Tuesday, July 20, 2010


'Call Them Racists'

(We'll be away on assignment tomorrow, returning Thursday.)

The "Journolist" scandal has deepened with new revelations that participants in the now-defunct email list for ideologically approved journalists--no conservatives allowed--engaged in efforts to suppress news damaging to then-candidate Barack Obama.

The Daily Caller reports ABC News's "tough questioning" of Obama at a 2008 debate with Hillary Clinton "left many of [the Journolist participants] outraged":

"George [Stephanopoulos]," fumed Richard Kim of the Nation, is "being a disgusting little rat snake."
Others went further. According to records obtained by The Daily Caller, at several points during the 2008 presidential campaign a group of liberal journalists took radical steps to protect their favored candidate. Employees of news organizations including Time, Politico, the Huffington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Guardian, Salon and the New Republic participated in outpourings of anger over how Obama had been treated in the media, and in some cases plotted to fix the damage.

Most damning is a long quote from a Spencer Ackerman, who worked for something called the Washington Independent:

I do not endorse a Popular Front, nor do I think you need to. It's not necessary to jump to Wright-qua-Wright's defense. What is necessary is to raise the cost on the right of going after the left. In other words, find a rightwinger's [sic] and smash it through a plate-glass window. Take a snapshot of the bleeding mess and send it out in a Christmas card to let the right know that it needs to live in a state of constant fear. Obviously I mean this rhetorically.
And I think this threads the needle. If the right forces us all to either defend Wright or tear him down, no matter what we choose, we lose the game they've put upon us. Instead, take one of them--Fred Barnes, Karl Rove, who cares--and call them racists. Ask: why do they have such a deep-seated problem with a black politician who unites the country? What lurks behind those problems? This makes *them* sputter with rage, which in turn leads to overreaction and self-destruction.

Smashing somebody's [sic] through a plate-glass window seems like an odd way to thread a needle, but atrocious prose is the least of the problems here. The problem here isn't bias, either. Assuming Ackerman was an opinion writer rather than a straight-news reporter, he was entitled not only to hold his opinions but to express them.

But Ackerman was not engaging in a public debate; he was privately strategizing about how to suppress the news. And his fellow journolists, while disagreeing with him, did so "only on strategic grounds":

"Spencer, you're wrong," wrote Mark Schmitt, now an editor at the American Prospect. "Calling Fred Barnes a racist doesn't further the argument, and not just because Juan Williams is his new black friend, but because that makes it all about character. The goal is to get to the point where you can contrast some _thing_--Obama's substantive agenda--with this crap." . . .
Kevin Drum, then of Washington Monthly, also disagreed with Ackerman's strategy. "I think it's worth keeping in mind that Obama is trying (or says he's trying) to run a campaign that avoids precisely the kind of thing Spencer is talking about, and turning this into a gutter brawl would probably hurt the Obama brand pretty strongly. After all, why vote for him if it turns out he's not going [to] change the way politics works?"
But it was Ackerman who had the last word. "Kevin, I'm not saying OBAMA should do this. I'm saying WE should do this."

If anybody on the list objected in principle to Ackerman's idea of slandering people, including a fellow journalist, as racist, the Caller missed that part of the story. (We'll be happy to report it if a Journolist member would care to supply us with the evidence.) What Ackerman proposed was to carry out a political dirty trick in order to suppress the news and thereby aid a candidate for public office. That's about as unethical as journalism can get.

The final product of this debate was a pathetic "open letter," which, as we noted at the time, was signed by 41 self-described "journalists and media analysts," nearly all of whom were affiliated with universities, left-wing publications or left-wing think tanks. The letter does seem to have been more of a collaborative effort than we guessed back then: the Caller lists eight people who contributed to its drafting. Even so, what self-respecting journalist shares a byline with 40 other guys?

"The letter caused a brief splash and won the attention of the New York Times," the Caller reports, but thereafter was deservedly forgotten until now. Obama weathered the Wright revelations, but it seems a stretch to give Journolist the credit (or, if you prefer, the blame) for that. On the other hand, are there other stories they did succeed in suppressing? We cannot know as long as the full Journolist archives are secret.

These revelations also belie Journolist founder (and now Washington Post commentator) Ezra Klein's defense of the enterprise back in March 2009:

As for sinister implications, is it "secret?" No. Is it off-the-record? Yes. The point is to create a space where experts feel comfortable offering informal analysis and testing out ideas. Is it an ornate temple where liberals get together to work out "talking points?" Of course not. Half the membership would instantly quit if anything like that emerged.

This statement is true only if parsed as a denial that an email list is an ornate temple. Plainly the list was a forum where liberals got together to work out talking points, as evidenced by that "open letter." Worse, it was a forum where people employed as journalists conspired to suppress the news--and, by doing so "off the record," used journalistic ethics as cover.

In 2009 Klein wrote that Journolist's policy of excluding conservatives was "not about fostering ideology but preventing a collapse into flame war. The emphasis is on empiricism, not ideology."

