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'Gotcha Journalism' Takes No Prisoners; Lani Guinier and Bobby Ray Inman Believe the Press Is More Interested in Sound Bites and Cute Catch Phrases Than in Facts

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

'Gotcha Journalism' Takes No Prisoners; Lani Guinier and Bobby Ray Inman Believe the Press Is More Interested in Sound Bites and Cute Catch Phrases Than in Facts

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Lani Guinier and Bobby Ray Inman believe the press is more interested in sound bites and cute catch phrases than in facts

"GOTCHA JOURNALISM" TAKES no prisoners, and two people who were nominated for high positions in the Clinton administration recently talked about being on the receiving end of it.

Lani Guinier, whose nomination as assistant attorney general for civil rights was withdrawn by the White House after she was labeled a "quota queen" by the media, and retired Adm. Bobby Ray Inman, who took himself out of the running for secretary of defense after attacks from what he called "media McCarthyism," spoke about their experiences at the recent American Society of Newspaper Editors annual conference.

Guinier, a University of Pennsylvania law professor, said she got her first "inkling of how little I knew about this new, unreal life that I was about to enter" during the press conference following announcement of her nomination.

"I thought I had training in communication, but my training was as a law professor who can take a semester to develop and nurture an idea; as a scholar who can write lengthy articles with more footnotes than pages and still get published; and as a lawyer arguing to a court, whose members had presumably read my briefs," she said.

"Here, as I was to learn the hard way, only one message, and not even the one I thought I was sending, was received by the press. It turned out I was not skilled at the task of facing down journalists, projecting symbols and reducing complex ideas to sound bites," she added.

When asked at the press conference about her comment on the need "to change direction in civil rights enforcement," Guinier said, she "chose to respond by explaining in great detail the facts of the case that I had litigated .... We prevailed in the litigation, yet the weight of my description of how prior administrations had tolerated actual examples of intentional discrimination was apparently more than most of the reporters at the press conference wanted to bear that day.

"On the other hand, my fellow nominees thanked me for what they perceived was a filibuster. From their perspective, I had successfully distracted the press, whose interest in nonpayment of Social Security taxes could not regain momentum. Momentum was something I was to learn much about," she said.

The next day, Guinier said, a Wall Street Journal headline coined the "killer metaphor," calling her "Clinton's Quota Queen."

"Other journalists, including those who had been at that press conference, quickly chimed in," she said, reading off a string of quotes describing her, for example, as race-obsessed, breathtakingly radical, a closet extremist, someone who would subordinate law enforcement to her ideological agenda and someone who was ready to dilute democracy and make mandatory the immediate overthrow of the rules of American government.

A computer search conducted by a magazine found 337 articles referring to Guinier as a "quota queen," she said, adding, "Although the phrase-making was memorable, none of the charges was true."

Guinier detailed how her work, described as a "scholarly conversation," was summed up by her 4-year-old son in another context, when he talked about "taking turns .... In a nutshell, then, Nicholas had expressed the goal of my work: To find voting rules that allow both winners and losers to play.

"Yet, despite my academic preoccupation with finding positive sub-, or as Nicholas would say taking turns, solutions, my ideas were reduced to a derisive inaccurate sound bite coined by politicial opponents," she said, noting that even though none of her articles "advocated or even discussed quotas, the 'q' word stuck."

Despite the misrepresentations, Guinier said she was determined "to press forward."

"I desperately wanted a public forum. The reason I wanted a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee was the need I felt for an honest and forthright discussion of what the last 12 years of civil rights enforcement has meant for the very real people that the Congress has intended to protect and empower," she said. …

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