Politics & Policy

Wendy Davis, Fibber

The media have discovered her exaggerations, but it sure took them long enough.

Now that key details of Wendy Davis’s oft-celebrated rags-to-riches story have been exposed as less than accurate, how have the media decided to report on the revelations? 

Well, most outlets have treated her admitted fabrications as news, although some have been noticeably generous in their framing of the issue. “Wendy Davis tells a fuller version of her rags-to-riches story,” CBS News tweeted on Monday. CNN observed that Davis’s life story is now “more complicated” than the “compelling narrative” she had originally presented. MSNBC was quick to cast the story from an anti-GOP angle: “Right pounces on news that Wendy Davis embellished life story,” a familiar position from which to launch the inevitable follow-up: “Will Republicans overreach?”

According to MSNBC, the real reason conservatives “pounced” on the story is that they loathe Davis for “making life choices they disagree with — including the decision, as a mother, to prioritize her career.” And adding to the charge of sexism, MSNBC adds, “It’s hard to imagine those choices generating criticism were Wendy Davis a man.” Which raises a number of interesting questions, such as: Would disgraced former MSNBC host Martin Bashir have condoned the defecation into the mouth of a male politician?

(On a side note: Several stories have used the phrase “blurred lines” lines to describe Davis’s “fuller” and “more complicated” backstory, which probably isn’t the best phrase to apply to Davis the feminist superhero, given that feminists slammed the hit song “Blurred Lines” for being “rape-y.”)

Meanwhile, Politico, which has a tendency to turn even the most mundane political development into a 600-word article, waited almost 48 hours to publish its first story on the revelations — an interview with Davis, who “swung back . . . at swirling questions about her personal life.”

The New York Times appears to have little interest in the story of Davis’s deceptions, despite the paper’s fawning coverage of her late-night filibuster to block a proposed ban on late-term abortions in the Texas legislature and her role as “the Democrats’ big hope” to win the state’s governorship for the first time in nearly two decades.

Of course, the Times was not the only major media outlet to run glowing profiles of Davis in the wake of her dramatic filibuster last June. CNN touted her “long history of persisting against tough odds.” Vogue published a 3,000-word profile in which Davis, according to a Washington Post write-up of the piece, proclaimed her status as a “cool mom.”

Jeff Zeleny of ABC News interviewed Davis with all the scrutiny of a giddy contest winner meeting his celebrity crush for the first time. Nearly half of his questions were about the famous pink running shoes Davis wore during the filibuster. In fairness to Zeleny, this was perfectly in keeping with most media coverage at the time.

“Why did you decide to wear your running shoes?” Zeleny asked. “Let’s take a look at those, they’ve kind of been rocketing around the Internet.”

“Is this a pink?” he inquired while examining the actual shoes during the interview. “I would call it a pink or a salmon pink,” she helpfully informed listeners. Davis was also a runner in real life, the reporter made sure to note: “I mean, these are legitimate running shoes.”

Like most mainstream reporters who interviewed the rising political star, Zeleny neglected to discuss the particulars of the abortion bill in question, or note that polling on the issue shows strong majority support for the type of late-term-abortion ban that Davis fought so hard to block.

Obviously, abortion is a controversial topic, one that constantly comes up in political discourse. But while Republicans are constantly asked about their “controversial” positions, Democrats are rarely pressed to expound on their own views. John McCormack of The Weekly Standard may be the only reporter in the country who consistently confronts Democrats, including Wendy Davis, with tough questions about abortion; when he does, fellow reporters find it cause for laughter.

In the ABC interview with Zeleny, Davis repeated a false claim she made under oath in 2012, and has made on numerous occasions since: that she was 19 years old when she divorced her first husband. She was actually 21. Other fabrications uncovered by Wayne Slater of the Dallas Morning News include the fact that Davis’s second husband, Jeff Davis, helped pay for her tuition at Texas Christian University and Harvard Law School, in part by cashing in his 401(k) and taking out a loan. Davis’s website states that she financed her education “with the help of academic scholarships and student loans.” Jeff Davis told Slater that the relationship ended almost immediately after he made the final payment on the Harvard Law School loan. “It was ironic,” he said. “I made the last payment, and it was the next day she left.”

As David Freddoso points out, Slater’s story comes a week after an NBC Today Show interview (with Maria Shriver) that played heavily on Davis’s “personal story of struggle and success.” The interview even staged a scene at the trailer park where Davis had lived for some time, though not under the circumstances that her original narrative implied.

These fabrications do not negate the impressive nature of Davis’s life story and rise to prominence from humble beginnings, nor are they the sort of egregious falsehoods that have ended political careers. Do they suggest that Davis is a self-aggrandizing politician who frequently fudges the truth? A number of pundits thought this was an appropriate question to ask about Paul Ryan in 2012 after he fudged his marathon time and criticized President Obama’s opposition to the Simpson-Bowles plan without mentioning that he also voted against it. Davis, who has described herself as pro-life, recently claimed to have outraised her Republican opponent, Greg Abbott, in the second half of 2013, even though the actual figures paint a “more complicated” picture.

If anything, the fact that we are only just learning the “fuller version” of Davis’s biography says less about her than it does about the media that have lavished her with adoring coverage over the past six months. But as Slater writes, the story is relevant because Davis “has made her personal story of struggle and success a centerpiece of her campaign” for governor. So why did it take so long to poke holes in her story?

— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.

Andrew StilesAndrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online. He previously worked at the Washington Free Beacon, and was an intern at The Hill newspaper. Stiles is a 2009 ...


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