Character assassination by innuendo is one of the slimiest forms of journalistic malpractice. The current target for character assassination is Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Launched by a story in ProPublica earlier this month, multiple media outlets are now trying to outdo each other in besmirching Thomas’s character for obvious ideological and partisan reasons.
Even the Christian Science Monitor, which was founded to counteract “yellow journalism” and whose stated creed is “to injure no mam,” has joined the media mob. The Monitor’s use of specious innuendo to trash the reputation of Thomas in the kangaroo court of public opinion is disgusting. The tawdriness starts with the headline: “High court, low accountability: How Thomas scandal threatens Supreme Court.” “Scandal”? Says who? The only scandal is that media outlets are trying to manufacture a scandal where none exists and that journalists are trying to tar and feather a good man with insinuations (but no evidence) that he is corrupt.
The editorial introduction to the Monitor article leads with this inflammatory statement, “Why does the highest court in the United States have the lowest ethical standards?” As a lawyer in court would cry, “Objection! The statement is misleading and assumes a conclusion not yet adjudicated.” The question is clearly prejudicial and manipulative. According to its author, the reason people are supposedly asking this question is because “a GOP megadonor has been treating a Supreme Court justice to opulent vacations and loans of a private jet.”
My, my, look at those trigger words: “a GOP megadonor,” “opulent,” “private jet” — how awful! This is verbal red meat for ideologues whose creed is that wealth (or, at least, wealth owned by a Republican) is inherently nefarious and that for Thomas to have accepted the generous hospitality of a close rich friend is a priori proof that Thomas must be corrupt.
The undisputed facts are these: For many years, Thomas and his wife have gone on expensive vacations — vacations far more costly than the average American can afford — as guests of their friend, Harlan Crow. Absent is any allegation of impropriety in Thomas’ work on the Supreme Court. Crow has never had business come before the Supreme Court. If he ever does, Thomas would simply recuse himself. Again, there is no scandal involving Clarence Thomas.
It seems to me that there is, however, a scandal involving the media. Why are they so eager to pillory Clarence Thomas for nonexistent corruption while assiduously avoiding a thorough examination of what appears to be the real scandal of a president having apparently steered public policy in such a way that foreign interests gave millions of dollars to his family? But let’s not go off on that tangent now.
The media assault against Clarence Thomas, besides suffering from the fatal defect that it insinuates corruption where there is no corruption, suffers from the ludicrous fatuity of some of the statements made to cast him in an unfavorable, if not sinister, light. Some of them would be laughable if they weren’t so tragically malicious. One example of these flimsy, artless attempts is this not-so-profound and strained conjecture by Kermit Roosevelt, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School that the effect of the vacations Thomas received “may be to seal him off [from other] views.’” Roosevelt, who was quoted by the Christian Science Monitor, continued, “The ideological echo chamber you’re in affects your views.” Huh? Does that mean that Thomas is in an ideological echo chamber when he vacations with rich friends, but he wouldn’t be in one if he vacationed with non-rich conservative friends? Should he only vacation with Democrats and progressives? Do you think that liberal/progressive Supreme Court justices avoid ideological echo chambers by taking pains to vacation and socialize with conservatives? I rather doubt it. Such tortured reasoning shows how desperate some journalists are to cast doubts on the character of Justice Thomas.
Clarence Thomas is a good man who doesn’t deserve the vile treatment he is receiving at the hands of a rabid media. He is known for quietly helping black youths in various ways, including helping them gain admission to and attend private schools. Various people have reported spotting him quietly and unassumingly doing volunteer community work, such as laying wreaths at Arlington National Cemetery. Why should he not be as free as you and I to have a friend who happens to be rich and generous?
For the record, I know Justice Thomas — just a wee bit. I’m not claiming to be his friend or anything, but I was privileged to talk to him privately, one-on-one, and to see him address and interact with college students. I can smell a fake or a rat a mile away, and I believe with all my heart that Clarence Thomas is a man of integrity, honor, and virtue. He exudes goodness, genuineness, honesty, and humility — in short, true nobility. To allege that this good man is somehow “corrupt” is itself a great corruption, an ignominious deed entirely devoid of integrity, honor, and virtue.
It is clear from the tenor of the articles attacking Thomas that the animus against him is not only personal, but is a partisan, ideological attack against the current conservative majority on the Supreme Court. The Monitor article cited above alleges that “trust” in the Supreme Court “has been declining for years as the court has reshaped American law in significant ways, and often in a direction further to the right than a majority of Americans.”
What this boils down to is totally unremarkable: People on the left don’t like it when the Supreme Court shifts to the right any more than people on the right don’t like it when the court moves left. “Trust” in the Supreme Court should be about the court upholding constitutional principles, not how well it is appeasing a majority of citizens at any given time. Catering to shifts in public opinion is NOT the role that the American founders envisioned for the Supreme Court. Rather, it was designed to counter democratic passions and keep our polity anchored in the Constitution until such time as the Constitution is amended to accommodate evolving new values and beliefs.
The media’s engagement in a vicious campaign to embarrass and slander a Supreme Court justice for the purpose of driving him off the court in order to shift its ideological balance is the real scandal here. How much “trust” could the millions of conservative Americans have in a court that was packed by such despicable machinations? The more the court is converted into an overtly political actor, the less it will be respected as an independent branch of government.
A new development: As I was completing this article, news broke that ProPublica published a follow-up article on April 13 about some small real-estate transactions between Thomas and his friend, Harlan Crow. While nobody is alleging corrupt actions by Thomas, it is clear that he has not complied with rules about the disclosure of certain types of transactions.
Since these two stories have broken, Thomas has been reluctant to respond in detail. We do know that he was advised years ago by the Supreme Court’s ethics advisers that he didn’t have to report certain personal benefits. While not defending his noncompliance, the current situation — a Supreme Court justice being condemned for dealings with a friend that any American citizen should be free to engage in while members of Congress routinely enrich themselves greatly both in and after holding office — is a sign that the ethical guidelines in Washington are long overdue for revision.
All of us who value the integrity of our Constitution should hope and pray that this staunch warrior withstands the specious attacks on him and the court and is able to continue his valiant service and principled jurisprudence to our Republic for many more years.