the entire point of his intellectual journey, Thomas told listeners.

"We shouldn't a federal judge be interested in what the Founders thought about natural law - and why shouldn't a black man be interested in the fact that the philosophical underpinnings of the Constitution had been in direct conflict with the peculiar institution of slavery, thus fueling the earliest efforts to free my forebears?" he asks in the book.

Unfortunately, the "results oriented approach" the U.S. Senate has toward the Supreme Court works against independent thinkers like Thomas who open themselves up to ideas that may be out of favor with prevailing opinion, Danforth said.

"There is this idea that says if you don't agree with someone you then destroy him as a person and this was evident during the Thomas hearings," he said. "Why should African-Americans be expected to hue to one particular ideology, why shouldn't they have as much freedom to express different viewpoints as anyone else?"

The character assassination techniques applied against judicial nominees like Thomas, who don't fit the ideological mold of the political class in Washington, D.C., could end if enough Americans expressed their opposition to such personal attacks, Danforth suggested.

The heightened availability of alternative media could also play an important role.

Once he successfully penetrated through the dominate media coverage in 1991 Thomas found that his antagonists had "underestimated the character and judgment of the American people" he wrote.

There are some indications that would suggest U.S. Senators risk paying a political price, if they are viewed as being obstructionist or overly antagonistic toward nominees with solid credentials, Illya Shapiro, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute's Center for Constitutional Studies, has noted.

Just ask former Senator Tom Daschle (D-S.D.)