He isn't the first journalist to admit to having lied, but he's one
of the first to come forward and offer an unsolicited confession.
July 3, 2001 | To anybody capable of memory, it is jarring to watch
the chattering class piling on David Brock
from left, right and center. The occasion for this tribal ritual is Brock's confession, in a Talk magazine excerpt
from his forthcoming book, "Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative," that he knowingly
published a lie in a book review several years ago.
The former "hit man" of conservative journalism admits that in trashing
reporters Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer's
"Strange Justice," a book critical of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, he concealed his own discovery
of the fact that Thomas had indeed regularly rented pornographic movies, as Thomas accuser Anita Hill and
others had charged.
In his extraordinary memoir -- which, as Brock's friend, I have already
read -- he goes considerably further in
questioning his actions and motives when he wrote about Hill, Thomas, the Clintons and many other topics.
While he doesn't hesitate to criticize his former comrades on the right, Brock is utterly unsparing in his analysis
of himself. He offers a detailed account of the long personal crisis that forced him into reevaluation and recantation.
Yet for the moment, what seems most striking is the righteous reaction,
across the political and media spectrum,
to his guilty plea in the matter of Hill and Thomas. On the right, Brock is being dismissed as a habitual liar whose
harsh revelations about the conservative movement should have no credibility. On the left, he is still being castigated
over the same offenses for which he currently seeks to atone. Everywhere, it seems, he is being treated as someone
whose only motive is to promote himself and his work, and as a man whose confession of wrongdoing only proves
how untrustworthy he is.
Harmonizing in chorus, the pundits ask: "How can we believe anything he says, now that he's exposed as a liar?"
The first answer to that question is that he exposed himself. Unlike
the other humbugs that infest American journalism,
Brock came forward voluntarily to correct the record he had smudged and to rescue the reputations of the people
he had abused. He has done this more than once in recent years, knowing that he would endure exactly the kind
of vilification he faces today.
Brock didn't need to compromise his own credibility in order to sell
books. As readers will soon learn, he has
plenty of intriguing stories to tell about his adventures on the right that required no confession of this magnitude.
The second answer is that lying seems to be no irredeemable sin in the
mainstream media. Aside from his
voluntary confession, the chief distinction between Brock and other public prevaricators is that he no longer
enjoys the protection of a powerful establishment.
Consider a couple of egregious cases, which suggest how convenient and
how selective much of the indignation
about Brock's confession turns out to be.
Over the impassioned protest of powerful friends, including many of
the high and mighty in American journalism,
columnist Mike Barnicle was at long last fired from the Boston Globe a few years ago on multiple counts of
fabrication and plagiarism. Caught ripping off jokes from a bestseller by comedian George Carlin, Barnicle
insisted that he hadn't read Carlin's book, until a videotape turned up that showed him holding a copy.
Even then, Barnicle wasn't let go until he was caught plagiarizing once
again from the late writer A.J. Liebling.
In fact, Barnicle had been widely known to fake stories and quotes for many years -- but his influential buddies
and his editors averted their gaze until that was no longer possible.
Far from ending his career, Barnicle's disgrace was merely the threshold
to a national forum. The unrepentant
columnist went on to be hired by NBC as a commentator on morals and politics, and this year he was awarded
his own cable talk show. Though that broadcast was canceled recently for poor ratings, Barnicle's column
appears every Sunday in the New York Daily News, where apparently even a proven fabricator can get a
second (or third or fourth) chance to redeem himself.
Even more remarkable is the continuing prominence of John Stossel, the
ABC correspondent and right-wing
propagandist. Just last year, Stossel was caught in a blatant falsification. He claimed on-air that his network's
research showed excessive levels of bacteria on organic produce -- but in fact no such tests had even been
performed. Although ABC forced him to apologize after several months of protest by consumer and environmental organizations, Stossel seems unrepentant, too. He let an underling take the blame for his confabulated data,
and he now insists, without blushing, that his critics are "left-wing totalitarians." When his "reporting" generated
controversy again last week, nobody even mentioned that embarrassing episode from last summer. Pundits
and media critics were much too absorbed with the fresher sins of David Brock.
Neither of those other sorry examples is meant to exonerate Brock. He
waited too long to tell the truth about
Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas. His former targets have every right to remain angry and skeptical. Other readers
will have to make their own choices about what to believe and what to distrust in his new book. But it would be
naive to think that he is alone in committing deceptions -- or that every journalist who invents or conceals is held
And about him at least one thing can be said that cannot be said of
other journalistic fibsters.
Brock stepped forward, on his own, without prodding, and bravely took the heat when he didn't have to do so.