In the last three weeks, David Brock has been assailed in the press as a liar, a smear artist and a woman-hater.
The conservative reporter is accustomed to personal attacks, having been roundly denounced by the left over his book skewering Anita Hill. Now, after disseminating a spate of salacious charges by Arkansas state troopers about Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, Brock is being portrayed as a sleaze merchant who will stop at nothing to advance his ideological agenda.
The intensity of these attacks raises a thorny question: Just when are a journalist's personal views and private life fair game for those who despise his reporting?
"Most people taking the Clinton line find that I'm an easy whipping boy because I've written some politically incorrect things in the past," Brock said. "It's easy to change the subject to make it look like a right-wing conspiracy. ... It seems to me a kind of witch hunt to drum me out of the profession."
One prominent liberal author says Brock has a point.
"If the principle is that we should not be writing about someone's private life unless it affects their public life, then the same would apply to Brock," said Ken Auletta, media critic for the New Yorker. "The kind of vitriol he generates on the part of our journalistic colleagues seems to me disproportionate. If we are outraged by some of the excesses of Brock, for reporters to turn around and commit some of the same excesses is transparently hypocritical."
Still, separating the personal from the political is not so easy with a reporter like Brock, who writes for the aggressively conservative American Spectator, accepted conservative foundation money for "The Real Anita Hill" and makes no secret of his disdain for the liberal establishment.
For a controversial journalist to find himself the target of slings and arrows is hardly unprecedented. When CNN's Peter Arnett was reporting from Baghdad during the Persian Gulf War, critics questioned his patriotism and Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) accused him of being a communist sympathizer in Vietnam. When Nina Totenberg of National Public Radio helped break the story of Hill's sexual harassment allegations against Clarence Thomas, her detractors began publicizing a 19-year-old plagiarism incident.
But few journalists have been subjected to an assault as scathingly personal as that mounted last week by Frank Rich, the New York Times's former theater critic and now an Op-Ed columnist for the paper.
Rich called Brock a "smear artist" whose "motives are at least as twisted as his facts." Citing Brock's writings on both Anita Hill and the Clinton story, Rich wrote: "The slightest sighting of female sexuality whips him into a frenzy of misogynist zeal. All women are the same to Mr. Brock: terrifying, gutter-tongued sexual omnivores."
Brock, who is gay, strongly objected to the focus on his sexual views. He agreed to discuss the matter for the first time for this article.
"It's ironic that those who say President Clinton's sex life is irrelevant seem to find mine relevant," Brock said. "My sexual orientation has never been a factor in my journalism and it never will be. Having said that, any sophisticated reader would interpret the Rich column as a thinly veiled outing. I think one has to look at the journalistic ethics of playing to anti-gay stereotypes and engaging in third-grade psychologizing.
"It's particularly dismaying that the New York Times decided to publish such a vulgar attack, and it will be interesting to see if the mainstream media regard it as acceptable because it is aimed at a conservative."
Rich maintained he had no ulterior motive. "I know nothing about David Brock's personal life," he said. "I purposely made it a point of not doing what he does, which is go into someone's personal life. I simply worked with the public record. There are straight and gay misogynists, and I don't know or care which kind David Brock is.
"It is fair game because the matter he's dealing with is male-female relations in the broadest sense. His animus as revealed in his writing is relevant. To me, misogyny is as much an ideological bias as a liberal Democrat doing supposedly objective investigative reporting about a Republican."
Brock, 31, has been an outspoken conservative since his days at the University of California at Berkeley. Drew Digby, a former reporter who clashed with Brock at the student paper, the Daily Californian, recalled a brash, bow-tied young man who loved to belittle the left.
Digby supplied a copy of a university release correcting four statements Brock made in a 1983 article about a physics professor who won a White House award, including an assertion that he was involved in designing nuclear weapons.
"I never believed a word he said," said Digby, now a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago. "In his reporting, he would sometimes have a kernel of brilliant truth and he would embellish it with things he would make up. He was a good investigator, but he always spoiled it by adding in things that weren't really there."
Brock said he does not recall making anything other than minor errors at Berkeley and that Digby's comments are motivated by personal dislike.
Brock moved here in 1986 and worked for Insight magazine, the Heritage Foundation and the Washington Times. "He was clearly a prodigy," said journalist John Podhoretz, who hired Brock at Insight. "He was a very quiet, sober, responsible, serious, well-read person."
Podhoretz said it is "insane" to suggest that Brock hates women. "David is a political conservative," he said. "The notion that that makes him suspect as a journalist is something I find wildly offensive."
When the Arkansas troopers first approached him, Brock said, he worried about developing a reputation as a journalist who traffics in sleaze. But he decided the charges against Clinton were serious enough to be published.
Several liberal columnists denounced the 11,000-word Spectator piece, which did more than detail Clinton's alleged extramarital exploits as governor of Arkansas. The article also said Clinton could scarf down a baked potato in two bites and depicted a foul-mouthed Hillary Clinton who once ordered state troopers to fetch her feminine napkins. (Brock says the piece contained "elements of satire.")
Michael Kinsley of the New Republic accused Brock of "dishonesty," "fundamental bad faith" and "comically sleazy" journalism. E.J. Dionne Jr. of The Washington Post wrote that "Brock simply repeats verbatim charges and dirty stories ... the slimier and more prurient the better." Joe Klein of Newsweek said Brock is "on an ideological mission" and that his portrait of Hillary Clinton "seems a Neanderthal fantasy of what feminists are really like."
Brock said his critics conveniently ignore the fact that the Los Angeles Times and CNN also reported many of the troopers' allegations. He said the pundits "with the most at stake in Clintonism" are trying "to deflect attention from the substance of the allegations against Clinton."
"I wasn't trying to deflect attention from the allegations," Kinsley replied. "I was very careful to write about the allegations."
Dionne said his main point was that Brock seems to be among those conservatives "who are willing to do anything to bring Clinton down. ... For years we've been hearing conservatives talk about all the terrible, irresponsible things that get into print about conservative political figures. Suddenly the rules change when the people in power change."
But Brock said there was no such revulsion when journalists reported Anita Hill's equally graphic and equally uncorroborated allegations. "That's considered a scoop. ... The line here is, how dare the mainstream press pick up David Brock's tabloid sleaze, that I should be ridden out of town on a rail. Did anyone make an issue of what Bob Woodward thought of Richard Nixon personally? ... Why is the New York Times so threatened by me? It seems they consider me more dangerous than Rush Limbaugh."
Brock, like Limbaugh, has infuriated his critics by making provocative statements on the air. Describing an allegation that a woman was smuggled into the Arkansas governor's mansion, Brock said on CNN's "Crossfire": "Hey, Bill Clinton is a bizarre guy."
Despite the personal criticism, Brock has no second thoughts about his handling of the story. "Should I have withheld the feminine napkin anecdote? No," he said. "If that anecdote was about Nancy Reagan, the cultural elite would have taken it as a highly significant detail."