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December 14, 2004

guinier: getting the story (and the correction) right

Filed under: pre-06-2006 — David Giacalone @ 3:40 pm

As we noted in an update to our earlier post, today, the Washington Post issued this Correction concerning Harvard Law Professor Lani Guinier:

“A Dec. 12 article incorrectly said that Lani Guinier’s nomination to head the Justice Department’s civil rights division under President Bill Clinton was withdrawn because of a “nanny problem.”

There was no such problem, and the Clinton White House withdrew the nomination because of controversy over Guinier’s legal writings.” [via E. Volokh]

In the wake of the withdrawal of the Kerik nomination, many newspapers ran articles noting that other nominees have had “nanny problems.” The articles taken directly from a December 11 Associated Press story correctly stated that Guinier’s nomination was withdrawn due to controversy over her supposed position on civil rights issues, and then mention a nanny problem

“A look at three individuals [Zoe Baird, Kimba Woods, Lani Guinier] who withdrew their names as nominees by President Clinton for Cabinet and other high-level posts because of similar political obstacles:

“Lani Guinier: A Clinton classmate at Yale University Law School, she was Clinton’s choice to head the Justice Department’s civil rights division. Clinton cited her legal writings on racial issues for dropping the nomination. She also had not paid taxes for a domestic worker.” (emphasis added)

However, other articles, such as one from CBSNews, NewsweekUK and the Washington Post, stated that it was unpaid taxes for a domestic worker that caused Pres. Clinton to withdraw the nomination.

journalist Yesterday evening, we pointed out that we did not know the facts yet. However, the following cryptic statement in Lani Guinier’s book Lift Every Voice, at page 36, describing the very first press conference after her nomination was announced, suggests that there might have been some kind of unpaid employee tax issue — or, at least, that reporters were broaching the issue with the new nominees:

” the weight of my description of how prior administrations had tolerated actual examples of intentional discrimination was more than the reporters wanted to hear that day. Afterwards, my fellow nominees thanked me for what they took as a filibuster. From their perspective, I had successfully distracted the press, whose interest in nonpayment of Social Security taxes could not regain momentum” (emphasis added)

Your Editor then expressed a hope that Professor Guinier might set the record straight. Well, she did write the following letter to the editor, which appeared in today’s Washington Post:

Still Getting My Story Wrong (Tuesday, December 14, 2004; Page A26 )

I have been committed since 1993 to correcting the public’s confusion about my ideas. It continues to be an uphill battle, made more difficult by inaccurate media reports. The Clinton White House withdrew my nomination in 1993 to be assistant attorney general for civil rights in response to controversy about my academic writings on democracy. The controversy was fueled by a media firestorm that reported many of my ideas — and me — out of context.

I was disheartened to read that some Post reporters are now writing a revisionist history that lets the media off the hook in 1993 and instead asserts inaccurately that my nomination was withdrawn because of concerns about domestic help [“White House Puts Blame on Kerik; Nominee Initially Denied Having Hired an Illegal Immigrant, Officials Say,” front page, Dec. 12].


I’m glad that Prof. Guinier corrected the Post’s misstatement concerning the cause of her dismissal. However, I’m disappointed that she did not choose to deny or confirm whether there had been unpaid Social Security taxes. Her letter alone does not seem to support the Post’s Correction assertion that “there was no such problem” — unless the Post is distinguishing between a “nanny” problem and a “domestic worker” problem.

Getting the facts right is very important, as is giving a correct overall impression in a story. Wordsmiths from the Washington Post and the Harvard Law School faculty are certainly able to do both, if they want to. Do they? Will they? [see updates below for statements by Prof. Guinier and other Correction statements]

  • update (Dec. 15, 2004): The Balimore Sun reports today that “Since 1993, the nanny problem has surfaced repeatedly in top administration jobs. … Lani Guinier was Clinton’s pick to direct the Justice Department’s civil rights division, and though Clinton cited her legal writings on race for ditching her nomination, she too failed to pay taxes on a domestic worker.” (“Parents often turn a blind eye, hiring nannies illegally in U.S,” by Ellen Gamerman, Dec. 15, 2004; free reg. req’d)
  • update (Dec. 15, 2004): Newsday issued the following Correction this afternoon:
    Correction: Presidents-Nanny-Problems Story By The Associated Press

    December 15, 2004, 1:42 PM EST
    In a Dec. 10 brief and story about Bernard Kerik’s withdrawal as homeland security secretary-designate, The Associated Press reported erroneously that Lani Guinier, who was President Clinton’s choice to head the Justice Department’s civil rights division in 1993, had not paid taxes for a domestic worker. A spokesman for her at Harvard Law School said there was no such problem, and the White House never indicated that there was. Clinton said he withdrew her nomination because of her legal writings on racial issues. The same incorrect reference to Guinier and unpaid taxes on a domestic worker was in a 1995 AP item about Clinton choices who had problems in the confirmation process.

  • update (Dec. 16, 2004): The Philadephia Inquirer issued this erratum on Guinier today: “In some editions of Sunday’s Inquirer, the Associated Press erroneously included Lani Guinier on a list of high-level White House nominees who had run into problems involving hired help. Guinier’s problems stemmed from her writings on racial issues.”

  • update: Commentor “Barb” has provided us with the text of a letter from Prof. Lani Guinier to the Baltimore Sun requesting a Correction, although that Letter was not online at the Sun‘s website as of 10 AM, the Baltimore Sun article (free reg. req’d) described above has been edited to remove Lani Guinier’s name from the list of nominees with domestic worker problems. (Dec. 16, 2004, 10 AM): Here is the text of Prof. Guinier’s Letter:

To whom it may Concern:

In 1993 my nomination to head the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice was nixed, abetted by a media spin cycle that distorted my views of democracy. Now I find your staff reporters erroneously catapulting me into the pantheon of nominees who lost out because they did not pay taxes for a domestic worker.[December 15, 2004 Wednesday, Pg. 1E, “Parents often turn a blind eye, hiring nannies illegally in U.S.; Nominees aren’t the only ones ignoring immigration status,” Ellen Gamerman, SUN STAFF, WASHINGTON.]

To set the record straight, there was never an issue during my nomination imbroglio about nonpayment of taxes for a domestic worker. President Clinton withdrew my nomination because of a controversy about my academic writings about democracy. The controversy was fueled by a media firestorm that reported my views inaccurately and out of context. To my dismay, I have somehow been swept up in another media controversy challenging my integrity in defiance of the facts. Other media outlets have since issued corrections. I trust The Baltimore Sun will do the same.

Those who are interested in the facts, including the ideas about democracy that were the sole source of my “dis-appointment” in 1993, might want to read two books I authored explaining those events: The Tyranny of the Majority (Free Press: 1994) and Lift Every Voice: Turning a Civil Rights Setback into a New Vision of Social Justice (Simon and Schuster: 1998).

Lani Guinier Professor of Law Harvard Cambridge, MA 02138

frosty night–
ringing a bell for the lost child
’round a corner

………………….. by ISSA, translated by David G. Lanoue

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