Give him a break

Why do pundits heap scorn on writer David Brock, who lied to protect Clarence Thomas, but give a pass to other disgraced journalists -- like Mike Barnicle and John Stossel?

Published July 3, 2001 1:49PM (EDT)

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 equally accountable.

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.

By Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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