"Call them racists." That's empiricism for you!

Equal Opportunity Destroyer
The NAACP's double secret resolution condemning "racist elements" in the Tea Party has led, indirectly, to the firing of a U.S. Department of Agriculture official for expressing allegedly racist views. The twist: The ex-official, Shirley Sherrod, is black and was speaking at an NAACP event.

Sherrod's downfall occurred yesterday, after Andrew Brietbart posted a video excerpt of Sherrod's speech on BigGovernment.com. Acording to the video, Sherrod told this story at an NAACP banquet on March 27:

The first time I was faced with having to help a white farmer save his farm, he took a long time talking, but he was trying to show me he was superior to me. I know what he was doing. But he had come to me for help. What he didn't know while he was taking all that time trying to show me he was superior to me, was I was trying to decide just how much help I was going to give him.
I was struggling with the fact that so many black people had lost their farmland, and here I was faced with having to help a white person save their land. So, I didn't give him the full force of what I could do. I did enough so that when he--I assumed the Department of Agriculture had sent him to me, either that or the Georgia Department of Agriculture. And he needed to go back and report that I did try to help him.
So I took him to a white lawyer that had attended some of the training that we had provided, because Chapter 12 bankruptcy had just been enacted for the family farmer. So I figured if I take him to one of them that his own kind would take care of him.
That's when it was revealed to me that it's about the poor versus those who have, and not so much about white--it is about white and black, but it's not--you know, it opened my eyes, because I took him to one of his own.

CNN reports what happened next:

Sherrod, who resigned Monday as the department's director of rural development for Georgia, told CNN she had four calls telling her the White House wanted her to resign.
"They asked me to resign, and in fact they harassed me as I was driving back to the state office from West Point, Georgia, yesterday," she said. The last call "asked me to pull to the side of the road and do it [resign]," she said.
"I don't feel good about it, because I know I didn't do anything wrong," she said. ". . . During my time at USDA, I gave it all I had."

The NAACP issued a statement in support of Sherrod's sacking:

"Racism is about the abuse of power. Sherrod had it in her position at USDA. According to her remarks, she mistreated a white farmer in need of assistance because of his race," said Benjamin Todd Jealous, president and CEO of the civil rights group. "We are appalled by her actions, just as we are with abuses of power against farmers of color and female farmers."

It seems to us that Sherrod got a bum deal in all this. While her description of her attitude toward the white farmer is indeed appalling, even in Breitbart's video it is clear by the end that the story was one of having learned the error of her ways. Her evident continuing resentment of "those who have" is to her discredit, but it's not as invidious as racial resentment.

Further, Sherrod tells CNN that the incident occurred in 1986, when she was working for a nonprofit, long before she went to work for the USDA. (This is consistent with the story she tells in the video. Chapter 12 bankruptcy was indeed enacted in 1986.) CNN even tracks down the white farmer's wife, Eloise Spooner, who credits Sherrod with "getting in there and doing all she could do to help us."

It seems clear that both the administration's decision to put her out to pasture and the NAACP's to accuse her of racism were political ones. And in a way it's progress that charges of racism have become an equal-opportunity destroyer. We hope, however, that the lesson the president and his supporters, including the NAACP, take from all this is to be more circumspect about leveling the charge against their opponents.

Suing for Votes
"President Obama and his political aides privately acknowledge that the government's decision to sue Arizona over its new immigration law is helping to fuel an anti-immigration fervor that could benefit some Republicans in elections this fall," the Washington Post reports:

But White House officials have concluded that, over the long term, the Republicans' get-tough message is a major political miscalculation. They predict it will ultimately alienate millions of Latinos, the fastest-growing minority group in the nation.
West Wing strategists argue that the president's call for legislation that acknowledges the role of immigrants and goes beyond punishing undocumented workers will help cement a permanent political relationship between Democrats and Hispanics -- much as civil rights and voting rights legislation did for the party and African Americans in the 1960s.
As a result, although the president is unlikely to press for comprehensive immigration reform this year, he has urged his allies to keep up the pressure on Republican lawmakers.

The Democrats' evaluation of the political effects of all this seem right to us. Most of the country is with Arizona, but Hispanics are not, and they are likelier to have longer memories of what they perceive as a discriminatory effort at their expense.

But the administration's cynicism is also striking. In the Post's telling, Obama is merely giving lip service to comprehensive immigration reform in order to win votes, no matter that the administration's divisive actions have destroyed any prospects for its passage. And one subject the story never takes up is the merit of the Arizona lawsuit. It's hard to escape the suspicion that the Justice Department is being inappropriately politicized.

Administration Hits Reset Button

  • "Biden: Expect a November 'Shock' by the Democrats"--headline, USA Today website, July 18
  • "Parachuting Donkey Shocks Russian Beachgoers"--headline, Agence France-Presse, July 20

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