Accuracy In Media
Weekly Column

Different Standards For Clinton and Jefferson

By Reed Irvine
March 3, 1999

When the British journal Nature ran an article last November charging that DNA had proven that Thomas Jefferson had fathered a child by one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, this was big news all over the country. Over two hundred stories, editorials and columns were published. Some of them attacked Jefferson as a hypocrite. Some even suggested that he may have raped Hemings. Two months later, Nature was forced to admit that it had overstated what the DNA analysis showed.

It admitted that the analysis showed only that some Jefferson was the father of Hemings’ child. It could have been Thomas Jefferson’s younger brother, Randolph, or one of Randolph’s five sons, or Jefferson’s cousin, George Jefferson, Jr. There was no proof that it was Thomas. Nevertheless, most of the American media, including The New York Times, failed to correct the record.

Newspapers are said to give us the first draft of history. But often the first draft contains serious errors such as this. Historians are expected to catch and correct them. That assumes that historians are scholars dedicated to finding the truth and that they are better than journalists in determining what it is.

The falsity of that assumption was demonstrated in Virginia. The history department at Randolph-Macon, a women’s college, arranged a panel discussion on the Jefferson paternity issue, but no one who disputed the claim that Jefferson had been proven to be the father was invited to participate.

One of the invited scholars was Dr. Eugene Foster, a retired pathologist who was responsible for the DNA tests that sought to determine whether or not Jefferson was the father. He was the lead author of the Nature article. Another was Annette Gordon-Reed, a black law professor who had authored a 1997 book in which she tried to prove that historical evidence supported the allegation. Started by one of Jefferson’s political enemies in 1802, the rumor had been denied by Jefferson and rejected by nearly all historians.

Professor John d’Entrement, who chaired the program at Randolph-Macon, was asked why he had not included any Jefferson defenders on the panel. He said that their opinions were not respectable, that they were equivalent to the belief that the earth is flat. He asserted that they were grasping at straws in claiming that Jefferson’s younger brother Randolph might have fathered the Hemings children.

Annette Gordon-Reed said the only support for that theory was a report that Randolph was known to have danced with Negroes and that Jefferson had invited him to come to Monticello during the month that Hemings’ youngest child was conceived. "That’s it," she said. But there’s more to it than that. Randolph lived 20 miles from Monticello and apparently visited there often. In an oral history, Isaac, a Jefferson slave, said Randolph, a widower, liked "to play his fiddle and dance half the night" with the slaves. He was 12 years younger than Thomas, who was 64 when Hemings’ youngest child was born.

Dr. Eugene Foster had been given this information by Herbert Barger, the Jefferson family historian who helped him with his study, but he didn’t share it with the editors of Nature. He also held his tongue when Annette Gordon-Reed misstated the evidence supporting the theory that Randolph was the father.

The treatment of Jefferson by these scholars shows that their standards are far lower than those most journalists adhere to in their coverage of Bill Clinton. When Juanita Broaddrick told NBC News that Clinton had raped her in 1978, NBC promptly interviewed four people who said Mrs. Broaddrick told them of the rape soon after it occurred. One was a nurse, who treated Mrs. Broaddrick’s badly bitten lip. Broaddrick said Clinton had bitten her lip to force her to submit to him.

They found documentary proof that Broaddrick was where she claimed to be on the date of the alleged assault. But was Clinton there as well? He refused to release his schedule. Andrew Lack, the president of NBC News, insisted that extraordinary efforts be made to find out if he was in Little Rock that day. This included a time-consuming but fruitless search of scores of small newspapers throughout Arkansas to see if any reported Clinton’s whereabouts.

NBC President Robert Wright told me on Feb. 5 that he had been informed that the story was being delayed because they didn’t know the date of the incident. He had been given inaccurate information. He had been briefed by Andrew Lack, who has been described as "Kaplanesque," a reference to Rick Kaplan, president of CNN, a Friend of Bill. Lack didn’t allow the story to air until Feb. 24, after The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post had published stories based on interviews of Juanita Broaddrick.

Historians have convicted Thomas Jefferson of charges nearly 200 years old, invented by a political foe, and based on pure speculation. The evidence supporting the rape charge against Bill Clinton looks iron-clad by comparison, but journalists who follow the pro-Clinton historians in finding Jefferson guilty, say Clinton must be given a pass because Broaddrick’s story is old and beyond proof.

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