By: Debra Gersh Hernandez
Lani Guinier and Bobby Ray Inman believe the press is more
interested in sound bites and cute catch phrases than in facts sp.
“GOTCHA JOURNALISM” TAKES no prisoners, and two people who were nominated for high positions in the Clinton administration recently talked about being on the receiving end of it.
Lani Guinier, whose nomination as assistant attorney general for civil rights was withdrawn by the White House after she was labeled a “quota queen” by the media, and retired Adm. Bobby Ray Inman, who took himself out of the running for secretary of defense after attacks from what he called “media McCarthyism,” spoke about their experiences at the recent American Society of Newspaper Editors annual conference.
Guinier, a University of Pennsylvania law professor, said she got her first “inkling of how little I knew about this new, unreal life that I was about to enter” during the press conference following announcement of her nomination.
“I thought I had training in communication, but my training was as a law professor who can take a semester to develop and nurture an idea; as a scholar who can write lengthy articles with more footnotes than pages and still get published; and as a lawyer arguing to a court, whose members had presumably read my briefs,” she said.
“Here, as I was to learn the hard way, only one message, and not even the one I thought I was sending, was received by the press. It turned out I was not skilled at the task of facing down journalists, projecting symbols and reducing complex ideas to sound bites,” she added.
When asked at the press conference about her comment on the need “to change direction in civil rights enforcement,” Guinier said, she “chose to respond by explaining in great detail the facts of the case that I had litigated . . . . We prevailed in the litigation, yet the weight of my description of how prior administrations had tolerated actual examples of intentional discrimination was apparently more than most of the reporters at the press conference wanted to bear that day.
“On the other hand, my fellow nominees thanked me for what they perceived was a filibuster. From their perspective, I had successfully distracted the press, whose interest in nonpayment of Social Security taxes could not regain momentum. Momentum was something I was to learn much about,” she said.
The next day, Guinier said, a Wall Street Journal headline coined the “killer metaphor,” calling her “Clinton’s Quota Queen.”
“Other journalists, including those who had been at that press conference, quickly chimed in,” she said, reading off a string of quotes describing her, for example, as race-obsessed, breathtakingly radical, a closet extremist, someone who would subordinate law enforcement to her ideological agenda and someone who was ready to dilute democracy and make mandatory the immediate overthrow of the rules of American government.
A computer search conducted by a magazine found 337 articles referring to Guinier as a “quota queen,” she said, adding, “Although the phrase-making was memorable, none of the charges was true.”
Guinier detailed how her work, described as a “scholarly conversation,” was summed up by her 4-year-old son in another context, when he talked about “taking turns . . . . In a nutshell, then, Nicholas had expressed the goal of my work: To find voting rules that allow both winners and losers to play.
“Yet, despite my academic preoccupation with finding positive sub-, or as Nicholas would say taking turns, solutions, my ideas were reduced to a derisive inaccurate sound bite coined by political opponents,” she said, noting that even though none of her articles “advocated or even discussed quotas, the ‘q’ word stuck.”
Despite the misrepresentations, Guinier said she was determined “to press forward.”
“I desperately wanted a public forum. The reason I wanted a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee was the need I felt for an honest and forthright discussion of what the last 12 years of civil rights enforcement has meant for the very real people that the Congress has intended to protect and empower,” she said.
“Moreover, and this is key, I believe if we are going to get past the racial polarization that has been fueled by the actions of some past administrations, we cannot be afraid of speaking directly to the continuing problems that our racial history creates for the civic life of our country,” Guinier added.
“Unfortunately, some of our political leaders and the media elite are convinced that the problems are insolvable or that talking about them just exacerbates them. Others contend that silence will make the problems go away. Still others focus solely on the controversy, sensationalizing and then trivializing the ideas,” she said.
“In the rush to prejudgment, I was dismissed without the usual journalistic intervention of primary reporting or the political courtesy of a formal hearing. The attacks on my reputation were promulgated and then repeated by too many journalists who seemed ignorant of their subject,” she continued, noting that gestures of support from colleagues and friends, some of whom were solicited by the media for comments, were not reported.
“Except for the lonely voices of a few black columnists and reporters, belatedly joined by an equally lonely number of their white colleagues, very few journalists were apparently interested in the facts,” she said.
Guinier explained four possible reasons for the success of her opponents and the failure of journalists.
“First, there is simply not enough diversity in the decision-making and gatekeeping level in either the print or electronic media, especially broadcast television,” she said.
