Culture

Roger Ailes, Bill Cosby, and the Myth of the ‘Anita Hill Moment’

Anita Hill testities in the Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991 (CPAN/YouTube)
The founding story of sexual harassment in the American workplace was built on a lie, and Hill’s mendacity over the years has hurt progress.

America, we’re told, is “approaching another Anita Hill moment.” Or so say the New York Times and legions of commentators breathlessly reporting the latest details about former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes’s alleged sexual harassment. When combined with recent discoveries about Bill Cosby’s sordid history and revelations about troubling work cultures from Silicon Valley to Madison Avenue, the inescapable truth is that addressing sexual harassment in 21st-century America has not come anywhere near as far as we had hoped.

But what if the founding story of sexual harassment in the modern American workplace — that original “Anita Hill moment” — was built on a lie? What if our understanding of one of the most cited political moments of the 20th century was completely, utterly wrong? And what if, instead of being the “watershed moment” that led to the downfall of Cosby and Ailes 25 years later, the Thomas–Hill controversy and the many who have politicized allegations of sexual misconduct in the workplace have actually contributed to its ongoing practice?

“When Anita Hill came out against Clarence Thomas, she got nothing and Clarence Thomas got life tenure,” observed feminist scholar Linda Hirshman. In media coverage about high-profile harassers and their victims, it has become a cliché to trace the history of workplace sexual-harassment claims to the “watershed moment” of the 1991 Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill hearings and to recount how Hill was mistreated and Thomas was elevated to the Supreme Court.

The latest iteration of this attack on Clarence Thomas was presented recently by HBO in its docudrama Confirmation, released earlier this year. Written by Susannah Grant and starring Kerry Washington and Wendell Pierce — all committed Democrats — the movie includes more than 70 instances of bias and inaccuracy, playing fast and loose with facts for nearly two hours of self-congratulatory liberal propaganda, as is detailed here.

To judge from the ratings, members of the public saw no need to subject themselves to that display again. But the media just won’t let it go. Every time a new case hits the headlines, media dredge up the Anita Hill story. In doing so, they only highlight the difference between the Hill allegations and those made against Ailes and Cosby. Roger Ailes is facing allegations of harassment from more than 20 women going back as far as the 1960s. Bill Cosby is facing nearly 60 claims going back just as far, including accusations of sexual assault and rape. These incidents typify a pattern: of powerful men committing many instances of sexual misconduct and unwanted advances over a long period, emboldened by the expectation that they would suffer no consequences.  

Clarence Thomas, on the other hand, has had exactly one woman accuse him under oath of sexual harassment in more than 35 years of public service: Anita Hill. Hill’s allegations never added up. The Yale-educated lawyer eagerly followed Thomas from one government agency to another, even after he had supposedly begun harassing her and even though her job at the first agency was protected by law. Her main witness repeatedly told the Senate Judiciary committee staff that the harassment took place before Hill even worked for Thomas. Hill was unable to produce any strong corroborating witnesses to Thomas’s alleged misconduct — indeed, when she gave FBI investigators the names of two women who could supposedly back up her story, they contradicted her claims. One of those women joined eleven other former female co-workers to testify on behalf of Thomas. None of Hill’s co-workers supported her claims. Not one. And the three FBI background investigations that Thomas had undergone for previous federal appointments had turned up no similar allegations.

Hill’s shaky narrative was the undoing of Thomas’s opponents on the left in 1991. Not only was Thomas confirmed by a bipartisan majority, but the American public believed him over Hill, 58 to 24 percent, after wall-to-wall coverage of the hearings. Even among women, only 26 percent believed Hill.

From Bill Cosby to Bill Clinton to former senator Bob Packwood, Hollywood and the media-political complex shamelessly defend and excuse true sexual harassers when it’s politically expedient.

HBO’s Confirmation painfully exaggerates the credibility of an alleged “second woman,” Angela Wright (played in the film by Jennifer Hudson). “I am not sitting here saying to you that I was sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas,” Wright said when interviewed by Senate staff, in an exchange not depicted in the movie. It was only after prodding by Democratic counsel that she modified her answer and agreed that Thomas’s alleged actions met the “legal definition” of harassment. Moreover, Wright had been fired by Thomas for using a homophobic slur against a colleague. She had openly expressed disdain for her former boss as well as a desire to “get him back.” Wright also had previously made baseless charges of racism to try to torpedo the nomination of another former supervisor. There were so many holes in Wright’s story that she eventually followed her own lawyer’s advice and elected not to testify at Thomas’s confirmation hearings.

Decades of experience have confirmed what we instinctively know. Men who commit sexual misconduct in the workplace do not do it just once. They do it over and over. Cosby and Ailes are good examples, each facing dozens of claims from accusers.

As inconvenient as it may be to the Left, former president Bill Clinton is another good example. He has been the subject of numerous claims of sexual misconduct, including charges of sexual harassment and an allegation of rape, going back to 1969. But the leading women’s-rights groups have defended him at all costs. Anita Hill, of all people, in an interview with Tim Russert in 1998, stepped forward to defend Bill Clinton in 1998 against charges of sexual harassment. She suggested, in Clinton’s case, that people should focus on “larger issues other than just individual behavior.” She even questioned the merits of Paula Jones’s sexual-harassment claim against Clinton, a case that Clinton subsequently paid Jones $850,000 to settle, and attacked other women who accused Clinton of sexual misconduct. Hill’s targets included Monica Lewinsky, the White House intern who had an affair with Clinton and spoke out against the abuse she had suffered at the hands of the Clintons and their attack dogs once her name was caught up in an investigation into the president.

From Bill Cosby to Bill Clinton to former senator Bob Packwood, Hollywood and the media-political complex shamelessly defend and excuse true sexual harassers (and even sexual abusers such as Roman Polanski) when it’s politically expedient. But that defense has a cost. When men like this get away with sexual misconduct time and again, is it any surprise that, even in 2016, it continues?

Again, the contrast with Clarence Thomas is instructive. Even though no additional evidence of such alleged misconduct by him has ever been found, media continue to dwell on the Thomas story. In 1991, Anita Hill’s implausible eleventh-hour allegations were useful as a way to take down a rare black conservative on the verge of assuming one of the most influential posts in the nation. The Left continues to use those same allegations as a cudgel to demean and diminish his thoughtful and influential writings from his position on the Supreme Court.

The double standard is obvious. The media veer between vengeful rage and quiet excuses, depending on the perpetrator’s politics. In recent days, Anita Hill commented on the Roger Ailes and Bill Cosby cases and on what it means for victims of sexual harassment. “We’ve come a long way since then,” she said, referring to the 1991 hearings. Given the recent spate of high-profile examples, the obvious truth is that we haven’t come very far at all. And for that, Anita Hill and her political allies bear no small share of the responsibility.

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