The Corner

Politico Is Tawdry

Rich, I continue to think the real story here is the media — and Politico in particular. To repeat, I am not a Cain guy, and I think that lashing out at Perry, on the basis of what appears to be close to zero evidence, undermines Cain’s colorable claim to be the target of a hatchet job — if you’re going to charge hypocrisy, you need to stay above it yourself. But Cain’s shooting himself in the foot doesn’t change how we got here — and how Politico is still stoking the flames with irresponsible reporting.

Politico’s initial story was woven out of insufficient evidence, anonymous sources, and vague allegations that — even if you construed every possible inference against Cain — would amount to an impropriety that outfits like Politico would find too trivial to cover like this if the culprit were a left-leaning Democrat.

Martin’s explanation of his reporting in a CNN interview (reproduced by Andrew Breitbart’s BigJournalism site) is embarrassing. Martin is asked succinctly, “What did he [Cain] do?” He replies with blather about how he can’t get into details and needs to be “sensitive to the sourcing involved here” (no need to be sensitive to the innuendo he’s willfully creating against Cain — just make sure his sources, who won’t identify themselves, get to stay comfortable in their anonymity). Martin’s bottom line is not that this purported “sexual harassment” actually involved anything sexual; just that women were made uncomfortable.

Now, how would a responsible person evaluate that? How would Martin figure a reasonable reader would evaluate that? He would need to know more details (which Martin suggests he knows but won’t reveal), and he would need to know about the character of the women involved: Are they normal women who would be irritated but not bent out of shape unless the behavior Martin refuses to describe was truly obnoxious? Are they unusually sensitive women who were apt to take offense at behavior that a more grounded person would have found innocuous? Are they women who had a motive to make a mountain out of a mole hill because they had other issues with Cain or with the NRA? We don’t know because Martin won’t say — he has intentionally leveled a weighty accusation and denied his audience what anyone with common sense would know are the facts necessary to assess it. That is irresponsible. 

Cain could have taken the high road. He could have tried to keep the focus on the obvious media bias. On that score, I’m looking for any indication anywhere that Martin did any reporting like this to vet candidate Obama — Ayers, Dohrn, Wright, Rezko, Chicago Annenberg Challenge . . . ? I’ve found a couple of pieces in which he suggests that raising Ayers and Rezko was unworthy, desperation politics; and I’ve found an item in which he attacked “Joe the Plumber” after he (Joe Wurzelbacher) elicited Obama’s damaging “spread the wealth” comment. But nothing so far that suggests Martin thought Obama should be scrutinized over the sorts of things he seems content to see Cain’s candidacy scuttled over.

Instead of going that route, Cain — a day after his campaign claimed to be “follow[ing] Ronald Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment” by resisting any urge to hurl mud at other campaigns — proceeded to hurl mud at Perry . . . based on what appears to be evidence so flimsy it might even have given Jonathan Martin pause. I’m afraid we’ve learned a lot more about Cain’s judgment from the way he reacted to the Politico allegations than from the allegations themselves.

But we’ve learned the most about Politico. Look, for example, at this: Politico this morning had a post about how, after Cain blamed Perry for being the source of the sexual-harassment story, Perry promptly turned around and floated Romney as the likely source. Yes, congratulations GOP on the circular firing squad — but that’s not the point. The point is: Politico knows who the source is.

This isn’t a game-show where the host has the answer on his little card and his job is to have the contestants keep guessing until someone stumbles into the right answer. This is supposed to be news coverage — professional journalism about a serious matter with a goal of edifying the reader about what actually happened.

Politico has now framed discovery of the identity of the source as is a noteworthy story. Yet, Politico knows that if the identity of the source is a story, it is only because Politico itself is being coy. Politico has reported that Perry may be the source and that Romney may be the source. Yet, Politico knows precisely whether the Perry campaign or the Romney campaign (or both . . . or neither) is the source. It is thus almost certainly true that at least some of the conflicting allegations Politico is airing are known by Politico to be false. In fact, both the Perry and Romney camps have denied involvement — if it so happens that one of those camps is the source, then Politico knows the denial is a lie, yet it published the denial anyway. That would amount to colluding with its source in order to tarnish Cain while fraudulently portraying its source as above the fray. 

In sum, Politico is publishing at least some things it knows to be misleading or untrue, and framing as a great mystery something to which it knows the answer. That can only be because Politico finds the specter of the Republican circular firing squad more appealing than the prospect of informing readers of the accurate version of events.

When I was a prosecutor, it was considered serious ethical misconduct to suggest to a jury something the prosecutor knew to be factually untrue. If the defense called Witness A, and I was aware of the fact that Person B had robbed a bank, it would be a weighty impropriety for me to impeach A’s credibility by suggesting in my questions that A had robbed the bank. If the judge asked me a question, my choices were to give a truthful answer or to refuse to answer and explain why the law supported my refusal — making a representation that was false or misleading was not an option. And if I later learned that I’d been mistaken in something I’d represented, my obligation was to go back and correct the record as soon as possible. All this because a trial is supposed to be a search for the truth, and I would be perverting the process if I suggested that the factfinder should consider something I knew to be inaccurate or false.

I guess similar rules don’t apply in today’s journalism.

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