This past Nov. 1, The Post carried a front-page story with the headline "Tests Link Jefferson, Slave's Son: DNA Study Suggests a Monticello Liaison." The story, by reporter Leef Smith, said that the third president "almost certainly fathered a child with one of his slaves." A genetic researcher was quoted as saying that "the DNA evidence converts that possibility into a near certainty." Over the past several months, however, reporters, columnists and editors have turned that "near certainty" into what one Post columnist called "a dead certainty." And that has dismayed some readers.
Since November, many journalists at The Post and elsewhere -- some finding irresistible the possibility of a 200-year-old presidential sex scandal on a par with President Clinton's -- have ignored all caveats. Jefferson, they have said, was the father of Eston Hemings, whose mother was Sally, a 37-year-old woman Jefferson had owned since she was 3. Dr. Eugene A. Foster, one of the primary researchers in the DNA study, has tried to rein in these stories, but to little avail. In January he repudiated as "misleading" the headline -- "Jefferson fathered slave's last child" -- that accompanied a November article he coauthored in the journal Nature, an article that touched off the Jefferson-Hemings uproar. In a clarification in Nature he wrote: "We know from the historical and the DNA data that Thomas Jefferson can neither be definitely excluded nor solely implicated in the paternity of illegitimate children with his slave Sally Hemings."
Still, in the run-up to this month's annual meeting of the Monticello Association, which, for the first time, descendants of Jefferson's two acknowledged daughters invited Hemings's descendants to attend, a May 11 Post headline declared: "All Mr. Jefferson's Children: The Descendants of the Founding Father Have Much to Say About Their Family, and Their Nation."
The Post's six-month journey from "near certainty" has included the following:
Nov. 5 -- Columnist Mary McGrory: "Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, according to DNA evidence, had a son by slave Sally Hemings."
Nov. 9 -- Columnist Bill Raspberry: "After nearly two centuries, Thomas Jefferson's secret is out."
Nov. 11 -- A news article by Jon Jeter said the DNA tests "put to rest the 200-year-old dispute about Jefferson's affair with a slave."
Nov. 13 -- The Reliable Source column: "DNA tests now prove Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings had a child."
Nov. 29 -- Joel Achenbach in the Sunday Magazine: "Genetic science has nabbed Thomas Jefferson for siring a child with his slave Sally Hemings -- something no muckraker had ever managed to prove."
Dec. 13 -- Richard Cohen in the Magazine: "Jefferson was probably the father of Sally Hemings's youngest child, a boy, and maybe the father of the other four children as well."
By May 11, after many writers seemed content to write by ear, Michael Powell in the "All Mr. Jefferson's Children" piece recounted as "fact" that Hemings "became Jefferson's concubine." As he later explained, he decided that, while oppositional views would be appropriately noted, those who say that Jefferson likely fathered "one of these kids, if not more" had the better argument. But the 3,000-word article, he said, was not meant to solve the mystery. "It was about family and how we look at race and how we look at race-mixing." If that's so, a headline more attuned to accuracy than cleverness would have been wiser.
In reporting on the Jefferson-Hemings story these six months, The Post often has failed to make clear what is fact (DNA testing shows that a Jefferson fathered Eston Hemmings but not which Jefferson), what is speculation and what is convenient. Herbert Barger, an amateur historian who helped Foster find participants for the DNA tests and who is a die-hard defender of Jefferson's reputation, concedes: "I don't believe there will ever be a way of saying for sure." Reporters and headline writers should be so honest.