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Media Squabble Over Coverage of Thomas Hearings : Conduct: One reporter has quit, another faces a sexual harassment investigation. The press is accused of being ‘out of the mainstream’ of thought.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Squabbling and recriminations have broken out among the media over the press’ conduct in the Clarence Thomas confirmation battle.

One reporter has quit her paper, another has been publicly revealed to be under investigation for sexual harassment, a third has been condemned as lacking in credibility because of plagiarism.

And the press in general has been accused by one of its own of having “congealed into an undifferentiated blob” that is “out of the mainstream” of American thought.

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To some, the increasingly nasty and personal quality of the recriminations in part reflects the growing celebrity of the journalists involved, celebrity fueled by appearances on television where they offer their opinions, debate with politicians and even suggest policy.

“Celebrity changes your ability to be an objective observer on the other side of the plate glass looking in at the scene,” said Bill Kovach, curator of the Neiman Foundation at Harvard University.

The back-biting reached a new level on Thursday with a broad attack in the Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial pages that charged, “The media live in a different reality plane from the people. . . .”

The arrows went out in all directions. The Journal charged the New York Times, for instance, with “total capitulation” to leftist political correctness and alleged that Times reporter Maureen Dowd was writing feminist “editorials” on the front page.

Times Executive Editor Max Frankel declined to comment. But Times Washington bureau chief Howell Raines said that the Journal has already come under criticism publicly for almost ignoring the Thomas controversy. And praising Dowd’s interpretive “Washington Memo” columns during the past week, Raines said: “You are always going to get jealousy from people who didn’t have that kind of distinctive effort.”

Controversy also broke out at the Washington Times, a staunchly conservative paper owned by the Unification Church. Reporter Dawn Ceol, the daughter of prominent conservative activist Paul Weyrich, resigned this week after editors changed her account of the Thomas hearings Sunday to emphasize speculation that Anita Faye Hill, Thomas’ accuser, was a “fantasizer.”

Another of those caught up in the swirl is Washington Post reporter Juan Williams, who became particularly prominent over the weekend for an impassioned defense of Thomas that suggested the sexual harassment allegations were a smear.

On Monday, several news organizations, including the Washington Post, revealed that Williams himself was under investigation for several incidents of alleged sexual harassment at the paper. Williams denies that the incidents amount to harassment. Post executive editor Leonard Downie declined to comment.

Then on Thursday, Wall Street Journal Washington bureau chief Albert Hunt wrote a column condemning National Public Radio reporter Nina Totenberg, who helped break the sexual harassment charges against Thomas, because Totenberg was involved in a plagiarism case 20 years ago.

“Purposeful plagiarism is one of the cardinal sins of journalism from which reporters can never recover their credibility,” Hunt wrote. In an interview later, Hunt did not want to elaborate on his feelings. “It is hard to add to what I said.”

Totenberg does not deny the plagiarism. But she does deny that, as Hunt suggests, it was the sole reason for her departure from the paper, the National Observer. Totenberg says she was also involved in a case of sexual harassment at the paper that made her unpopular with her superiors.

This was not Totenberg’s first brush with controversy. Last week, after an appearance on ABC’s “Nightline,” she and Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) got into a parking lot shouting match when Simpson chased her waving a journalistic ethics code.

Simpson has alleged that Totenberg said he was “evil” and hated by his colleagues and that she used “the F word” toward him.

“I am not saying I didn’t curse, but I did not tell him he was an evil man hated by his colleagues,” Totenberg says. I should have just kept my mouth shut and left.”


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