On one side are the Washington Post, Variety and Linda Vester, whose allegations they're conveying. Add, too, in the Post's case, an anonymous source telling a similar first-person story about sex and "misconduct" by Tom Brokaw.
On the other side are Brokaw and 64 female employees of corporate NBC over the years who signed a statement supporting Brokaw's personal integrity. They include Maria Shriver, Rachel Maddow and Andrea Mitchell. Mika Brezezinski of MSNBC's "Morning Joe" wasn't asked to sign, but the second she heard about it, tweeted "Add me to the list" of signatories.
Their collective statement paid tribute to Brokaw's "tremendous decency and integrity. He has given each of us opportunities for advancement and championed our successes throughout our careers. As we have advanced across industries – news, publishing, law, business and government – Tom has been a valued source of counsel and support."
On our side of the TV screen, almost all of America has been guessing for decades that Brokaw has been one of the all-time good guys of TV news. That's been his reputation. Until last week.
Vester – a woman few of us remember as either a reporter or Fox anchor (it was Brokaw who called Roger Ailes to get her the Fox job) – has told her story on video. She is dramatic about her recoiling from Brokaw's advance in an Essex House hotel room and his yanking her head back to kiss her without her wanting it in her London apartment (where she lived as a member of NBC's London bureau).
In response, Brokaw's denial of Vester's story is emotional, wrenching, angry, bitter and predictably well-written. It began: "It is 4:00 am on the first day of my new life as an accused predator in the universe of American journalism. I was ambushed and then perp-walked across the pages of the Washington Post and Variety as an avatar of male misogyny, taken to the guillotine and stripped of any honor and achievement I had earned in more than a half century of honor and citizenship. I am angry, hurt and unmoored from what I thought would be the final passage of my life and career."
A "drive-by shooting" he called Vester's accusation, and an attempted "character assassination."
"I should not have gone" to see her privately, he admits, but "did not verbally and physically attack her and suggest an affair right out of pulp fiction."
But he admits in one case "it was late and I had been up 24 hours." He doesn't say so, but if we add the possible consumption of even a little alcohol to that list, almost anyone would have to admit the potential for truth in Vester's tale, as contradicted as it is by everything America knows about Brokaw – not to mention that ardent and unqualified support from women who've known him professionally for decades.
Sometimes, even the worst among us can tell the truth. And even the best can lie. If you're a sentient adult, you know this.
Until comedian Hannibal Burress changed the course of American media and behavioral history by calling Bill Cosby a "rapist" in a stand-up routine that could be seen everywhere on video, he, too, was known throughout America as one of the all-time great American "good guys."
Cosby's Pennsylvania conviction for sexual malfeasance finally recognized legally the contentions of more than 60 female accusers who told so many variations of the exact same story about Cosby drugging and physically abusing them.
I couldn't care less about Cosby's career, his feelings or his ego. Nor do I want him excused from doing prison time because of his age (80) or his truly great past contributions to American life and entertainment.
Disgusting private habits wiped out decades of what almost always seemed public nobility. If Cosby hadn't turned into a pompous type hectoring young black kids about their music and clothes and lingo everywhere he was allowed to, perhaps Burress would never have erupted with his disgust at Cosby's rank condescension and hypocrisy.
That was what frosted Burress' pumpkins you'll recall – the fact that Cosby, despite private behavior that had already been revealed by multiple accusers, was setting himself up as the Obi-Wan Kenobi of black success in white America. It was after Burress' public disgust went viral the floodgates opened that eventually brought Cosby to the jailhouse door.
Where we once had a truly great stand-up comic and force for public good, we now have a disgusting private hypocrite.
What must be said here is this: Great artists, high and low, have often been private monsters. Everyone is capable of anything.
It's a matter of American history that some men, after the middle of the 20th century, fell wholesale into what we need to start calling the "Hefner Fallacy," the notion that sexual freedom of all sorts was the basis for all kinds of social liberation.
In the Hefner Fallacy, a concomitant prohibition of sexual abuse was far from a primary concern.
I want every story told that needs to be told. And every punishment meted out that deserves to be. But I also want, I guess, the impossible – an infallible way in every she said/he said situation, to know who's credible and who isn't.
I'd like it if somehow the stupidities of the past didn't eradicate the possibility of integrity in the present and future.
One final thing, somewhat allied, for what it's worth: I thought some of what comedian Michelle Wolf said at her stand-up gig at the White House Correspondents Dinner on Saturday night was pointed, valuable and funny. I thought that "clutching their pearls" in shock, was less than a sympathetic response for a comic making savage jokes about the appalling savageries of life in current Washington. Hypocrisy is never sympathetic.
Even so, some of Wolf's jokes went beyond vulgar (which is fine by me) into godawful (which isn't.) I couldn't possibly be more pro-choice if I tried, but Wolf's abortion jokes were feloniously awful.
Choosing Wolf as the evening's "entertainment" gave even more fuel to those who say the whole White House Correspondents Dinner – the fabled "nerd prom" of yearly Washington – has outlived whatever usefulness it may once have had.
The hypocrisy of the whole affair is a sadly essential one in American life: The glories of the First Amendment can be celebrated only when a featured comedian's act doesn't test everyone's tolerance for it in action. Protecting minorities is, in fact, a tough sell to majorities. It always has been and always will be.