On Thursday morning, as the broadcast networks all seized on Democratic demands for an FBI investigation into Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault claims against Brett Kavanaugh, reporters on NBC, ABC, and CBS were quick to point to the Bureau’s investigation of Anita Hill’s sexual harassment claims against Clarence Thomas in 1991. However, none of the supposed journalists could seem to remember that the outcome of that inquiry was inconclusive.
“For his part, the President signaling he has no plans to order an FBI investigation, even though he’s the only one who can do it,” lamented White House Correspondent Kristen Welker on NBC’s Today show. A clip then ran of Trump telling reporters: “Well, it would seem that the FBI really doesn’t do that. They’ve investigated.” Welker could be seen shouting: “They would if you asked them to, Mr. President!”
After lecturing the President on the matter, Welker told viewers:
Now, there is precedent for the FBI stepping into a Supreme Court nomination process late in the game, and it’s pretty well known. Back in 1991, former President George H.W. Bush ordered an investigation into Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment against now-Justice Clarence Thomas.
Appearing on ABC’s Good Morning America, Senior Legal Correspondent Sunny Hostin insisted:
This happened in 1991, there is a blueprint for this. When this Anita Hill situation happened, bottom line is, by bipartisan agreement, the FBI investigated. The FBI interviewed Anita Hill. They interviewed Clarence Thomas. They had sexual assault and harassment experts testify. Some of the same members that are on the committee today were on the committee then. Why – why are they confused about how to proceed?
Co-host George Stephanopoulos responded: “I think your analysis...is spot-on, that is what happened in the past.”
Moments later in the discussion, Chris Christie provided some push-back: “No, George, but what are you going to get in the end of this, okay?...there are not witnesses who are going to be able to talk about this one way or the other. And so, what’s an investigation gonna really prove?”
On CBS This Morning, correspondent Nancy Cordes claimed that “Republicans are wary of a time-consuming, unpredictable probe,” before pressing Louisiana Senator John Kennedy: “Wouldn’t an FBI investigation shed light on some of these allegations?” The reporter declared: “The FBI investigated Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations against Clarence Thomas nearly 27 years ago.”
Later in the 8:00 a.m. ET hour, co-host Gayle King asked Senior National Security Analyst Fran Townsend: “Well, as a former federal prosecutor, would you put a witness on the stand without some type of investigation?” Townsend countered: “But I take you back to the Anita Hill example, right? That’s an example where President George H.W. Bush did reopen the investigation based on her allegations....it was a brutal, brutal cross-examination of her in public. I’m not sure that’s something – that’s a model we really want to follow.”
Amazingly, not one of the correspondents on the three networks managed to share the outcome of the FBI investigation into Hill’s allegations against Thomas. On October 7, 1991, The New York Times reported:
Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Delaware Democrat who heads the Judiciary Committee, said in a statement today that when Ms. Hill first contacted the committee, on Sept. 12, she insisted that her name not be used and that Judge Thomas not be told of her allegations. He said this effectively tied the committee's hands.
Only on Sept. 23, Mr. Biden said, did she agree to allow the Federal Bureau of Investigation to investigate the allegations. The report was finished by Sept. 25, he said, and all committee members were notified of it by the next day. On Sept. 27, the committee deadlocked 7 to 7 on the nomination.
The White House today described the F.B.I. report as finding the allegations as “without foundation.” But Congressional officials who have seen the report said the bureau could not draw any conclusion because of the "he said, she said" nature of the subject.
Not only was the FBI inquiry inconclusive, but Hill was the one reluctant to even allow an investigation.
Summarizing Hill’s accusations against Thomas in a 2010 online article, CBS explained:
In 1991, Hill submitted a confidential statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee alleging that Thomas had sexually harassed her 10 years earlier, when they were both single. The FBI had already investigated the charges and given the committee what was called an inconclusive report. The committee decided not to pursue the matter. But two days before the full Senate was expected to confirm Thomas, Hill's statement was leaked to reporters.
The media seem to be arguing that the FBI can get to the bottom of the accusations against Kavanaugh. However, in the only other comparable situation that they point to, the Hill-Thomas hearing, the FBI was unsuccessful in getting to the bottom of anything. The very least reporters could do would be to provide that important context in their coverage.