“Second, those media that do pursue hiring diversity often employ one-at-a-time performers, who are forced to prove continuously their qualifications. As isolated achievers, their very visibility and token status can be paralyzing. Others are silenced by their own self-censorship,” Guinier continued.
“Third,” she said, “even when there’s more than token racial diversity, there’s still viewpoint monopoly. Racial diversity does not by itself ensure diversity of perspective . . . .
“And fourth, we are in a state of denial about issues of race and racism,” Guinier said. “The media’s treatment of my nomination suggested that officially there should be no serious public debate or discussion about racial fairness and justice in a true democracy.
“For too many politicians and journalists, the remedy for racism is simply to stop talking about race. Now this is the rule, but obviously there are exceptions,” she added.
“Unfortunately, when it comes to discussing race, most of the time your profession, like the society it reflects, is failing . . . .
“Journalists represent so much more than a set of institutional employees with a notebook and a paycheck. You work in a medium that has enormous potential and power to educate and inform the public, yet it is a medium without any government-enforced sanctions to ensure fairness and accuracy,” she said.
“What I’m talking about is the need for a commitment that goes beyond merely doing a job. I’m talking about redefining the job by revisiting what it means to be fair.
“I hope we can learn some positive lessons from my experience, lessons about the importance of public dialogue in which all perspectives are represented and in which no one viewpoint monopolizes, distorts, caricatures or shapes the outcome,” she continued.
Inman, who took himself out of the running for secretary of defense, noted that while Guinier was denied in her quest to do public service, he did not want to return to it but was persuaded to do so.
When Inman withdrew his nomination earlier this year, he said three columnists, especially William Safire of the New York Times, engaged in a “media McCarthyism.”
Inman reiterated his career path, as he did during his press conference announcing his decision, noting that at certain points, his role was as an adviser to the media, letting them know if material would damage intelligence sources and methods, and at another time as a source.
“At least in my mind, I carefully divided the two roles,” he told the ASNE audience. “When I was a source, I did it on the record, to be quoted. And when I was an adviser, I tried to decline to be the source of new information ? though I learned over time how innovative journalists are in their questions to try to extract data they don’t have ? but it was primarily a role of trying to get them to understand the context of the information I had and the potential damage that could be created.”
Even after he left government service in 1982, Inman said, he continued to receive media calls.
“I can say with absolute clear conscience and certainty, that through all those years, I never once initiated a call to a reporter to either give an idea for a story, or to plant any kind of thing or to try to float a trial balloon ? ever,” he said. “I viewed it in my own mind as a critical differentiation of a role.”
Inman took particular exception to his coverage by the Times, which he said was “the source material for everyone else.”
On the accuracy front, Inman conceded that his points might seem like nitpicking, but he said they were important to him. Mistakes included the years he served in particular jobs, the conditions under which he left Washington and the coverage of his career as a businessman.
“If there had been a desire for accuracy, those were simple, easy issues to follow,” he said, adding that the heart of the attacks came in Safire’s column Dec. 23.
Inman said friends suggested that he counter the accusations or find allies who would do so. No one approached, however, “wished to publicly take on the columnist. They didn’t want to get into the fight.”
As the weeks passed, Inman said, he found himself focusing “not on the issue of confirmation ? confirmation was never an issue in my life ? but on governing and on whether both with what was already demonstrated whether I was prepared to subject my family and myself to a 365-day-a-year repetition. And the answer was no.”
Despite his experience, Inman said, he remains “as fervently committed to the freedom of the press as I was as an idealistic college student.
“But I do believe with the freedom of the press goes both responsibility and accountability,” he added.
“On the responsibility side, I believe that there must be a striving for accuracy in facts that goes along in spite of the pressures of deadlines and timeliness,” he said, with particular attention paid to anonymous sources with axes to grind.
“On accountability, I believe there are real issues of ethics,” he continued, suggesting “deferentially to the media that the same standards of ethics they expect of those who are going to be in public service should apply to those who practice the profession of journalism.”
Inman stressed, however, that he does not want to see state or federal licensing as “that’s the surest route to destroying freedom of the press. The only answer I see is self-governance.
“We’re long since past the point in time where the publishers and editors of the only real monopolies left in this country need to put in place standards and rules for ethics,” he said. “They’re only going to be enforced by peer pressure or an occasional firing.
“I believe that process, however painful it might be, will go a very long way toward restoring public confidence, which is eroding around the country, about how much they can believe or trust what they get in the paper.”
?(“Excerpt for the lonely voices of a few black columnists and reporters, belatedly joined by an equally lonely number of their white colleagues, very few journalists were apparently interested in the facts.”) [Caption]
?( -Lani Gunier) [Photo]